How To Moisturize Your Scalp For Ultimate Hair Health

When it comes to the top of our head, all too often we focus on one thing — our hair. Many of us invest hundreds of dollars a year in making our hair look amazing, but forget that our scalp needs taking care of too, just like the skin on the rest of our body. And having a healthy scalp goes far beyond just treating what's growing from it. 

As dermatologist Dr. Anar Mikailov put it to Cosmopolitan, "Like our skin, our scalp can become dehydrated and get flaky." That flakiness can be a sign of dandruff or a sign of a dry scalp which, although the two are often confused, are actually two different conditions. According to dermatologist Dr. Marisa Garshick, "Dandruff typically results in inflammation and excess oil on your scalp and may appear as thick, yellow-tinged greasy scales that stick in your hair and can sometimes clump together," she said. As for a dry scalp? Dry scalps are usually more itchy and can feel irritated and tight. You may also notice white patches or flakes in your hair, which is dry skin. 

If it's dandruff you're suffering from, then Dr. Garshick had a few recommendations. "Consider treatments containing exfoliating ingredients, like salicylic acid, as well as medicated antifungals, like ketoconazole, pyrithione zinc, and selenium sulfide," she suggested. But how exactly do you treat a dry scalp that just needs some moisture? We're sharing expert tips on how to bring some much-needed moisture back to the top of your head.

Steer clear of sulfate shampoos

One of the biggest things that can irritate your scalp is the product you're putting on it. For many of us, shampoo is the product that comes into contact with our scalp on a daily (or almost daily) basis. So it's important to make sure you're staying away from shampoos that contain ingredients known to dry it out — and that's usually shampoos containing sulfates. 

Though sulfate shampoos can serve a purpose, Dr. Iris Rubin, a board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of SEEN haircare, spoke to Byrdie about the dangers of using it with a dry scalp. "[Sulfate shampoos] tend to be more harsh cleansers that can strip the skin of its natural oils," she noted. So, not only will your scalp not get any moisture from a sulfate-containing shampoo, but it could also be stripped of its natural moisturizing oils.

Instead of a shampoo containing sulfates (or artificial fragrance, for that matter), try something gentler. That may be a shampoo branded with words like "gentle" or "sensitive," as they're less likely to contain chemicals that will affect the skin on your head. A salicylic acid shampoo may also be the way to go. As board-certified dermatologist Stephanie Mehlis explained to Prevention, "[This] helps dissolve those little flakes and is effective for relieving itch, especially if you're dealing with extra dryness." Dermatologist Blair Murphy-Rose added, "This is best for some inflammatory skin conditions of the scalp as well as scalp breakouts."

And shampoo less if you can

Once you find the perfect shampoo that works for your skin and hair, it's important you don't overuse it. For so many people, a dry scalp can be due to over-shampooing (at least in part) since, just like using a sulfate product, too much shampoo on the scalp can also strip it of its natural oils. Trichologist Bridgette Hill told InStyle that it's a good idea for those with drier scalps to only shampoo their locks twice a week. "You should limit shampooing to no more than two to three times a week. It is important to allow the microbiome to not be overly manipulated," she explained.

During those couple of times a week you are shampooing, it's also a good idea to give the product a little more time to do its job. Rather than applying shampoo and then washing it straight off, let the product sit a little so it can really work its magic. For shampoos specifically treating a dry scalp or dandruff, The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics recommends leaving the product on for at least five minutes before washing it away.

Be selective in your hair products

Though swapping out your shampoo may be a good idea to get a more moisturized scalp, that doesn't mean you need to overdo it when it comes to what you put on your hair. That's because too many products being applied to the hair and scalp area can result in build-up, which may only contribute to dry skin. "Too many products can throw off the pH balance of the scalp and cause additional issues," trichologist and stylist Dr. Gretchen Friese pointed out to Byrdie.

With that in mind, try only using the products you really need. "When looking at hair products, choose those designed for dry scalps. These types of products often contain ingredients that gently remove residue from the scalp without stripping the skin of its natural oils," board-certified dermatologist Dr. Sam Ellis told Who What Wear UK

We already know that sulfate shampoos are bad for the scalp, but there are other ingredients to stay away from when it comes to the hair products going on your scalp. "Avoid products with harsh ingredients like parabens, simple alcohols, formaldehyde, and synthetic fragrances," Dr. Nadir Qazi, founder of Qazi Clinic, told Glamour. "Instead, look for products with nourishing ingredients like keratin and essential fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6 that will infuse moisture back into the scalp."

