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Gentle Care for Winter Scalps

Gentle Care for Winter Scalps

By Amalah

Hey Amy,

Please forgive me if this is a repeat question – I’ve checked out the archives, but nothing I’ve found is quite specific enough. My son is 5, and suffers from mild but pretty constant eczema on his hands (typically red and dry) with flare-ups elsewhere when he comes into contact with something he shouldn’t. My question is actually about his dry, dry, dry scalp. We try to use natural products as much as possible, but as far as shampoo goes, many of them (I’m looking at you, Burt’s Bees!) seem to dry his scalp out further. His dad suffers from dry scalp as well, but I mention the eczema because I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s all one and the same. I’m hoping that you might have some product or lifestyle advice to help us out.

Thank you!!

So there’s the advice I would give you for run-of-the-mill dry, itchy scalp…and then there’s the advice I would give you for eczema break-outs on the scalp. Eczema and a little dandruff are not the same thing, so I guess my first and top-level advice would be to take your son to a dermatologist and find out exactly what you’re dealing with, under his hair.

If it’s eczema, you may want to learn how to apply a wet dressing to his head (using a bandana) to keep his scalp cool and moisturized, and a dermatologist can also give you tips on what to do if your son’s scratching leads to an infection. He/she may also recommend keeping cortisone cream on-hand for those flare-ups you describe, even if they’re mild. (Eczema can either be one of those things that your child outgrows — Noah did — or suddenly take a giant leap into severe for no specific reason.)

In my experience, some dermatologists aren’t exactly the best resource for natural product recommendations and you might balk at the commercial, chemical-laden shampoo brands you’re told to use. If that happens, head back to the baby shampoo aisle and look for things formulated for cradle cap, eczema and/or super-sensitive scalps. Here’s one for babies and small children by Exederm — note that I have never used it, but I know it is 1) super popular and 2) super-free of all kinds of garbage.

If you’re now sorry you even brought up the eczema possibility and think that no, the scalp problem isn’t anything that serious, good news! I can offer several more recommendations that we have actually used ourselves. Like you, I have a husband with dry scalp and after years of using Nizoral a couple times a week, he now keeps things under control using natural products 99.9% of the time. He uses a tea tree oil shampoo by JASON and it’s awesome. I’ve been using it once a week or so this winter too, since the dry air and hot showers have left me a little itchy and uncomfortable. (We also use it on the boys occasionally, since tea tree oil is also a natural treatment/repellent for head lice. [Shudder.] So far it’s done a great job at 1) sparing us the necessity of going nuclear with RID every time it happens, and 2) keeping the bugs from spreading beyond the Child Who Is Bringing Them Home From School Because I Swear It’s Not Our Fault.)

Note that this is NOT a baby/tear-free shampoo, so your son will need to cooperate during bathtime to avoid getting it in his eyes.

For tear-free options, go with Weleda Baby Calendula Shampoo or California Baby Calendula Shampoo. (Both double as body washes too.) Calendula is a great ingredient for super-sensitive and easily-irritated skin, and for skin prone to eczema and rashes. (The JASON Tea Tree Oil Shampoo contains it as well, plus chamomile.) I think most natural kids/baby skincare lines make their own version of a calendula shampoo — these are just the brands I’ve personally used and would recommend, but if you can’t find them near you or have another brand you like (or one that’s cheaper) that has a calendula formula, go for it.

Remember, no matter WHAT you’re dealing with, eczema or plain ol’ dry scalp, to NOT wash his hair any more often than you absolutely need to. (Same with baths in general, especially in winter.) Even if you’re using the best shampoo/body wash in the world, the scrubbing and exposure to hot water will dry his skin out. I know it sounds disgusting, but seriously: Bathe your child when he’s dirty, and lotion him up good afterwards.

You also want to keep his head from overheating — which ALSO goes against every bit of advice you’ll get from old ladies at the playground, but be careful about overdressing him and insisting on heavy winter hats on days when he might not actually need one. If his hair looks sweaty after coming in from the playground, he was probably better off without the hat. Get him some earmuffs instead, but let his scalp breathe. Sweaty hot skin is more likely to turn into dried-out irritated skin.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Published February 6, 2012. Last updated January 16, 2017.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Hillary

    February 6, 2012 at 11:39 am

    I have mild dermatitis and get an itchy scalp in the winter. I’ve fallen in love with the Bumble and Bumble tonic spray (I dilute it make it last longer). I love the tingling feeling on my scalp after a shower, and it drastically reduces itching.
    I see it has tea tree oil, which makes me wonder if I could just spray dilute TTO on my scalp instead? Hm…

  • Wiley

    February 6, 2012 at 11:40 am

    Another product option that might work for you is to use tea tea oil shampoo. My older son has skin issues (eczema and psoriasis) and switching him to tea tree oil shampoo cleared up his scalp oatmeal, as I liked to describe it, really well.

