How to treat this common scalp problem

The Dominican Hair Alliance explain how to take control and get rid of flakes once and for all!

Feel like your scalp has been going crazy lately? You’re not the only one. According to two new studies, scalp conditions are on the rise, thanks largely to modern lifestyles, diet and air pollution. Chronic skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis and seborrhoeic dermatitis are among the most common causes of flaky, itchy scalps, alongside fungal infections like tinea capitis, and allergic reactions to products. With the weather warming up, and wigs, weaves and wraps getting less and less comfortable, you might be more than a little anxious about fixing those itchy, unsightly flakes before the summer heat sets in.

Luckily, one of the most common reasons for a scaly scalp is also one of the easiest to fix. According to Shirley MacDonald, a leading trichologist at the Hair and Scalp Clinic in London and Birmingham, ‘A build-up of products is one cause of scaling, especially if hair is washed infrequently.’ She recommends washing hair at least once a week to avoid product build-up on the scalp, with a maximum stretch of two weeks when in protective styles such as braids or weaves.

Sulfate-free shampoo
To purge your scalp, you’ll need to use a shampoo with a strong, but not overly harsh cleanser. Avoid moisturising shampoos; they can leave build-up of their own, weighing down hair and making it harder to style, not to mention clogging the scalp. Cleansers which contain sodium lauryl sulfate or ammonium lauryl sulfate should also be given a miss; these tiny molecules strip and abrade the hair and can be overly drying to delicate scalp skin. Don’t fall for the sulfate-free hype, either: many sulfate-free shampoos actually contain an ingredient called c14-16 olefin sulfonate which is just as harsh as sodium lauryl sulfate and is classed as a scalp irritant.

Co-washes are not effective for deep cleansing as their surfactants are the same as those used in normal conditioners, leaving them too weak to eradicate heavy build-up. Go for the middle ground: shampoos based on ingredients like sodium laureth sulfate or cocamidopropyl betaine are much gentler than sodium lauryl sulfate or c14-16 olefin sulfonate, but still clean hair and scalp sufficiently. Try atrActiva Anti-Stress Shampoo (£9.99) for an effective cleanser that won’t strip or leave residue on hair and scalp.

atrActiva Anti-Stress Shampoo


Scalp conditions
If you do have an underlying scalp condition, however, you will need to use a medicated shampoo. For simple dandruff, over-the-counter anti-dandruff shampoos can work – look for ingredients like salicylic acid or zinc pyrithione and give them up to a month to see the effects. If the shampoo doesn’t get the flaking under control, then see a GP or trichologist. If fungal or bacterial infections are at the root of your flaking, you may need prescription antibiotics to get the infection under control.

Conditions like scalp eczema, seborrhoeic dermatitis or psoriasis can be more difficult to manage. Trichologist Shirley MacDonald recommends washing regularly’ ‘preferably with a medicated or a mild shampoo and conditioner without perfumes or other additives that may act as irritants on the scalp, and use scalp ointments such as a keratolytic that contains salicylic acid that cleans the scalp.’


All in the technique
Whether your flaky scalp is due to an underlying condition or overly long stretches between washes, purging it is as much to do with technique as choosing the right shampoo. ‘As a stylist, I see a lot of damaged, dried out hair and scalp irritation which is due to poor at-home washing methods,’ says Santo Domingo-trained stylist Maria. ‘People often think piling on handfuls of shampoo will get their hair cleaner. Not necessarily; it’s more about correct application and rinsing.’

In a recent Japanese study, researchers were able to improve the scalp conditions of people suffering with eczema, psoriasis and seborrhoeic dermatitis by getting them to correct their improper washing techniques. The biggest errors people were making? Washing irregularly, scrubbing with their fingernails, applying shampoo to the scalp without rinsing first, and not removing shampoo properly.

