Your Greasy Hair and Flaky Scalp Solutions, According to a Dermatologist
Hair Health Hotline is your direct access to dermatologists, trichologists, hairstylists, and other beauty pros. Each story in this series tackles a common hair or scalp concern and offers science-backed solutions to care for your strands.
It's true: Your scalp can be both oily and flaky at the same time, and it probably feels like a losing battle — trying to dry out the excess oil only exacerbates the flaking, right? It's no wonder then that trying to address both issues simultaneously has you (figuratively and perhaps literally) scratching your head for solutions. If you associate flakes with dryness — and dryness can cause flaking in some people — it probably seems like a sick joke that your scalp is also oily. Here, Marisa Garshick, M.D., F.A.A.D., a dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in New York gets to the bottom of why some people receive flaking and greasiness as a package deal.
Q: My scalp is greasy and flaky at the same time. Can I fix both problems at once?
A: You could be dealing with seborrheic dermatitis, a form of dandruff. "Seborrheic dermatitis is essentially inflammation that can occur on the scalp for a few different reasons," says Dr. Garshick, emphasizing that figuring out the cause of dandruff "can be a little tricky." Seborrheic dermatitis can often be caused by a type of yeast, especially in people who have a scalp that produces excess oil, she says. The yeast is called Malassezia, and it can feed off the oil your scalp naturally produces and then release free fatty acids, which can disrupt your skin barrier, resulting in itching, flaking, and redness.
Good news: If you figure out how to make your hair less greasy, you may solve flaking in the process. Simply increasing the frequency with which you wash your hair is a good first step, according to Dr. Garshick. "Similarly to your face, if you're not washing regularly you're going to have a buildup of oil and dead skin cells, which can contribute to both the oiliness of the scalp as well as the flaking that we can see," she says. "So sometimes addressing excess oil and flaking is a matter of increasing the frequency of your hair washing." If you have coarse or curly hair and usually wash once a week, you can try washing two to three times a week; if you have fine, straight hair and typically wash every other day, you can up the cadence to daily; and so on. Avoid going overboard and washing more than once per day, though, since that can excessively dry out your skin, triggering your scalp to produce even more oil to compensate, says Dr. Garshick.
When increasing your washing alone doesn't work, you can progress to adding new hair products to your rotation. If you already worship at the altar of salicylic acid, know that the ingredient can benefit more than just your face. "For people who are both oily and flaky at the same time, salicylic acid-based products can be very helpful," says Dr. Garshick. "As a beta hydroxy acid, it's going to help slough away dead skin [read: flakes]. It's also what's known as a keratolytic, which means that it's going to help break apart the connections between the dead skin cells which is going to make them easier to shed. And then lastly, because it's oil-soluble, it can actually penetrate deeper into the pores and helps unclog pores and regulate oil production." (Related: The Best Salicylic Acid Face Wash for Every Skin Type)
Those who experience flaking due to yeast overgrowth can also find success with anti-dandruff shampoos. Look for the anti-fungal ingredients ketoconazole, selenium sulfide, or zinc pyrithione, on ingredient lists, says Dr. Garshick. Whether you go with salicylic acid or an antifungal, choose a leave-on product or allow your shampoo to sit for five minutes (or slightly less if you're sensitive) to give it enough time to work before rinsing, she says.
If all of the above fails, or if you have an extremely flaky scalp, it may be time to check in with your own dermatologist, who can assess your scalp and help you come up with a personalized plan. Wishing you a blissful, oil-balanced, flake-free future.
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