If an itchy scalp is driving you crazy, here's how to fix it (fast)...
Switch your shampoo
Shampoos with the surfactants (detergents) sodium laureth sulfate or sodium lauryl sulfate (both SLS for short) may be satisfyingly sudsy, but they're also very drying on the scalp. "They can even cause redness and irritation, especially when they're not formulated alongside certain ingredients that may neutralize the irritation," says Tom Brooks, chemist and head of research and development at Leonor Greyl. Simply switching to an SLS-free shampoo can stop you scratching in a matter of days.
Give it a rinse
"Always finish your shampoo and conditioning session with a cool water rinse–and make it last as long as it takes for all the product to be gone," advises Tom. Which is when your hair is, quite literally, squeaky.
Mind the silicones
"Silicones do not penetrate the skin, but they form a barrier on your skin or hair that blocks the penetration of other ingredients. Overuse can weigh down hair and potentially suffocate your scalp, which is obviously not great for its health," warns Tom. You'll find silicones in a lot of smoothing and straightening shampoos, conditioners and serums; look out for any words in the ingredient list ending with "–methicone."
Don't get stuck with glue
"Glue or resin-type ingredients (you'll find them in loads of hairsprays as well as volumizing and curl-boosting styling products) may suffocate the scalp as well, if they're not washed out regularly," says Tom. Use an SLS-free clarifying shampoo once a week.
"As with the skin on any other part of the body, a dry, tight feeling can be due to a lack of moisture and oils, both in your diet and applied topically," says trichologist Sara Allison. Eat plenty of healthy fats (nuts, avocados, oily fish) and invest in regular moisturizing masks or oil treatments for your hair and scalp.
Don't wig out
"Limit your wearing of hats or wigs as much as possible; overdoing it can cause a lack of oxygen to the scalp and cause a variety of scalp problems," says Tom.
Brush your hair
If you've tried all of the above and your scalp still flakes, you have dandruff, which basically means that your scalp is over-producing new skin cells and shedding an excess of old ones. If you don't regularly brush your hair and scalp, try doing this daily, as it aids the shedding of skin cells and can in some cases improve the situation.
Exfoliate your scalp
Alternatively, help shed cells once a week by exfoliating your scalp just like you would your face. You could use a scalp scrub, but products containing fruit enzymes or salicylic acid (which both slough off dead cells without any scrubbing) are the gentlest option.
Persistent and over-enthusiastic flaking could be due to an over-production of yeast or a fungal infection, which is why most over-the counter dandruff shampoos contain anti-fungal or anti-microbial ingredients such as zinc pyrithione, coal tar, tea tree oil, piroctone olamine or ketoconazole. Unfortunately, most of these shampoos also contain SLS. A SLS-free cleanser with anti-dandruff properties, like , is worth giving a go.
"If you have oily flakes, and red, greasy patches covered with white or yellow scales on your scalp (or even elsewhere), you have seborrheic dermatitis," says Sara. "It's caused by a yeast germ that feeds on excess sebum, and triggered by an allergic response to stress, cosmetics or foods." A lack of hygiene may set the condition off as well, but you'd have to be really dirty for that to be the case. It can come and go and is treatable with dandruff shampoos, but you have to use them consistently for the dandruff to stay away. If no dandruff shampoo will work after a few weeks' use, see a doctor or trichologist as you may need stronger prescription treatment.
See an expert
"If your scalp is extremely flaky and extremely dry, you might be suffering from psoriasis," says Sara. "It's an auto-immune condition that can be genetic, with triggers similar to seborrheic dermatitis. With psoriasis, cells will renew every week instead of every month, creating a massive build-up of overlapping cells. They block follicles, hindering the penetration of your own moisturizing sebum as well as cosmetic oils and lotions, which is why the scalp feels so dry." Regular anti-dandruff shampoos may not be right option for this condition, so if you suspect you have psoriasis, it's best to seek professional advice.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com/uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.