Under the care of dermatologists, the subjects learned to rinse thoroughly before and after applying shampoo, to lift and finger-comb hair to ensure water reached the scalp, and to shampoo the scalp in sections, using the balls of their fingers, instead of their nails. The results: decreased scaling and itching, fewer scalp scratching scars (which can cause hair loss) and a dramatic fall in the number of micro-organisms known for exacerbating scalp conditions.

Scalp purge
If you’re really, really serious about purging your scalp, you’ll need to purge from the inside out. Some triggers of scalp problems are the dietary choices we make, and the way we choose to live our day-to-day lives. ‘Scalp conditions are often reflective of what is going on in the body and can be linked to digestive or gut problems,’ says Shirley. ‘Stress is also a major factor while coffee, wheat and low levels of zinc are known to be triggers for scalp eczema.’ Exercise, managing stress, eating a healthy diet and drinking adequate amounts of water can go a long way in purging your scalp, as they all help enhance your immunity and optimise your body’s overall functioning. Staying on top of your health game also pays great dividends if you’re trying to achieve greater length or thickness in your tresses.

No grease
And don’t be tempted to try to hide a scalp-full of flakes with good old-fashioned grease. ‘Unfortunately, we treat many patients who react to scalp moisturisers,’ says Shirley. ‘It is not an allergic reaction as such, but the scalp can become sensitised due to chemical relaxers, mechanical trauma (tight braids and weaves) and then the ingredients from moisturisers act as irritants causing the scalp to itch. Scratching can lead to cell damage which, in the long term can cause irreversible scarring to the scalp causing hair loss.’

While traditional oiling is fine, if you are not suffering from a scalp condition (official NHS guidance also recommends using natural food oils like olive oil to massage away flakes in seborrhoeic dermatitis), even the most innocuous natural oils can become irritants when used on a sensitised scalp, according to Shirley. ‘If you find it beneficial then continue to do so, but if you experience irritation, including itching, then I would avoid,’ she cautions.

To avoid scalp residue, stylist Maria advises being just as choosy with your conditioner as with your shampoo: ‘The best formulas which keep both the hair and scalp moisturised have a couple of things in common: they are rich in moisture, but they rinse cleanly from the hair and scalp, so you get hydration without the problems of buildup.” She recommends Capilo La Aplanadora Treatment (£9.99/500ml), or for low-porosity, protein-sensitive hair, atrActiva Keratin Rich Detangling Conditioner (£9.99/400ml).

Capilo La Aplanadora Treatment

atrActiva Keratin Rich Detangling Conditioner


And how long does it usually take to solve a flaky, itchy scalp? ‘If there’s no underlying issue, and it’s just a case of clearing build-up, moisturising properly and learning how to avoid adding residue – which is the case with the majority of clients– it’s a matter of weeks,’ says Maria.

So don’t panic just yet: if you get started now, there’s still plenty of time to get your scalp in check before the summer months roll in. 

Dominican Hair Alliance













  1. by terry wilson on 19/11/2018  8:44 AM Reply

    Its pleasure for your opinion. I want to know does scalp ringworm ever disappear on its own.

    • by LeedsTrichology on 13/12/2018  11:47 AM Reply

      Ringworm is a highly contagious condition that is caused by a fungus called Dematophytosis which is also referred to as Tenia capitis. This type of fungus thrives on the dead keratin cells of the skin or scalp. Dematophytosis can be categorised into 2 types which are endothrix and ectothrix. The ectothrix is a mild version which affects the outside of the skin whilst the endothrix is more severe as it penetrates inside the skin, causing fever and damage to the follicles. Ringworm can cause itching of the skin, the affected areas can have hair loss which is temporary in most cases. Whenever you encounter symptoms of ringworm, you should go and see your family doctor. This will help by avoiding the spread of the condition and also its advised to seek treatments when it is still at the ectothrix stage.

      Ringworm can be treated with some anti-fungal treatments that are to be prescribed by a doctor. It is also advised not to share any towels, combs, bedding and clothes with anyone affected with ringworm, as this can reduce the spreading of the condition.

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