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The weather outside this time of year can be seriously frightful for your scalp. Many people experience seborrheic dermatitis or dandruff — the medical names for a dry, flaky scalp — this time of year.
“The external air in the wintertime tends to be drier or less humid than in warmer months, which tends to have a drying effect on our skin, including the scalp,” explains Shari Hicks-Graham, MD, a dermatologist in Columbus, Ohio.
What’s more, indoor heating systems pump out dry air, so they have a similar effect on your scalp, while hot showers can also exacerbate dryness during the colder weather season, says Hicks-Graham. “Scalp dryness can turn into flakiness when we brush our hair or rub or scratch our head,” she adds.
Some people are prone to seborrheic dermatitis year-round, notes Lindsey Bordone, MD, dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center who specializes in hair disorders. That’s because this condition has a lot of different causes.
“Seborrheic dermatitis is often referred to as dandruff and can be the result of genetics, the environment, and your diet,” says Mona Mofid, MD, dermatologist at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in San Diego. “In some cases, there is an overgrowth of a yeast — malassezia — that normally lives on the skin but may be in excess.”
Not shampooing your hair enough can also cause dandruff due to the build-up of oils and skin cells on the scalp. Bordone says stress can also contribute to seborrheic dermatitis or dandruff.
While seborrheic and dandruff are essentially the same, dandruff only affects the scalp, while seborrheic dermatitis can cause skin irritation and flaking on other areas, like your ears, eyebrows, beard region and upper chest.
Luckily, you have a variety of treatment options to soothe your scalp, starting with natural solutions.
“Coconut and olive oil are very good for the scalp,” says Debra Jaliman, MD, dermatologist in New York City and author of “Skin Rules”. Coconut oil is naturally antibacterial and extremely nourishing thanks to the vitamins and essential fatty acids it contains, while olive oil is full of antioxidants that help protect the skin when applied topically. “A good trick is to apply one of those oils to the scalp overnight once a week, or even once a month, to give your scalp a hydrating treatment,” says Mofid.
Another natural remedy you can try: apple cider vinegar, which is antibacterial and anti-fungal, says Jaliman. (Just make sure to dilute it with water before putting it near your scalp.)
Beyond natural remedies, there are plenty of shampoos targeted to treat seborrheic dermatitis. “Some ingredients to look for which can help soothe a flaky scalp include ketoconazole, salicylic acid, selenium sulfide, and 2% pyrithione zinc,” says Paul Cellura, MD, dermatologist at Tribeca Skin Center in New York City. “These ingredients are contained in many of the available over-the-counter anti-dandruff shampoos.” Glycolic acid, which is commonly used in facial chemical peels, can also be very effective on the scalp when used in modest amounts, says Hicks-Graham.
As for what not to do: “Avoid hair products that may be drying, such as hair sprays and shampoos with a high alcohol content,” advises Paradi Mirmirani, MD, dermatologist and director of hair disorders for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California. “The higher up on the ingredient list, the more of the product it contains.” It’s also best to steer clear of shampoos formulated for oily scalps (these are often labeled as “cleansing” or “clarifying”) because they can contain harsh ingredients that can dry out your scalp, says Mirmirani.
The best shampoos for a dry, flaky scalp
Take care of your dandruff with one of these dermatologist-approved shampoos. But keep this in mind: “If over-the-counter products fail to fully control the scalp irritation, it may be wise to pay a visit to a board-certified dermatologist for further evaluation,” says Cerulla.
Hicks-Graham is a fan of this shampoo because it has a gentle sulfate-free formula that still lathers and feels great on your hair. Xlyitol in the formula fights yeast, while salicylic acid, glycolic acid and willow bark extract exfoliate and soothe.
Coal isn’t just for those who made the naughty list this holiday season. Ths shampoo, which Cerulla likes, relies on 1 percent coal tar to ease flaking and scalp irritation associated with seborrheic dermatitis, dandruff and scalp psoriasis.
Cerulla also likes this drugstore shampoo, which is formulated with 1 percent ketoconazole to help reduce the amount of pityrosporum yeast on the scalp and cut down on inflammation, redness and scaly patches.
Powered by 2 percent pyrithione zinc to help control dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis symptoms, this shampoo is a favorite of Mohid’s because it’s both affordable and available OTC. “For people who experience seborrheic dermatitis on the face or chest it can also be used as a wash and comes in a body wash option as well,” she says.
With 1 percent pyrithione zinc and coconut oil, this shampoo offers a one-two punch against dandruff at an inexpensive price point. “This shampoo helps to nourish dry itchy scalp and also helps to relieve it from irritation,” says Jaliman. “It’s pH balanced to gently cleanse scalp and hair.”
For mild cases of seborrheic dermatitis, Bordone says an OTC dandruff shampoo like this one can be very effective. This classic formula’s star ingredient is 1 percent pyrithione zinc, which helps improve flakiness and itchiness.