This post is sponsored by Head & Shoulders
Me and flakes, we go way back. I started showing signs of white flakes around my hairline when I was a mere tween. I went from being confident about my newly-relaxed hair to feeling insecure super quickly – like, what’s with this itchy scalp? These flakes around my hairline are so embarrassing! I used to think something was wrong with me, or somehow flakes meant my hair was dirty (even when I KNEW that wasn’t the case).
By high school, I realized I was far from alone. Regardless of hair type or texture, many of my friends had scalp issues too. Some of us just had more visible flakes than others. Some of us had different coping mechanisms than others. My top coping mechanism for flaking was just using my texture to my advantage – my hair grows so thick and coily that my scalp isn’t easily visible, even if I’ve parted my hair on the side.
See? That’s a side part.
I have to use hair clips or bobby pins to pull these coils back enough to actually show you a defined part. Here it is! Behold, my scalp and all my greys!
Please believe me, I’ve tried just about everything to “cure” my scalp problems. First of all, not knowing if I have dandruff or dry scalp has been part of the issue. Is it dry scalp, or dandruff, or BOTH? I had no idea and I’d try to treat the problem all willy-nilly, based on old wives’ tales and passed down topical recommendations. If I’ve tried it, I’m thinking you may have as well. Let’s run down the list. Scratching my scalp has never helped to do anything but stir up flakes and make them more visible. Grease or oil seems to help, but is adhering flakes to your scalp actually helping, though? I swear, some of the oils I’ve tried have even seemed to make my scalp even flakier. I’ve tried all kinds of apple cider vinegar rinses, baking soda treatments, sugary scalp scrubs, clay scalp masks and more. I have yet to 100% get rid of my scalp’s itching, dryness and flaking.
It turns out, I’ve been doing it all wrong, thinking about it all wrong, going about it all wrong. And in the process, I’ve been making my own scalp issues worse. Don’t be like me!
I just did an extensive interview with Dr. Rolanda Wilkerson — 14-year veteran Principal Scientist at P&G Beauty who has worked on some of the world’s most popular and well-known skin and hair care brands.
Dr. Wilkerson has extensive technical experience and knows everything there is to know about hair color, hair shampoos and scalp care, as well as a deep understanding of women’s hair and skin care concerns and needs. She broke it all the way down and answered almost everything I could think to ask about the scalp, about dandruff, dry scalp and healthy scalp care. I asked her if there is anything that can completely cure my dandruff – for the TL,DR set the answer is NO! But it isn’t a hygiene issue and there is A LOT that can be done to improve scalp health and manage the issue.
Afrobella: I am one of the women who grew up with coping mechanisms to deal with an issue that I didn’t really understand. So let’s start with the basics. I think we use dry scalp and dandruff interchangeably without really knowing the difference. Can you explain the difference between dry scalp and dandruff?
Dr. Wilkerson: Let’s start with a little bit of data. 50% of the population experiences dandruff and associated symptoms. Those symptoms could be itch, dryness, and also flaking. Only 10% suffer from just dry scalp, so in many cases if you say you have a dry scalp, you’re likely suffering from dandruff.
Afrobella: Can you talk a little bit about how dandruff starts?
Dr. Wilkerson: We’re all born with a fungus on our scalp called malassezia globosa. This fungus is prevalent on everyone’s scalp, but for those who are going to have an issue with it or respond to it, that starts to happen at or near puberty, when we begin to produce excess sebum, or oil, on our scalp.
Many times for us black women, because of our habits and practices, we may experience scalp issues a little bit earlier. That’s because of prolonged wash frequency and on top of that, many of us grew up going to hair salon to relax our hair, or our parents relaxed our hair. Relaxers are meant to go at the root of the hair, and often get on the scalp, and so relaxers can pose challenges to the scalp especially when your hair is over processed. So that can further dry out the scalp and cause scalp issues. This is actually separate from dandruff, but can manifest itself in the form of dryness. For those that have dandruff, relaxers getting on the scalp can make the condition worse.
For someone who has dandruff, dryness is a factor that essentially exacerbates the scalp condition making it worse. As well as prolonged wash frequency, habits and practices like relaxing, and any other styling that may cause tension on the scalp that could cause scalp issues too. We also can experience a lot of scalp issues and go without addressing them.
Afrobella: It sounds like I would have had scalp issues anyway because I started relaxing my hair when I was 6 years old. The chemicals were drying out my scalp and creating a more fertile ground for dandruff growth going into puberty.
Dr. Wilkerson: Yes, it can exacerbate the condition. Also there are other environmental factors that can make it worse. We’ve done research and just like your skin, because scalp is skin, if you walk outside, even as brown as our skin is with some natural UV protection, if you stay outside for too long, you can still burn your skin…because you still have sun exposure. We still have incidents of skin cancer because of not protecting our skin. The scalp is no different…it responds to the environment that we’re in. External factors like sweat and humidity if we work out, these factors prove for fertile ground to have worsening scalp conditions i.e. dandruff or dry scalp.
Afrobella: Let’s talk about coping mechanisms. I grew up in the islands where the pervasive belief is that grease or oil is good for the scalp. And all these years I’ve been greasing my scalp and I still have flakes. Obviously, doesn’t work to help the problem and in fact, is a coping mechanism, a way to hide flakes.
Dr. Wilkerson: It can help to mask the flakes for a little bit. Certain oils can make the condition worse. There are some oils that can provide mositurization similar to lotion on the skin and can address dry scalp, but that’s not getting to the source of the problem. The source of these issues is the fungus on the scalp and the skin reacting to it, so you need a product that addresses the source of the problem. You want a product with an ingredient like zinc prythione (ZPT), a scalp care active that is going to reduce the presence of the fungus, and ingredients that will also address mositurization.
