The seasonal shift into colder temperatures usually triggers a switch in our skincare routines to ensure our complexions stay healthy and hydrated. But the same can’t always be said for the skin hidden by our hair. In fact, the weather change can leave our scalps feeling particularly parched. That’s due to the drop in humidity we feel — both outdoors and inside from our heating systems.
“When the cold season starts, it causes loss of moisture. It may dry out the scalp,” says Debra Jaliman, board-certified NYC dermatologist and Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. The arid atmosphere can cause our crowns to feel tight and itchy. That tickling sensation can make it hard to resist scratching and sloughing off those flakes of dry skin, which you might assume is dandruff. But flakiness doesn’t always translate to dandruff, especially if your flakes are tiny ones.
“It could be an indication that the scalp is very dry and/or irritated,” warns Jaliman. “Fungus is what causes dandruff. Dandruff is a buildup on the scalp that happens when too much yeast is present on oily areas of the skin.” (Plus, the flakes of skin tend to look like larger “sheets” rather than the little bits you might see.) Therefore, using a dandruff shampoo —which Jaliman says are formulated with antifungal ingredients like coal tar, zinc pyrithione, or selenium sulfide — isn’t going to do much to restore the moisture that your head and hair are in desperate need of.
Treatments to Avoid
To keep the skin on your scalp nourished, you’ll want to skip over certain products and treatments, especially scrubs and other exfoliants, during the colder months. These can strip moisture, since they prompt the body to send its sebum production into overdrive and create an almost endless cycle of greasiness.
“Your first thought [after scrubbing] is, ‘Wow, I feel really clean!’” says Kerry Yates, trichologist for Evolis™ Professional and founder of Colour Collective. “You’ve just stripped all of your natural oils . . . Your body is going to think, ‘I’m really dry. I need to produce more oil.’ It can just compound the situation.” Not to mention, many of the exfoliating formulas use salt or other sharp-edged granules that can make small cuts in the delicate skin. This can cause irritation, making the experience more painful than helpful.
Another product to avoid applying to a dry scalp is dry shampoo. Because it’s designed to soak up excess oils, it can make your skin situation much worse, especially if you’re using it incorrectly. Yates says that people tend to apply the powdery stuff directly onto the scalp, instead of lifting up the hair and spritzing an inch up on the roots where the grease and dirt tend to accumulate. This, along with the fact that you might substitute dry shampoo for the real thing for several days, can cause the top of your head to tingle.
Yates likens religious dry shampoo usage to not taking off your makeup for four or five days. “That’s basically what we’re doing with dry shampoo,” she says. “Think about that just accumulating on your scalp, and the feel of it is that it’s going to itch.” Matter of fact, in some cases, the snow that can show up on your shoulders might not actually be dandruff, but an overaccumulation of dry shampoo finally flaking off. And if you maintain a serious dry shampoo habit, it can clog up the hair follicles over time, leading to hair loss. Yikes!
Styling Techniques to Skip
In addition to the formulas you use, how you style your strands can have a harsh effect on your scalp. (We know that the holiday season is prime time for blowouts and heat styling due to all the parties, but proceed with caution!) The regular use of hot tools oncan also leave our heads not only can cause damage to your strands, but exacerbate itchiness, since we tend to use them dangerously close to the sensitive skin’s surface.
“Our irons and dryers can heat up to 450 degrees — think of what that level of heat will feel like on the scalp,” says Cris Baadsgaard, owner of Scene Salon in Dallas, TX. “I have seen people with severe burns due to hot tools. The burns then lead to scarring and permanent scalp damage.” A good rule of thumb to is to keep a safe distance. Blow dryers should be at least eight inches away from the head as you style, while irons are best kept at least an inch from the roots. You should also turn down the heat to under 350 degrees Fahrenheit in order to reduce the risk of burns and damage.
Other aggressive salon treatments, like hair color and bleaching, can also contribute to that itch. “There are many causes for dry scalp, but [I] have noticed that some ammonia-free hair color seems to cause irritation and dryness after use,” Baadsgaard says. “As a result, I have revamped my color portfolio in the backbar to support optimal scalp health for my clients.” Next time you’re seated in the salon chair, consult with your colorist. You should be curious about the formulas they use, plus work with them to space your appointments at least six to eight weeks apart in order to keep your hair and scalp as healthy as possible. Itch-Fighting Treatments
Though it seems like the majority of any hair care routine is to blame for an upset scalp, there are still a number of ways to eliminate the itch, starting in the shower. According to Yates, washing your hair more than two times a week can hurt your head more than it helps. “You’re actually causing your scalp to become oilier, because it’s trying to overcompensate because you just stripped off your natural oils,” she says. (This is especially true if you use volumizing or clarifying formulas, as they’re designed to remove any extra weight from both strands and scalp.)
Yates recommends lathering up a hydrating shampoo in your hands before applying it, working from the front hairline to the nape of your neck. Use your fingertips, not your nails, to massage it in since that “causes inflammation, which leads to more irritation, which leads to more itching.” When it comes to regular conditioning, Yates advises that you stick to just your mid-lengths to the ends, where the hair is older, drier, and more damaged.
You can also consider incorporating regular moisturizing treatments into your routine, such as Evolis® Promote Activator ($65) or Philip Kingsley® Flaky Scalp Toner ($15). According to Yates, you can also whip up a homemade mask of your own using ingredients like coconut oil, olive oil, and honey to bring the skin back into balance. Simply massage the mixture into your scalp, cover your hair in a warm, damp towel or shower cap, and leave it on for half an hour before shampooing your strands.
For a longer-term solution to quell dry skin (from head to toe!), all the experts we spoke to advised investing in a humidifier. Using it will help pump the moisture back into the air that heating systems zapped away. But if you don’t have the cash or space to spare, hang a dampened towel in the room with you — it will help keep your atmosphere (and your hide) hydrated.
Though this may seem like a lot to consider for your scalp, recognize that you likely already treat the rest of the skin on your body with tender, loving (and moisturizing) care. Your scalp deserves the same respect, especially during the drier months of the year. Maximizing your moisture will not only keep the temptation to scratch that itch and flakes at bay, but could also translate into softer and stronger strands. After all, a great head of hair starts at the roots.
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