Solving the Most Common Hair-Care Problems

In this article:

If you're like most people, you've had more bad hair days than you can count! It's inevitable! While there are many hair-raising problems that can cause bad hair days, some are more typical—and more treatable—than others. Don't throw in the towel just yet—we have some solutions to keep these problems under control!
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Dry, Flaky Scalp

One of the more embarrassing hair-related issues people face is a dry, flaky scalp. White flakes sprinkled throughout your hair or migrating to your clothing can be humiliating. There are many reasons behind the problem:

  • Dandruff is the most typical reason for a flaky scalp.
  • Changes in weather can cause your scalp to become dry.
  • A dry climate, in general, can lead to a dry, flaky scalp.
  • Washing hair frequently, vigorously, or lathering up twice each time you wash your hair can also cause a scalp to flake.
  • Some medications, such as isotretinoin, can cause surface dryness.
  • Shampoos with strong detergent bases can dry out the scalp, as can fragrant plant extracts like peppermint or menthol. A mild, fragrance-free shampoo can help a lot!

What can you do? The cause determines your course of action. If the products you're using are causing problems, then stop using them! If you wash your hair every day, try to go to every other day or even every two days. If you simply must wash your hair frequently, don't lather more than once, and try to massage the scalp as little as possible. If the air conditioning or heat in your home is a problem, put a humidifier in your bedroom, which can help the skin all over your body as well as your scalp.

If the problem is dandruff, then you absolutely should consider an anti-dandruff shampoo, such as Head & Shoulders, which contains zinc pyrithione. If this doesn't work, there are other anti-dandruff shampoo treatments to consider, such as Nizoral (active ingredient ketoconazole) and Selsun Blue (active ingredient selenium sulfide). Those three products contain three of the best anti-dandruff ingredients available. Some dermatologists recommend rotating anti-dandruff shampoos with different active ingredients. That's because each active ingredient attacks a different pathway in the formation of dandruff, which explains why you may not see good results if you use only one anti-dandruff shampoo.

How do you know if you have dandruff or just a dry flaky scalp? The answer: Primarily by seeing what works. If using the anti-dandruff shampoos mentioned above alleviates the problem, you pretty much have dandruff. If you try the anti-dandruff shampoos and still are struggling with a dry scalp and flakes, then dandruff isn't the culprit. In that case, try massaging a small amount of moisturizer or gentle, fragrance-free conditioner into your scalp the night before you wash your hair. That can make a huge difference.

If you have a chronic skin condition that causes dry, flaky scalp (such as psoriasis or seborrheic dermatitis), it's worth visiting a dermatologist to see if there are any medical solutions that might work for you. Topical medicated products such as DermaZinc Cream ($24.95 for 4 fl. oz.) may help with flaking, too.

Itchy Scalp

A persistently itchy scalp can be a symptom of dandruff (discussed above), but if the itching isn't accompanied by flaking or scales, then the most likely cause is an allergic or irritant reaction to one or more of the ingredients in the hair-care products you're using.

The easiest solution? Switch products to see if the itching stops. In most cases, it will! By far the most common cause of scalp itching is fragrance, followed by fragrant plant extracts (including so-called “essential” oils) and then preservatives. Other ingredients that can cause itching include film-forming agents (such as PVP), coloring agents, and drying ingredients such as denatured alcohol and sodium lauryl sulfate (note that sodium laureth sulfate is fine).

A top tip for itchy scalp is to use a gentle, fragrance-free shampoo. Some of our favorites include:

Static Electricity

Static electricity can be fun (think of those winters when you rubbed your socks across the carpet to give someone a mild jolt), but not so much when it affects your hair. A standard hairstylist trick for dealing with static electricity is to spray a small amount of hair spray on your hairbrush when you are done styling and brush it through from top to bottom. This can prevent static electricity for most of the day.

Another option is to rub a dryer sheet (those you throw in the dryer to prevent your clothes from clinging) lightly over your hair. That seems strange, we know, but it really works, and chances are you have dryer sheets at home already.

Of course, static electricity can also be beautifully controlled with a tiny amount of styling cream, styling wax, pomade, or a silicone serum. It's truly difficult to find a bad styling product, so take your pick based on the type that appeals to you (keeping in mind that those with fine or thin hair should apply such products extra-sparingly, and preferably to the ends of the hair only). There's no need to go to a salon for these products, either; the options at the drugstore are excellent.

Breakouts Along the Hairline

Perhaps the most frustrating day-to-day hair problem is breakouts along the hairline. If you've been having this problem, you need to be sure the breakouts aren't being caused by the shampoo or conditioner you're using. Switch to a shampoo with no conditioning agents (such as protein, silicone, quaternium, or polyquaternium) or thickening agents (such as cetyl alcohol or stearyl alcohol), and use only the smallest amount of conditioner on the ends of your hair, not on your scalp. If you do this for a few days and the breakouts seem to start clearing up, you'll know you were using products that were too emollient for your scalp. Meanwhile, you can clear breakouts with a leave-on spot treatment that contains salicylic acid.

Perhaps an even bigger culprit than shampoos and conditioners is the styling products you use, especially hairsprays, gels, and waxes or pomades. Be sure your hairstyle isn't such that these styling products have prolonged contact with your skin. Styling products that are continually in contact with your skin are a sure way to encourage breakouts, as the film-forming ingredients are great pore cloggers!

It may be a good idea to shampoo before going to bed so you aren't sleeping with styling product–coated hair pressing into your forehead and temple area. In the morning, you can wet your hair in the shower, apply conditioner, and skip the shampoo.

As you've seen, many of the most common hair problems do have a solution, or at least a way to make them not as bad. First and foremost, check the products you're using and make sure they aren't the cause. Sometimes the simplest and most straightforward solution is the best! And, if you have a more chronic issue (like medically diagnosed skin conditions), consult a dermatologist, who might be able to point you in the right direction and eliminate at least some of your tress stress.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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