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Scaly or Flaky Scalp - Causes, Risk Factors, and Treatment

Written by
Dr. Suvash Sahu
and medically reviewed by iCliniq medical review team.

Published on Dec 15, 2016 and last reviewed on Nov 10, 2022   -  4 min read


A dry, itchy, or flaky scalp can signify dandruff or fungal infection. Read this article to learn about ways to get rid of it.

Scaly or Flaky Scalp - Causes, Risk Factors, and Treatment


A scaly scalp or flaky scalp is found with tiny flakes of skin on the scalp. This occurs if the scalp has lost moisture due to various reasons. The common causes of the scaly scalp are cradle cap, dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, and psoriasis. However, the condition can be treated if proper measures are taken. The scaly scalp may be severe in a few cases, requiring a dermatologist consultation. This article deals with the various causes of a scaly scalp and its management.

What Are the Causes of the Scaly or Flaky Scalp?

Skin shedding is a natural process that occurs without our notice. But it may be dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis when it sheds more quickly and in considerable amounts, appearing light yellow or white when you rub your head. The causes of the scaly scalp are:

What Are the Causes and Risk Factors of Dandruff?

Dandruff is called pityriasis capitis in medical terms. It is the most common scalp condition and starts appearing in individuals around 20 years of age. It is characterized by itchy skin flakes on the scalp, hair, eyebrows, mustache or beard, and shoulders. The symptoms worsen during cold, dry weather, and stress.

The common causes are:

  • Excessive sebum secretions due to the influence of hormones.

  • Irritated skin.

  • Oily skin.

  • Malassezia, a yeast that feeds on oil, can cause dandruff.

  • Allergy to haircare products.

  • Reactive hyperplasia of the epidermis.

The risk factors of dandruff are:

  • Age: Dandruff is a significant problem, especially in the young age group. That does not mean older people do not have dandruff. There are a few cases with lifelong dandruff problems.

  • Gender: Dandruff problems are more common among men than women.

  • Health Issues: Diseases affecting the immune system, such as HIV, and those affecting the nervous system, such as parkinsonism, can cause dandruff.

How Is Dandruff Treated?

Dandruff can be treated by:

  • Daily shampooing is recommended.

  • Antifungal shampoos containing Tar, Fluocinolone, Ketoconazole, Selenium sulfide, or Zinc pyrithione are effective. If any shampoo loses effectiveness after a period, use an alternative shampoo. When dandruff is under control, stop using medicated shampoo regularly; instead, use it only for maintenance.

  • Cessation of regular use is associated with recolonization of the scalp and a return of the condition. Thus, maintenance therapy is recommended.

  • The use of hair oil should be avoided because it acts as a food for dandruff.

What Is Seborrheic Dermatitis?

Seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff may be considered the same, but the disease severity spectrum differs. Seborrheic dermatitis is characterized by the following:

  • Erythematous flaky areas often associated with greasy, yellowish scales.

  • The hairline and postauricular areas are most often involved, except the eyebrows, nasolabial folds, and sternum area (bony frontal chest area).

  • Psoriasis, especially that affecting the scalp, is common.

  • Site of Involvement: The scalp may be the common site. However, the posterior hairline and the area above the ears are often the most prominent sites. The presence of typical psoriasis elsewhere on the body or nails in the form of pitting or other psoriatic features.

How Is Seborrheic Dermatitis Treated?

The treatment of seborrheic dermatitis involves:

  • In mild cases, treatment with a tar-based or keratolytic shampoo is sufficient.

  • More severe cases often respond well to topical treatments, such as Calcipotriol lotion, Betamethasone lotion, Mometasone lotion, or a combination of topical Calcipotriol and Betamethasone valerate.

  • Besides topical creams, oral antihistamines can also be taken to limit the itchiness of the scalp.

  • If the scales are very thick, the scalp should be treated with 15 % Salicylic acid with mineral oil for 30 minutes. The Salicylic acid softens the scales, which can be combed and removed with a fine tooth comb.

  • The treatment should be performed every evening until the scalp is clear, usually for seven to ten days. Once the scalp is clear, maintenance can be achieved by repeating the treatment once weekly or fortnightly.

What Is Cradle Cap?

A cradle cap is also known as infantile pityriasis or infantile seborrheic dermatitis. This condition is common within the first two to three months of life. The most common causes are overactive sebaceous glands in the scalp under the influence of the mother’s androgen, which is transferred through the placenta. The common sites of the proliferation of Malassezia species other than the scalp are eyebrows, eyelids, and postauricular area, which may also be affected by an orangish-yellow crust or redness.

How Is Cradle Cap Treated?

The treatment of cradle cap includes:

  • Mild cases can be managed by applying mineral oil, like olive oil, on the scalp for 10 minutes before bathing.

  • After massaging the oil, a mild steroid and antifungal combination (1 % Hydrocortisone with either 1 % Clotrimazole or 2 % Miconazole) should be used as it is beneficial.

  • Parents should be reassured that hair loss with scale removal is normal and is not permanent.

  • Shampoo containing Salicylic acid should be avoided due to the risk of salicylism.

How Can a Flaky Scalp Be Prevented?

