Tell me if this sounds familiar: you just washed your hair, but a little later-on in the day you notice white flakes everywhere?
What the heck?!
Well, don’t feel alone. There are a lot of people who’ve dealt with this same thing. So I wanted to talk about some of the possibilities as to why your scalp is flakey, and more importantly, what you can do to stop that from happening.
But before I do, I think it’s important that you consider seeing a dermatologist if you’re experiencing extreme flaking, itching, redness, and/or hair loss because a dermatologist can prescribe topicals and strongly-medicated shampoos.
Alright, moving on.
Dandruff vs. Dry Scalp
You’ve probably heard of dandruff and dry scalp. They both can happen for many reasons. Sometimes it could be a change in climate, your diet & water intake, an allergy to something, or even a side-effect of a medication.
What’s more, it can be genetic, a result of stress, and/or a result of a medical condition like PCOS or hypothyroidism.
Even though the terms dry scalp and dandruff are commonly used interchangeably, and they both can result from some of the same triggers, there is an important difference between the two — in short, dry scalp can be treated simply by restoring moisture to the skin.
However, I’ve found that there doesn’t seem to be very many people solely with dry scalp. Which would explain why moisturizing your scalp doesn’t always make the flaking stop.
Dandruff on the other hand is a lot more common.
Dandruff, in simple terms, is a build-up of dead skin cells. These built up cells, make the "flakes" you notice, and they can be white or yellow. What's important is that dandruff typically needs more than just moisture.
Simple Ways to Be Rid of The Flakes
OK, let's cover the basics.
How often do you wash your hair? Shampoo is made for removing oils & dead skin cells on the scalp, and if you aren’t washing your hair frequently enough you may develop a build-up of dead skin. My personal recommendation is every three days. If you do truly need to wash more often, then at the very most, wash your hair every other day.
The one exception for washing daily, would be if a person has very short hair.
While more frequent washes can improve scalp health, it can dry and damage your hair. Having said that, you may have to temporarily wash more frequently to treat your scalp flakes. Once you get the dandruff under control, you could try to extend to washing every third day. I’ve found that three-day-washing will help keep your hair from drying out.
Next, how well are you washing and rinsing your hair? If you aren’t doing that great of a job, then you might see those little flakes in your hair. So make sure that you’re massaging the shampoo into your scalp and rinsing throughly. There actually is a right way to wash your hair.
You can also try some quick-fix solutions like scientific brushing (basically, you use a special brush to scrub the scalp) or salicylic acid to help remove the dead skin cells. However, it’s doubtful that either of these would be a permanent fix.
The Likely Cause of Your Dandruff
Since there is a variety of complex skin diseases that can effect the scalp, there’s no way to cover them all in a single post (plus, that would probably be so boring).
However, we can talk about what the likely, and most common, scalp disease is that produces excessive dandruff: seborrheic dermatitis.
This is going to sound a lot worse than it is, but a common cause of seborrheic dermatitis is fungus.
Now, before you run screaming to the shower, bacteria and yeast are naturally present on our skin. They’re actually a good thing. It’s when the balance get’s out of whack that a person may develop seborrheic dermatitis.
Don't worry, it isn’t contagious. But once it’s developed you most likely will always battle with it.
Dandruff, and even hair loss, are symptoms of seborric dermatitis.
Also in the seborric dermatitis family: seborrheic psoriasis, seborrheic eczema, or simply seborrhea. Which all can have similar inflammatory symptoms (e.g. redness and maybe even some swelling).
So what does this all mean? Obviously, skin diseases are complex and often require lab tests for a proper diagnosis and treatment, but luckily, there's some special ingredients that are pretty effective for treating seborrheic dermatitis:
I wanted to make sure that I got sound treatment advise, so I talked to my aunt who is a licensed physician’s assistant in northern California.
Of course, she recommended you actually be seen by a dermatologist for proper diagnosis. However, she said that a person could try using a cycle of three shampoos that have those important ingredients (listed above) for approximately eight weeks. Once the condition goes into remission then use of a normal shampoo can be resumed. Additional treatments or cycles will most likely be needed.
I realize that doctors are typically concerned with treating the problem, so I understand how they aren’t too concerned with "lesser" potential side-effects, like a person having dry hair. But as a cosmetologist, the thought of recommending shampoos that will dry out your hair, is like nails on a chalkboard.
So I put together a little hair washing system that follows the advice from my aunt, but also takes into consideration the health of your hair.
I'll go into detail about the hair washing system in a minute, but you will need to get on a schedule of washing your hair every other day, or every three days at most. I’d also recommend not sleeping on wet hair, and be sure to change your pillow case often.
You can first try to see if your dandruff responds to treatment by pyrithione zinc (aka Head N Shoulders). I actually recommend using Redken’s Anti-dandruff shampoo as it tends to be less harsh on the hair but still has the pyrithione zinc.
However, if your scalp has been non-responsive to that, then it may be time to move into the "anti-fungal" medicated shampoos.
You will follow this product cycle for a minimum of eight weeks:
Week 1: Nizoral
Week 2: Selsun Blue
Week 3: Neutrogena T/Gel
Week 4: Repeat cycle
Medicated Shampoo for "non-fungal" Dandruff:
Medicated Shampoos for seborrheic dermatitis:
The Hair Washing System
STEP 1: Wet your hair & condition first. If your hair is long enough to gather in a ponytail, then squeeze out the extra water, and put a professional conditioner on the ends of your hair before you've done any shampooing. Don't rinse, and move to step 2.
STEP 2: Use the medicated shampoo. Pay attention, to how you’re washing your hair, and make sure that the product is concentrated on your scalp. DO NOT pull the shampoo through the ends of your hair. That isn’t necessary, and will only dry it out.
If you have thicker hair you may need to separate your hair and wash in sections to ensure that the shampoo makes it to your scalp instead of just sitting on top of your hair.
STEP 3: Rinse well (like really well). After you let the shampoo sit for the recommended time, make sure that you rinse your hair really well.
STEP 4: Condition again. You can either re-condition with your normal conditioner, or if your hair tends to be on the drier side rotate using a professional deep conditioning treatment. Either way, DO NOT put conditioner on your scalp, only put it on hair that is at-least four inches away from your scalp.
I really hope that you find some relief from the flakes (and itchiness)! But now that you know a little bit more about which ingredients to look for, I'm sure you'll be on your way to flake-free hair (hopefully soon!).
Have you found anything particularly helpful for flaking? Please spread the love & share it!
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I am a professional makeup artist and licensed cosmetologist. I absolutely enjoy sharing hair and makeup tips to help others enhance their natural beauty. (Trust me, you're gorgeous.)