After you give birth, there is a laundry list of things changing internally and externally with your body. I had a baby almost a year ago, yet there are still so many questions I ask myself (and the internet) regularly. When I was pregnant, it was: Will my hair ever look this good again? Now, postpartum, it’s: Why does my back always hurt?, When will this weird, red, ring finger rash go away?, and Will my hair ever stop falling out? I was at least somewhat prepared for the hormone jags that made me cry during commercials, leftover stretch marks, and hair shedding, but no one prepared me for another postpartum symptom: a dry scalp. It sounds innocuous, but we’re talking a can’t focus on anything else, itching like crazy, can’t wear black because I’m covered in dandruff dry scalp.
According to Michelle Blaisure, a certified trichologist, this issue is actually quite common. “During pregnancy, you have a high level of hormones circulating,” explains Blaisure. “Once you give birth, these start declining and going back to a more normal range.” The adjustment to this switch can cause a dry, itchy scalp.” She adds that some women experience improvement in existing scalp issues during pregnancy, but often see them return after the baby arrives.
In other words, if you had a mild scalp condition before you got pregnant, it may come back (which is exactly what happened to me). Your postpartum scalp could be even worse than it was before pregnancy due to changing cortisol levels in the body as a reaction to both physical and, of course, emotional stress, says Dhaval Bhanusali, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist and owner of Hudson Dermatology℠ in New York City.
I’d had mild dandruff years ago, but I could tell my postpartum issues were not traditional dandruff. Most dry scalp issues self-correct after a few months post-baby, but in my case, at around the six-month mark, my scalp seemed to be getting worse by the day. It was unbearably itchy, flaky, red, and irritated, and I knew something was off. “Dandruff is usually due to something called seborrheic dermatitis, a response to a yeast that we normally have that can grow in excess under certain conditions,” says Dr. Bhanusali. “If the dandruff becomes excessive, it may be something like psoriasis, which can flare during pregnancy.” My history of psoriasis had reared its ugly head, and it was causing thick scales on my scalp, which I would find out was severe seborrheic dermatitis.
In total desperation, I booked an appointment at the Philip Kingsley® Trichological Clinic in New York City. The incessant itching was distracting me from my baby, and the amount of white, dusty flakes was a major concern. It was there that I had a 45-minute consultation with Anabel Kingsley, brand president and consulting trichologist for Philip Kingsley.
During this time, she asked me what shampoo I was using, how often I washed my hair, the condition of it, how often I got highlights, the health of my nails, if I’d experienced changes in my body hair, if I had pets — and strangely, if I had given birth via caesarean section. “All women lose blood when they give birth, but when you have a caesarean, you lose more, because it’s an operation,” Kingsley explained. “General anesthesia [can] cause hair loss, but it’s temporary.” I also learned that hormones were not necessarily to blame. “Have you had your iron levels checked?” she asked. “If [the hair loss is caused by] something like an iron deficiency, that will continue until you fix it.”
We also discussed my diet, and Kingsley explained that foods that may cause breakouts on your face — namely chocolate, cheese, and other full-fat dairy products, and wine and champagne — can also upset your scalp. “They can cause an inflammatory reaction in your body that can worsen a scalp condition.” She informed me that white wine and champagne contain sugar, which may not be scalp-health friendly.
Once she armed me with my new dietary guidelines, Kingsley immediately sent me to get a treatment in the clinic to first steam and remove my “psoriasis-like scales,” because without lifting them, products wouldn’t be able to penetrate and treat my condition as well. When I had visited the clinic three years prior, I had “minor seborrheic dermatitis, which is like an angry dandruff,” Kingsley told me. This time, my seborrheic dermatitis was furious.
To get relief at home, Kingsley recommended shampooing daily, but also advised weekly in-clinic treatments — a seemingly impossible feat with a baby! But, after the first 90-minute treatment, I immediately booked a babysitter so I could come back. The experience included a generous application of a scalp mask, which instantly calmed the itchiness. Next, the brand’s famous Elasticizer® ($49) was applied on my ends, which left my hair silky smooth. Then, 20 minutes under a hair steamer to loosen any scales, a 15-minute scalp, neck, and shoulder massage that rivaled any spa in Manhattan, 10 minutes under infrared lights to help with inflammation and stimulate blood flow, a thorough wash, and an application of the antimicrobial Scalp Toner (whew!).
The treatment may sound overly thorough, but think about it: if you had a skin condition on your face, you would be treating it daily. “On your face, you’d use a medicated cleanser plus a toner, and — maybe once or twice a week — a prescription-strength mask to treat something like acne,” Kingsley points out. “On your scalp, a similar treatment is needed.” And, just as you’d wash your face daily to treat many skin conditions, shampooing everyday is also ideal for treating scalp issues, she adds.
I had three treatments at the clinic, and each one left my scalp feeling soothed — and my hair silky and shiny. Unfortunately, continuing this intensive in-office regimen isn’t feasible for me at the moment — but I do have a new arsenal of products that I took home from the clinic: the Flaky/Itchy Scalp Mask ($28), Flaky/Itchy Scalp Shampoo ($40) No Scent No Colour Gentle Conditioner ($34), and Flaky Scalp Calming Scalp Toner ($33). Combined with washing my hair more frequently (as per Kingsley’s advice!), my at-home product regimen has kept the condition in check. That said, I do plan on visiting the clinic in the next month or so to ensure my symptoms don’t get out of control again.
If you’re suffering from scalp issues and don’t have a trichologist in your area, try a local derm. A dermatologist may “give steroid drops to calm inflammation and an anti-yeast shampoo to treat the condition,” says Dr. Bhanusali. “We also sometimes use a shampoo like [the over-the-counter] Neutrogena® T/Sal®, which has salicylic acid and can help speed up the resolution.” Adds Blaisure, “If breastfeeding, make sure you stay hydrated and take an Omega-3 fatty acid supplement to help with dry scalp and skin.”
As always, talk to your doctor before starting any new treatment or medication.
Throughout all of this, there was one more element that I had to factor in as a potential hazard to my scalp health: my hair color. According to master colorist Stephanie Brown, who works at IGK® Salon in SoHo and touts SNL’s® Kate McKinnon and Melissa Villaseñor as clients, you shouldn’t necessarily let a scalp condition restrict you from color, but hair dye can absolutely increase your risk of further scalp irritation. “If you’re worried, consult a dermatologist,” she suggests. “If you must use a prescribed shampoo, which can be harsher [on hair color], use cooler water, which will also feel better on the scalp,” Brown adds.
You can also fortify your routine with extra nourishing formulas to give your color a boost in defense. My longtime colorist and celebrity go-to, Kyle White, the lead colorist at the Oscar Blandi® salon, has always told me that if I need to use a harsh shampoo like T/Sal on my scalp, I should use Queen Helene® Cholesterol Hair Conditioning Cream ($9) on the rest of my hair. This cholesterol-infused formula can help protect the color and prevent stripping moisture from the hair (which T/Sal is known to do). Brown agrees that deep conditioning treatments, like IGK Expensive® Amla Oil Hi-Shine Topcoat ($29) or Briogeo® Don’t Despair, Repair!® ($36), may help. She also recommends avoiding heat styling, like blowouts, as much as possible, because they can also contribute to the deterioration of dye. It’s sound advice for your scalp’s health, too: with all that concentrated heat, a hair dryer isn’t just drying your strands — it’s drying out your skin.
Complimentary treatment and products were provided to the author for the purpose of writing this article.
Product prices may vary from the time this article was written.
Allergan® may receive commissions for purchases made through links in this article.