The recommended tips to prevent a scaly or flaky scalp are:

  • Use a moisturizing shampoo followed by a conditioner.

  • Use an anti-dandruff shampoo at least twice a week and regular shampoo on the remaining days.

  • Use shampoo as per the instructions mentioned in the package.

  • Wash hair often.

  • Avoid scratching the flakes vigorously.

  • Try to control stress.

  • Hydrate yourself.

  • Avoid smoking.


A scaly or flaky scalp may be of significant discomfort in our daily life. However, many of us neglect it in our busy schedules and are not ready to fight against it. But the good news is that various remedies are available to treat it, which are nothing but the proper maintenance of hygiene and usage of products. However, if the remedies do not work, consult a specialist and get treated earlier.


Frequently Asked Questions


What Is Scaly Skin?

Scaly skin is a rough, raised patch of skin that, on close examination, seems to be broken up into a group of flat, raised bits of skin, as exposed to flakes that are thin and fine. In some cases, scaly skin resembles the scales on a fish, though not in such a smooth or symmetrical pattern.


How to Prevent Flaking In My Scalp?

To prevent flaking of the scalp:
Eat a healthy diet like foods that contain plenty of the following foods like fish oils that contain omega-3 fatty acids, which is good for healthy skin and hair. Regular intake of oily fish or fish oil supplements may help relieve the symptoms of a flaky scalp.


What Makes the Scalp to Be Flaky?

The scalp can become flaky due to dryness and lack of moisture or can be due to:
- Psoriasis.
- Seborrheic dermatitis.
- Due to lack of shampooing.
- Yeast called malassezia.
- Contact dermatitis caused by personal care products.


Is It Normal to Have A Flaky Scalp?

It is not normal to have a flaky, itchy, and scaly scalp because they are the main signs of dandruff. White, oily flakes usually accumulate in the hair and shoulders that often worsen in the winter and fall months, when the air is dry.


How to Get Rid Of Scalp Build-Up?

To get rid of scalp build-up:
- Find the right shampoo and conditioner suitable for your hair type.
- Regular and thorough washing.
- Apple cider vinegar.
- Keep hair detangled.
- Lemongrass oil.
- Exfoliate the scalp.


How Do I Know That It Is Dandruff or a Dry Scalp?

To identify whether you have dry scalp or dandruff, apply a light moisturizer to your scalp before going to bed. If the cause is dry scalp, the flakes should disappear once you shower the following day. But if it does not go, it is due to dandruff.


How to Remove Flakes From My Hair?

To remove flakes from your hair:
- Detangle your hair with your finger with a product of good slip.
- Detangle hair in the shower by allowing water to run through your hair while detangling and adding pressure to push or wash out any flakes attached to your hair.
- Detangle your hair either with your fingers or a wide-tooth comb when the hair is dry, known as dry detangle.


What Is the Best Way to Treat Dry Flaky Scalp?

Baking soda, which has antifungal and antibacterial properties, and olive oil with a moisturizing effect can exfoliate the scalp. The combination of baking soda and olive oil is a good choice for dandruff alongside dry scalp. The moisture, exfoliation, and antifungal properties combined can manage the itchy white flakes.


How to Get Rid Of Dandruff Flakes Completely?

To get rid of dandruff flakes completely:
- Do not oil hair and keep it on for long.
- Vinegar.
- Baking Soda.
- Neem.
- Tea Tree Oil.
- Garlic.
- Aloe Vera.


How Can I Remove Dead Skin From My Scalp?

To remove dead skin from your scalp:
- Massage your scalp with coconut oil after a bath in a circular motion for the oil to get easily absorbed in the scalp.
- Lemon juice with exfoliant quality helps to remove dead scalp skin.
- Use a clarifying shampoo to wash your hair once a week, which will help to loosen the accumulated dead skin cells.
- Eat foods that are rich in vitamins B and C as well as those that contain zinc.


What Can Kill Fungus on the Scalp?

To kill fungus on the scalp, you can use:
- Azadirachta Indica leaves to fight against skin irritations, fungus, itching, or excessive oil.
- Apple cider vinegar is a classic treatment for scalp fungus.
- Fenugreek seeds, an herb, to get rid of fungi.
- The Emu Oil helps to stop any scalp sensitivity while fighting the fungus on a microbial level.
- Antifungal shampoos.
- Nizoral shampoo that contains Ketoconazole (antifungal).


How To Get Relieved From the Dry Scalp in Winter?

To get relieved from the dry scalp in the winter, you can:
- Massage your scalp.
- Apply DIY hair masks for deep conditioning.
- Rinse your scalp, which is dry, with apple cider vinegar.
- Avoid heat styling tools and hot showers.
- Use mild hair care products.
Cover the scalp to protect it from sun rays and stress from cold winds.


How to Treat Dry Flaky Scalp in My Baby?

The dry scalp in babies usually clears up within a few months. But, if you dislike the patches on your baby’s scalp, you can try some remedies. Wash the baby’s scalp with mild baby shampoo, recommended by the pediatrician. After washing, run your fingers on the baby’s scalp to loosen the scales gently with the comb.

Last reviewed at:
10 Nov 2022  -  4 min read




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