Shorter (and cooler) showers can help bring some moisture back

Another tip for when you need a little more moisture on your scalp? Take shorter showers. In addition to changing up shampoo habits, it's recommended that those with dry scalps cut down on how long the skin on their head is exposed to hot conditions, such as steamy showers. Not only that but turning down the heat a little can also be beneficial, Dr. Rebecca Marcus, board-certified dermatologist and Maei MD founder, told Byrdie.

Though warm water showers have many uses when it comes to washing our bodies, ones that are too hot can have other effects on the scalp — and the skin in general. "Limiting time in the shower and using warm, but not hot water may help. Overly hot showers can exacerbate dry skin, including dry scalp," Dr. Marcus said. Too hot showers can not only dry out the skin but can also worsen existing skin conditions, inflame the scalp, and wash away the hair and scalp's natural oils, added Dermatologist Dr. Jaishree Sharad to Vogue India.

But how hot is too hot? "The recommended temperature range for a shower is between 37 degrees Celsius to 40 degrees Celsius (98 degrees Fahrenheit to 104 degrees Fahrenheit)," Dr. Sharad said. "The duration of a shower should typically be between five and 15 minutes as longer showers can strip moisture from your skin, making it dehydrated and dull."

Hair serum or oil treatment on the scalp can help

For a dry scalp, it's also important to make room in your routine for an oil or serum specifically designed to moisturize the scalp. It's all too easy to forget about the skin on our head as it's (usually) covered by our hair, but it's really not too different from the skin on the rest of our body. As dermatologist Dr. Azadeh Shirazi told Prevention, "Dry scalp is treated similarly to dry skin. The goal is to replenish the moisture barrier and reduce water loss."

Dr. Iris Rubin told Byrdie that there are plenty of products on the market that will help moisturize your scalp in a way that's similar to how we apply moisturizer to the skin. Those products may include an oil or a serum designed to be left on the scalp before washing off. "Using a nourishing scalp oil or leave-in scalp treatment helps reduce water loss and increase skin hydration," Dr. Shirazi shared of the benefits. 

Which product or products you use will be dependent on your skin's more specific needs, though Rubin recommended applying moisturizing oils and serums using a Q-tip to really reach the scalp and not just the hair. Dr. Shirazi also had a tip for applying scalp treatments. She recommended applying three to five drops to the scalp with your fingers after a shower, then, after massaging it in, wash it out the next day.

Don't rely on home remedies

We know, we know. So many of us like to try home remedies for things like masks and scrubs, but when it comes to your scalp, we're all probably better off letting the professionals do their thing. While at-home remedies can be cheaper, as well as a fun way to spend an evening, it's just not worth applying mixtures to our bodies that haven't been properly tested. Especially in areas are already irritated or very dry, like a scalp.

"There's not sufficient evidence that these things work or are safe. Because they're not well studied, I recommend trying the things that are proven to help first," Dr. Jules Lipoff told to Prevention. Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Dhaval G. Bhanusali agreed with that sentiment while speaking to InStyle, noting, "Most [home remedies] tend to cause more harm than good." One big reason for that is it can be hard to get things like measurements right, and it's difficult to know from online recipes what kind of effect a homemade mixture will have on your head.

So what should you be looking out for in the ingredient list of professional products? Dr. Bhanusali recommended opting for gentler products from the store that contain things like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, or aloe vera, which will help to bring back some moisture to the scalp.

Try exfoliating your scalp at home

It's pretty common to exfoliate the body and the face, but did you know that you can exfoliate the scalp too? It may seem a little odd since most of our scalps are covered with hair, but there are ways to remove dry or dead skin cells for healthier and more moisturized skin on our head. As we previously mentioned, a shampoo containing salicylic acid is great for the scalp, and part of the reason why is that it can also act as a scalp exfoliator. "Salicylic acid is a skin exfoliant that reduces scaling on the scalp," Dr. Blair Murphy-Rose explained to Prevention.

Exfoliation is also great for removing build-up on the scalp, which could be making it dry. "When you have product, dirt, and oil building up around your follicle opening ... that starts to slowly suffocate your hair root," trichologist Shab Reslan told MBGLifestyle.