    And as an added bonus, it serves as a deterrent to lice!

  • Wiley

    February 6, 2012 at 11:43 am

    Oops, I somehow skipped over the tea tree oil paragraph and just saw the Calendula one!
    Oh and the tea tree oil most definitely is NOT tear-free, but our son has been using it since early two with no issues.

  • Ang

    February 6, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    I recently read that CA Baby has reformulated some of their products. This seems to have objective information regarding the reformulation:

  • HereWeGoAJen

    February 6, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    My daughter had a bunch of eczema problems that went completely away when I stopped using shampoo and conditioner on her all together. I just wash her hair with water and it works perfectly. Her hair isn’t gross, I promise. And no more eczema!

  • Elizabeth

    February 6, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    I know this is going to sound impossible if you’ve never tried it, but I wash my hair with conditioner – no shampoo at all. I got the technique originally from the book Curly Girl by Loraine Massey. I started out trying it on myself, because I have the greasiest frizzy hair ever and there was no way it was going to work. It took a good couple of weeks, but my hair settled in and now I have pretty, glossy curls! So I started using just conditioner on my daughter with curly hair, and it was fabulous. After a while it started to seem stupid to be dousing my other daughter (who, incidentally, had wicked cradle cap as a baby) in unnecessary sulfates just because she has straight hair, and lo and behold it works on her too! None of this will do you any good if you’re dealing with eczema, of course, but if it’s just dry skin it really might help. We use Jason conditioner. I’m sure you can find descriptions of the technique all over the web.

  • Jess

    February 7, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    Gotta second the Weleda Baby Calendula Shampoo/bodywash. I’ve been using it for my son since he was born (I also try to only use natural products) and this stuff is amazing. He has really sensitive, dry skin, especially during our extremely dry, cold Minnesota winters, and it doesn’t dry out his hair and skin. Plus it’s very gentle and completely tear-free.

    Another idea is getting pure shea butter or coconut oil and using it as lotion (even on his scalp). It’s the only thing that keeps my son from getting super itchy, red areas on his body in the winter.

    The absolute best lotion I’ve found for my son is this stuff from Etsy. I smear it all over his body after every bath and it has made SUCH a huge difference with his eczema. Good luck!

  • Meg

    February 8, 2012 at 11:03 am

    Baking soda and apple cider vinegar worked for me. Make a kind of water/baking soda slurry and massage in, then rinse off completely. “Condition” with a weak dilution of vinegar in water, and massage in/rinse out.

    When his hair dries the vinegar scent goes away, and this method removes excess oil and redistributes the “clean” oil without stripping the hair and scalp like shampoos do,

  • wendy

    February 12, 2012 at 1:26 am

    i’m a huge proponent of minimizing the number of baths, for all little ones. Besides helping their skin stay healthy, i love that i don’t have this chunk of time devoted to a mostly unnecessary function everyday. We did the “hardly ever” timing with our older daughter (now 12) because of excema and have continued it with our 2nd child (now 2.5) .. the one who won’t wear socks, so she gets dirt rings around her feet (we have wood floors). i just shrug and wait another week before tossing her in the tub. besides, her super whispy hair behaves so nicely after it’s gotten greasy and the cowlicks have set in, creating wonderful waves and curls.
    My 12 yr old has mostly outgrown the excema, but we’re still mindful what she uses for bathing; which now happens every other day due.

  • Meri

    February 13, 2012 at 3:23 am

    I am allergic to the calendula in CB products, makes my hands swell up something awful. My dermatologist suggested Free and Clear shampoo and conditioner. They’re not organic, but they’ve got a lot fewer allergens than any of the products I could find at my local organic/natural store and they list all the ingredients, including fragrances. It’s apparently not required. Makes it hard to shop if you have allergies.

  • Erin

    November 23, 2014 at 7:02 pm

    Just found this searching for info for my lo’s dry scalp. She also has eczema and we found through trial and error and paediatrician suggestion that bathing her everyday, but sealing her skin with emollient within minutes of exiting the water helped the most. We tried limiting baths first but found that letting her skin soak up the water then sealing it in worked the best. Worth a try for anyone else struggling.

  • Jennifer

    February 29, 2016 at 8:57 pm

    Try giving your son a daily probiotic. Get the good stuff too.

  • KammiSupermom

    March 13, 2016 at 7:18 am

    For eczema use dove sensitive bath soap & Eucerin body lotion after bath time. My daughter has dry scalp also & I use creme of nature which is sulfur free & that helps with the dry scalp plus I use natural hair grease.