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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

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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