Signs Of An Unhealthy Scalp And What to Do About It


scalp issues

We pay so much attention to the skin on our face, our neck, hands – even our butts. Our scalp, however, tends to get the shaft (pun intended). Not only is it out of sight and out of mind, but it also gets overshadowed since we, sensibly tend to prioritize haircare in this area. Still, our scalp deserves just as much love as other parts of our body. And sometimes it’s literally begging for just a little TLC.

We asked a couple pros to identify the signs of an unbalanced, unhealthy scalp – and then to tell us what to do about the problem. From excess oil production to unsightly flakes to itchy scabbing, here’s what you need to know.

Subtle Signs Your Scalp’s Unbalanced

There are two primary signs that point to a scalp that’s out of whack, and each are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Let’s talk about both.

Dry & Flaky

The literal opposite of wet and gushy… “A scalp with dryness or dandruff is usually due to clogged hair follicles, [which are] suffocated by debris and dirt,” says Dr. Gretchen Frieling, a triple board-certified dermatopathologist based in Boston. “In these cases, the scalp needs to be exfoliated.”

You can exfoliate your scalp both chemically and physically. Heck, you can even do both at the same time if you want! Chemically exfoliating ingredients include alpha and beta hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs), including glycolic acid and salicylic acid. For example, Sunday Riley Clean Rinse Clarifying Scalp Serum with Niacinamide, $48, combines both types of acids to gently exfoliate and de-clog. It also contains niacinamide to foster hair growth.

We like the dispenser nozzle, which twists open and closed and allows you to apply directly to your scalp. You can work it in deeper with a scalp massager tool, such as Vitagoods Scalp Massaging Shampoo Brush, $16. Keep it in your shower!

For a physical option, try Virtue Exfoliating Scalp Treatment, $46. It combines salicylic acid with enzymes to chemically exfoliate while rice powder gently physically exfoliates. At the same time, botanical oils help nourish hair and restore moisture.

Note that light flaking, which is caused by dry skin on your scalp, is different from dandruff. We’re going to dive into the dandruff convo shortly.

Oily & Flat

On the opposite end of the unbalanced scalp spectrum is oily and flat/limp hair.

“Excessive oiliness is a little more complicated and is usually the result of improper washing,” says Dr. Frieling. “[For instance], some people are genetically disposed to oily hair. This is often common in people with thin hair [since] there’s not enough hair to soak up the oil. Another reason is not washing your hair properly, touching it too much throughout the day, or using too many products like oils and conditioners.”

She says that the best thing to do is not to overwhelm your hair with heavy ingredients, and to only wash it every other day or when it gets very sweaty. In addition, you can utilize a scalp treatment product that helps zap excessive oil. For example, Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Tea Tree Scalp Treatment, $32, contains charcoal to detoxify and soak up oil, witch hazel to control oil production, and tea tree oil to soothe (it’s also anti-bacterial).

For these more mild cases of scalp imbalance, you can always reach out to your hairstylist for some words of wisdom.

“Remember, they are a trained professional and will be able to advise you on developing a healthy scalp care regimen that includes cleansing frequency, general scalp care, and product selection,” says Gina Rivera, hairstylist and founder of Phenix Salon Suites. “They can also make further suggestions, including recommending deep conditioning and clarifying treatments which can have a direct impact on scalp health.”

Signs Your Scalp is More Seriously Compromised

An imbalanced scalp happens, and usually the remedy is to address the issue right away and carry on. In some cases, though, your scalp can teeter on the edge of being seriously compromised. It might even teeter over. Signs to look for include dandruff, inflammation (sensitivity/swelling), redness, scabbing, and hair loss.

Itchy, Sensitive, Dandruff

These annoying flakes, often accompanied by an itchy scalp, is caused by a skin condition called seborrheic dermatitis, is relatively common but it should be addressed for your own comfort.

“Seborrheic dermatitis can cause various symptoms that are more uncomfortable than dangerous, such as red skin, scaly patches, and dandruff,” says Dr. Frieling. “This condition can also pertain to other oily areas of the body, such as the face, arms, legs, eyebrows, the chest, the sides of the nose, the ears, and the eyelids.”

She says it can often be remedied by switching up your haircare regimen. Start by eliminating drying products (like those with alcohol), and then incorporate medicated lotions, creams, and shampoos. Try Nizoral Anti Dandruff Shampoo, $14.89, which contains 1% ketoconazole to address dandruff. Dove’s Dermacare Scalp Anti-Dandruff Shampoo, $4.89, can also help. It utilizes an ingredient called pyrithione zinc, which helps zap the inflammation causing yeast on your scalp that creates those flakes.

If these remedies don’t work, see your doctor or pharmacist who can recommend a stronger topical lotion to apply to the scalp. In severe cases, sometimes anti-fungal tablets may be prescribed as well as topical products.

Redness, Scabbing, Hair Loss

“Hair loss and painful redness are two major indicators that something more serious is going on, and a dermatologist or doctor should take a look at the problem,” says Dr. Frieling.

Redness, scabbing, and severe inflammation can be caused by things such as allergies, sun damage, or a bad reaction to products. Dr. Frieling says to cut out any harsh products that contain parabens or propylene glycol, which are known irritants.

“If you start noticing hair loss with some of the symptoms mentioned before, it could be a more severe condition that needs medical attention. For example, alopecia,” she says. “However, [one] of the most common reason for hair loss is a build-up of oil and debris, preventing the hair follicles from growing. Other conditions that lead to hair loss are hormonal changes – such as pregnancy, genetics, or a sudden infection.”

And remember: in any of the of these more severe cases, it’s always wise to hit up your doc.