Dry Scalp

If the skin on your head is itchy and flaking, you may have dry scalp. The condition occurs when your scalp loses too much moisture. Hair care products, the weather, age and various skin conditions can cause dry scalp. You may be able to treat the condition by switching shampoos, but talk to your healthcare provider if dry scalp persists.


Flaking skin on a person’s head associated with dry scalp.
Dry scalp caused by a lack of moisture can cause itching and flaking skin.

What is dry scalp?

Dry scalp can occur when the skin on your head loses too much water or moisture. The condition can cause itching and flaking. The skin on your scalp gets irritated and flakes off. There are various reasons why your scalp may be dry. Some hair care products can dry out and irritate your scalp. Weather and age can also affect your scalp. But more serious skin conditions can also cause dry scalp.


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What’s the difference between dandruff and dry scalp?

Dry scalp and dandruff can both cause an itchy, flaky scalp. This can sometimes make it hard to tell the difference. However, excess oil causes dandruff, and loss of moisture causes dry scalp.

When you have too much oil on your scalp, your skin cells can build up. Your scalp may appear red, oily and scaly. The scales quickly flake off, and then dandruff appears. Dandruff looks like larger pieces of dry skin flaking off your scalp. It frequently comes and goes and is a very common condition.

Seborrheic dermatitis is the main cause of dandruff. Seborrheic dermatitis is a skin condition with various causes. Yeast that lives on your skin, stress or your health can all cause seborrheic dermatitis. Babies can get seborrheic dermatitis, too. If your baby has a scaly, dry scalp, it’s called cradle cap.

While a dry scalp can cause itching and flaking, it’s different than dandruff. If you have a dry scalp, the rest of your body may experience dryness too. In addition, the cause of the condition is different. The loss of moisture can be due to many factors, including various skin conditions.

Possible Causes

What causes dry scalp?

If you’re wondering why your scalp is so dry, you’ll need to consider several reasons. The products you use on your hair could be causing contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is a reaction to something that causes itchiness and irritation. Many hair care products dry out your hair by stripping it of its natural oils, which can leave your scalp irritated.

The weather could also be causing your condition. Environments with low humidity and areas located in cold climates can dry out the skin on your scalp. In addition, as you get older, your skin starts to dry out. However, the condition can occur for more serious reasons. These conditions may include:


Psoriasis is a long-term (chronic) skin condition that causes your skin cells to grow too quickly. This rapid growth makes your skin cells pile up on the surface of your skin in patches. These patches are called plaques. Psoriasis has many genetic components, but other factors may trigger it as well. These factors include infections, injuries and medications. It also includes lifestyle factors such as drinking alcohol or smoking.

Tinea capitis (scalp ringworm)

Tinea capitis, or scalp ringworm, is a fungal infection of the skin on your scalp. Tinea capitis spreads very easily. You can get it through direct contact with other people and animals. You can also get it by sharing objects, such as hats and brushes, and by touching surfaces that harbor the fungus. Tinea capitis can live for a long period of time on infected surfaces and objects.

Actinic keratosis (AK)

Actinic keratosis, or solar keratosis, is a type of precancerous sun damage caused by unprotected sun exposure. It’s most common in people assigned male at birth who’ve experienced hair loss, because they have less protection from the sun. Actinic keratosis is also common in people who are age 50 or older who spend a lot of time outdoors without sun protection. Genetics and family history can also play a role.


Care and Treatment

How is dry scalp treated?

Dry scalp treatment depends on the cause of the condition. If hair products have caused the condition, you may just have to do a better job rinsing out your shampoo. Shampoo that’s left behind after you shower could be irritating your scalp.

If that doesn’t work, you may be able to try home remedies for your dry scalp. If a hair care product is causing contact dermatitis, you may have to stop using that product. You can usually get rid of dry scalp by switching to a non-medicated, gentle shampoo. A shampoo for dry scalp helps stop the dryness and flakes.

If a more serious health issue is causing your condition, call your healthcare provider. A dermatologist can diagnose your condition and help fix your dry scalp. Treatments may include:


Your dermatologist may prescribe a medicated ointment or cream such as a corticosteroid to apply to your scalp. Corticosteroids reduce itching, redness and scaling quickly. Your dermatologist may also recommend:

  • A medicated shampoo such as anthralin (Zithranol®).
  • Scale softeners containing salicylic acid to help soften thick patches.
  • Topical medications containing vitamin D such as calcipotriene (Dovonex Scalp®). You apply the medication directly to your scalp to help slow down excess cell production.
  • Light therapy (phototherapy), which exposes your skin to ultraviolet light. This can help with inflammation.
  • Oral medications such as apremilast (Otezla®) that work throughout your body.

Tinea capitis

Your dermatologist may prescribe an oral antifungal medication such as terbinafine (Lamisil®). They may also recommend:

  • A medicated shampoo such as selenium sulfide.
  • A topical antifungal cream that you apply directly onto your scalp.
  • A topical corticosteroid.

Actinic keratosis (AK)

Your dermatologist may prescribe a topical medication such as fluorouracil (Fluorac®) or imiquimod (Aldara®). Other treatment options may include:

  • Surgery: Various procedures such as minimally invasive cryotherapy. Your dermatologist will apply liquid nitrogen to freeze any precancerous cells on your scalp.
  • Photodynamic therapy: Your dermatologist will apply special drugs to the AKs. Red or blue lights activate the drugs that work to destroy the precancerous cells.

How can dry scalp be prevented?

There are several ways you can prevent a dry, itchy scalp. Try to work some of these tips into your routine:

  • Switch to a gentle, moisturizing shampoo.
  • Wash your hair less frequently.
  • Manage your stress.
  • Drink more water.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Add more moisture to your home with a humidifier.


When To Call the Doctor

When should dry scalp be treated by my healthcare provider?

If changing your shampoo or trying other over-the-counter remedies don’t work, make a call to your healthcare provider. In addition, call your dermatologist if your scalp develops any of the following symptoms:

  • Constant itching.
  • Red rash.
  • Swollen, warm or painful to the touch.

A dermatologist can help determine if you have a more serious skin condition. They’ll put together a treatment plan and tell you what to do for your dry, flaky scalp.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

A dry scalp can be itchy, flaky and uncomfortable. The good news is, the condition is usually manageable and easily treated. If home remedies don’t work, call your healthcare provider. If a skin condition such as psoriasis is causing your dry scalp, your provider can prescribe medications and offer tips to treat the problem.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 06/22/2022.

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