An effective hair care regime does not just end with good hair volume and healthy bounce. Much depends on the health of the scalp, which determines overall hair health and growth. Neglecting scalp care can lead to several skin conditions, most of which are characterised by an irritated, itchy and flaky scalp. Experts tell us ways to tackle it.
Sebaceous glands decoded
The sebaceous glands on our scalp secrete sebum (a waxy, oil-like substance), which moisturises the scalp, keeps oxidative stress levels (high free radicals and low antioxidants in the body) low and helps the skin retain hydration. However, an overactive or underactive gland can lead to disruption in the moisture levels.
A dry, flaky scalp can occur when sebaceous glands fail to produce enough sebum, thus making your scalp more susceptible to other infections or inflammation.
There can be other reasons that cause an itchy, flaking scalp as well “Since there could be several potential underlying conditions behind an abnormally dry, itchy scalp, it is important to first diagnose the exact pathology before proceeding with an appropriate course of treatment,” says Dr Saurabh Sawant, a Pune-based skin specialist.
Dandruff is the most common cause, as most of us might have experienced, but this symptom can also be traced to more serious conditions such as psoriasis, ringworm, atopic or seborrheic dermatitis (scaly red patches on the skin), folliculitis (small red bumps on the scalp) and fungal infections among others.
It could also be an allergic reaction to hair products, or a result of increased stress and anxiety. “If you develop an itchy, flaky, dry scalp that persists even after trying certain natural techniques to tackle the condition, you should definitely visit a dermatologist/trichologist to get it examined properly,” he adds.
A few natural ways to combat this condition:
- Better nutrition and hydration
Adequate hydration levels are crucial when it comes to tackling dry scalp. Dr Aditi Bopche, Pune-based dermatologist, stresses the importance of a balanced diet to fight scalp issues. “Itchiness or flakiness can be a result of either an abnormally dry or an abnormally oily scalp. I usually advise those that present this symptom to cut down on high-fat dairy products.”
Intake of dry nuts and protein powders should also be reduced in such cases since they lead to higher oil secretion in the scalp. “Vitamin B12, D3, zinc and iron levels need to be regulated as well, since these are closely linked to scalp health. Also, make sure you drink at least 2 litres of water every day if you’re experiencing a dry scalp; this will go a long way in restoring proper moisture balance,” she advises.
- Avoid using chemicals and heat on your hair
We often subject our hair to a range of harmful and harsh chemicals. Today, several people use heat-based hair styling tools like heavy-duty hair dryers and various straightening/curling treatments. Shampoos, conditioners, and other hair products could also be contributing to the itchiness, according to Dr Sawant.
“Often, an allergic reaction to chemical exposure can make your scalp dry or flaky,” he says. It is best to use mild shampoos and conditioners, which are preferably sulphate, alcohol and fragrance-free. When choosing hair dyes, it is best to opt for organic ones that will not destabilise the PH levels of the scalp. “I strongly recommend against using hair gels/souffles/sprays, since they last for hours and can cause serious damage to scalp health,” he says.
- Improve hygiene and hair care techniques
Improper hygiene and harmful hair care practices can often aggravate itchy/flaky scalp conditions. “Ensure that your pillowcases and towels are regularly washed and changed,” says Dr Sawant, adding, “keeping your scalp and hair clean is crucial in tackling this condition”. He recommends wide-toothed, wooden combs to plastic brushes, which accumulate dirt easily. Also, avoid washing the hair too often since it strips the scalp of essential oils; it is best to stick to a biweekly schedule.
- Home remedies
“Although there is not much scientific evidence proving the effectiveness of natural home remedies for dry scalp issues, anecdotal evidence seems to be consistent,” says Dr Bopche. Many have found a yoghurt or curd hair mask beneficial. “Apple cider vinegar, aloe vera gel and lemon juice have also been found to be helpful in tackling this problem.”
- Scalp massages
Gentle scalp massages stimulate blood circulation and help soothe an itchy scalp. “Although applying oil to your scalp regularly is not advised, you can use a few drops of tea tree or peppermint oil to massage your scalp before washing your hair as this works to calm the itch and improve lubrication,” says Dr Bopche. Massaging the scalp without using oil is also helpful and can be done frequently, since a better blood flow serves to maintain overall scalp health.
Dos and don’ts that dermatologists recommend
- Avoid hairstyles that strain the scalp, such as tight ponytails or buns
- Do not leave the hair wet for too long, since that can lead to fungal infections or dandruff
- Include essential vitamins and iron in the diet since they regulate the scalp
- Always dilute the shampoo before applying it, and never scrub the scalp too vigorously
- Do not follow every social media haircare trend, or resort to harsh chemical treatments without consulting a doctor