Just like with the rest of our skin though, don't go over the top with exfoliation. That can often result in irritation, which may make a dry scalp worse. "Avoid exfoliating too often so you don't irritate your skin," Dr. Iris Rubin told Byrdie. Anyone with a medical condition causing scalp dryness or serious irritation will want to skip this tip unless recommended by their doctor or dermatologist. "It's best to avoid exfoliating if you have eczema or psoriasis on your scalp since the skin is already inflamed," Rubin said.

A good scalp massage can help bring back moisture

Along with a scalp exfoliation session, a good scalp massage can go a long way. Not only can a massage on the head have a number of benefits for the mind, but — if done using oils designed for a dry scalp — it can help the products be more effective through better penetration. 

"The massage helps stimulate blood circulation, which can aid in better absorption of the oil and promote a healthier scalp," hairstylist Philip Berkovitz, who founded Philip B Botanicals, told Real Simple. He recommended massaging the oil into your scalp for around five minutes, then leaving it in for between 15 and 30 minutes. Berkovitz also suggested repeating the process two to three times a week.

A dry massage (i.e. one with no oils) can also have some benefits for moisturizing the scalp, so it may be worth investing in a brush specifically designed for use on the head. "A scalp massage brush may help dilate blood vessels beneath the skin," Gretchen Friese explained to Byrdie. And it can even do some exfoliation at the same time! "The use of a scalp scrub while massaging can also help remove any dead skin cells, oils, [and] product buildup that can clog follicles, causing hair loss," she explained. There are also a wide range of other products out there designed to keep your scalp healthy.

Supplements can keep your scalp healthier from the inside

We've been talking a lot about how to moisturize your scalp externally, but there are also ways to treat the problem from inside your body via supplements. Of course, you should never start taking supplements without doing some thorough research first and speaking to your doctor, but, for many people, there are a few products on the market that may help bring some moisture back to your head.

Trichologist Shab Reslan recommended to MBGLifestyle taking supplements containing Vitamin E for those struggling with a dry scalp, noting, "[They're] one of the best vitamins for the scalp." Another supplement that could potentially help a dry scalp? Biotin. If you have a deficiency, of course. "When patients have a biotin deficiency, they suffer from thinning, dry hair, and dry skin. Supplementing biotin may help in supporting dry scalp and dry hair," Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology, explained to MBGLifestyle.

Changing your blow-drying routine may also help

It's common knowledge that too much heat on your hair can damage it, but did you know the same can be said for your scalp? As we know, hot showers could be affecting your scalp health, and so could too much time with the blow-dryer. Or other hair heat tools that get close to your scalp, for that matter. 

Because blow-dryers can get super hot, a lot of that heat can go directly onto the scalp when we're trying to dry or style the roots. And all that heat can easily take away the natural oils from the hair and the surrounding skin. Not to mention, some hair tools can get so hot that if they stay too close to your scalp for too long they can literally burn the skin — which results in some very dry skin until it heals.

To keep your scalp healthy and moisturized, there are a few things you can try. Firstly, try not to point your hair tool directly toward the skin when drying your locks. Cutting down on your dry time and how often you dry your hair can also help, as it means there's less chance of your scalp (and hair) getting damaged. Another option is turning down the heat if your tool has the option. Hair brand Schwarzkopf recommends going no hotter than 180 degrees Celsius or 356 degrees Fahrenheit to keep your skin and hair healthy.

Pay a visit to a professional for personalized recommendations

If you've tried a few tips on our list or are concerned because you've been dealing with a scalp that feels dry and itchy for a while, it's always a good idea to visit your dermatologist or doctor to check there's not an underlying health condition leading to the issue. 

There are many reasons why your scalp could be dry, including skin conditions such as psoriasis or eczema, or a hormone imbalance. Lifestyle factors can also play a part, such as living in a cold climate, as cold weather can really play havoc with our skin. "Our lifestyle and habits keep the microbiome of the scalp balanced and nourished," Bridgette Hill, a trichologist and scalp therapist, told Who What Wear UK. "What triggers the imbalance of the microbiome is multi-faceted. Diet, medications, illnesses, stressors can be a root cause to dry scalp internally." 

By visiting a medical professional, you may be able to get personalized treatment to quickly and effectively bring some moisture back to the skin on your head. "Speak to a board-certified dermatologist, as sometimes further evaluation with patch-testing, in the event your dryness is caused by allergies, or a prescription medication may be needed if you have persistent dandruff or psoriasis," Dr. Marisa Garshick recommended while speaking to Cosmopolitan.