There’s multiple issues that can happen – there’s water loss, mositurization needed on scalp, the fungus is wreaking havoc for people who respond to it. Some people have the invisible problem before the visible happens – you have itch and you say your scalp is dry, but if you don’t do something about it, you can have flaking. Other people have it in different orders – some see the visible first and then invisible symptoms. It depends on your body’s response. At the end of the day, it all ladders up to dandruff, which black women like to call dry scalp.
Afrobella: Before we get into ZPT, you mentioned some oils are OK. Which are OK vs. bad for the hair and scalp?
Dr. Wilkerson: Our data shows oils aren’t as effective. All oils are created equal and that’s because some are able to penetrate effectively in the scalp while some just sit on the surface. Coconut oil is one that’s found to provide some benefit.
Olive oil has a derivative that the fungus can actually grow in, it’s called oleic acid. Just some perspective on how some oils are not as optimal as others. Even natural oils have components, they’re made up of chemicals that make them one particular oil.
Afrobella: There’s many anecdotal stories of cures in the community about dandruff. Can we talk about apple cider vinegar? Does it help?
Dr. Wilkerson: To my understanding and knowledge, people use apple cider vinegar to cleanse the foundation and give it a good clean. Some may use it in replace of a clarifying shampoo, which people think is too harsh to use too frequently on the hair and scalp. Some use apple cider vinegar to reset, or return to the base after using a lot of styling or leave-on products.
It might help clean your scalp, but flaking is not a function of hygiene, being clean or not clean, it’s a function of how your body responds to the fungus. Apple cider vinegar is not an effective anti-fungal or anti-bacteria. If that were the case, we would all be washing our hands with apple cider vinegar.
Afrobella: The other thing I hear people talk about is baking soda. Does that have any beneficial effect?
Dr. Wilkerson: Baking soda is known to be abrasive and for exfoliation. You can use a powder and it may provide some exfoliation and perceived “cleaning,” but again, if we think about what we need to address, which is the fungus, it’s not getting effectively to the source.
Afrobella: Last question about anecdotal cures. Scratching your scalp is such a rite of passage for so many of us. Having your scalp scratched is something you just grow up with…I realize it’s something that goes back to before my relaxer days. There’s certainly the need for it and a feeling of satisfaction, but it came more from when I had buildup on my scalp and dandruff. Does scratching actually help at all?
Dr. Wilkerson: If you have a prolonged wash frequency and flaking or dry scalp, there’s buildup of skin cells on the scalp. The mechanism of uplifting the dry skin cells on the scalp before you wash, can help. Only because you had a prolonged wash frequency and have a large level of buildup on the scalp and when you get into the shower after the skin cells have been mechanically lifted, they can easily be rinsed out. That said, it’s not necessary if you’re going to wash your hair well.
Many people don’t understand what a good wash is supposed to be. Oftentimes people will use their finger nails to get at their scalp or not get to scalp at all by just washing hair. You want to wash hair thoroughly but use your fingertips not fingernails down on the scalp. Gently massage and scrub with the pads of your fingertips to cleanse the scalp. Removing of flaking is not just mechanical from your washing technique, but flake reduction is a result of using a scalp care product that will prevent it from happening in the first place.
Also, we want to use the word “scratch” loosely. Some people with scalp concerns who scratch their scalp can cause damage to their scalp. The mechanical damage of scratching hair can actually remove the cuticle from the surface of the hair, which causes hair damage and ultimately hair breakage.
Another reason why a person would want to use a scalp product to provide scalp relief and maintain scalp health is because overtime, scratching with any kind of implement (fingertips, hair brush, pin, etc.) can lead to breakage.
Afrobella: Anything to add or subtract from your diet to help cure dandruff?
Dr. Wilkerson: Dandruff isn’t curable and this is a big misperception that people have. It’s something you need to maintain with regular scalp care. People often say, “I tried Head & Shoulders and it didn’t work…my dandruff didn’t go away.” Well, dandruff doesn’t go away, and the flaking will come back and the symptoms like itch can as well. You need regular scalp care to keep the issues at bay and our products help to restore the scalp back to a healthier state. When people stop using them, regression occurs and the symptoms of scalp issues come back because dandruff is not curable. It’s a condition you have to manage within your hair care regimen.
Afrobella: We go about it thinking we can get rid of it, but we can’t. We need to think about it differently as ongoing management! Last question, what are your best tips on dealing with dandruff because it’s never going away?
Dr. Wilkerson: Figure out what your regular scalp routine should look like. First, think about what you’re doing…are you using multiple leave-on products? Are you relaxing your hair frequently or infrequently? Color treating? Do you work out a lot? Are you wearing extensions?
And depending on what you’re doing, then honestly ask yourself, am I caring for my scalp like I should? Am I caring for it like my face? And if the answer is no, you need to look at what you’re doing and create the best scalp care regimen for you. At a minimum, using a scalp care product to care for your scalp. I recommend Head & Shoulders Dry Scalp Care Shampoo and Conditioner to address dry scalp and flaking, or our Clinical Solutions Leave-On Treatment for daily dandruff protection and dry, itchy skin relief.
Seriously, talking to Dr. Wilkerson changed the whole game. Now I realize that I have to make peace with my malassezia globosa and learn how to improve my overall scalp care regimen.
For now, Dr. Wilkerson is still in session. I asked a ton, but we want to know what your questions are, too! Do you have any burning, long-term, always wondered questions about dandruff, dry scalp or scalp care? Ask Dr. Wilkerson in the comments below, and we’ll work on a follow-up post answering all your questions!
This post was sponsored by Head & Shoulders, but the questions and opinions are all mine!