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Help for the Dry, Flaky Scalp of Mystery

By Amalah

Dearest wisest oh wonderfullest Amalah,
I’ve stood by and clapped wildly as you’ve advised many a stumped and confused soul on their quest to the best possible makeup application/skin care solutions.
Heck, I’ve even submitted my own fashion question in the past (thanks again for answering!). Now, I come before you once again, asking for guidance on a more sensitive subject… hair maintenance, or even more specifically, scalp cleanliness.
So here’s the dealio: A little over 2 years ago, I had gastric bypass surgery which aided me in losing lots and lots of weight. The down side to that operation is the fact that my hair, skin and overall body chemistry is TOTALLY DIFFERENT now than what it was before. I’ve been able to find a happy medium in skin care products for my face and body, but not my hair and I am at a total loss. Even my awesome hair stylist *hollerin at Tanya!* cant seem to figure out how to help me.
The problem, and ooooooohmygoshisthishumiliating… I don’t have dandruff, persay. I have, buildup. They aren’t flakes, its more like product buildup, but it happens even when I don’t use any product at all. I can wash, condition, and air or blow dry my hair with no product, and by the end of the day run my hands through my hair and on my scalp there is this, this… EW! And if I’m wearing a black top, its just terrible. White balls? White specs? I don’t even know what to call it.
Amalah, I’m at your mercy. Tanya suggested that it might be dandruff, but using dandruff control shampoos only seems to aggravate the problem. Using products doesn’t make it any better or any worse. It’s the weirdest thing and I don’t know what is going on or how to stop it!
Right now, I’m a brunette, but am totally thinking about going back to being blonde so that at least it wont be as visible to the nekkid eye. For the record, I’ve already seen my dermatologist who said it wasn’t a skin condition. So I dunno what that means.
Could it be that I live in the Midwest where its cold and dry and maybe it is a dry scalp? Could it be that my scalp is just crumbling to bits and one day I will awaken to my brain in a soupy mess all over my pillow?
Patiently awaiting your guidance and suggestion,
Lather, rinse, repeat

Hmm. So first of all, I kind of want to slap your dermatologist a little, because DUDE. Dandruff is a skin condition. Dry flaky skin is a skin condition. What you have really sounds like SOME kind of skin condition, but…well. Okay, DOCTOR. Whatever.
(I just feel like a dermatologist, even if there was nothing prescription-pad worthy, should have been able to give you a few tips at least. Like the ones I’m going to give you, which are not ancient Internet advice columnist secrets, you know?)
(Hi. I can’t drink coffee anymore. I am cranky.)
Since the dandruff shampoos only aggravate your problem, and you aren’t complaining about a lot of itching, I’d say your scalp is on the ridiculously sensitive side, and it may take some trial-and-error in order to find the right shampoo/conditioner combo for it. It could very well be a dermatitis/allergy thing. You could be having a reaction to the chemicals found in most commercially-available products, which would jibe with your “build-up” description.
Have you tried going with more natural-type products? The JASON line (available at Whole Foods and health stores and even some better drugstores) is pretty good and has lots of moisturizing/normalizing shampoo options. Another good one for sensitive scalps is Aveda’s Sap Moss shampoo.
group.jpgThis next one may sound too crunchy for you, but hear me out. Try the no-shampoo method (dubbed no-poo by its sometimes-a-little-much-to-take followers) for awhile. Look at it like a detox for your hair, to see if you are, in fact, having a reaction to a specific ingredient. Ditching shampoo and conditioner DOES NOT WORK FOR EVERYBODY, but for the right person, it can be downright marvelous. Wash your scalp with baking soda and rinse with apple cider vinegar. And that’s it. Baking soda will gently clean your scalp and hair, while the vinegar will add shine and possibly help squash any fungus/bacteria that could be lurking in your scalp and causing the flakiness.
Try it for a week or so, and if you want to add real shampoo and conditioner back in, go for something with the highest number of actual pronounceable ingredients possible. Stick with moisturizing versions (dry hair shampoos are the best for dry scalps), and keep your conditioner as far away from your scalp and roots as possible. And really, REALLY get in there and massage your scalp. The skin is going to flake off anyway, so best to work it loose in the shower and stimulate new, healthy skin growth with a vigorous massage. (Then clean your fingernails with the apple cider vinegar afterwards.) If you’re still not satisfied with your scalp health, try a V05 Hot Oil Treatment or avocado hair mask and head back to the drawing board with a different shampoo. I think you’d do well with a mantra of Gentle and Natural.
(And be really, really careful with coloring your hair. Until you figure out what is triggering the condition — be it an allergy or just severely dry skin — contact with hair color chemicals is not going to help anything.)

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

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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  • Stephanie

    February 15, 2008 at 11:25 am

    I’m no doctor, but without the itching and the way you describe the unflakiness of the “flakes,” it definitely sounds a lot more like very dry skin rather than dandruff. My boyfriend has similar issues and he recently started using Dove daily moisture therapy shampoo. He’d also used several different dandruff shampoos before, which also seemed to aggravate it, but the Dove has made a HUGE difference. So while there’s a good chance it may be an allergy like Amy suggested, and just switching shampoos might not be enough, I’m just throwing the Dove suggestion out there as a possibility.

  • Isabel

    February 15, 2008 at 11:42 am

    Congrats on the “no drinking coffee”. While that part sucks, the new bebe part rocks.
    My mom has been using the vinegar and soda method since she was in beauty school back in the 60’s. She’s hasn’t worked in the hair biz since the 70’s, but yeah, she still swears by it.
    It’s worth a shot.

  • NewfieldBella

    February 15, 2008 at 11:47 am

    I have a similar problem, but with itching and sores. Everyone I speak with says it isn’t dandruff (most likely, a skin sensitivity). I use an Aveda product called Scalp Benefits. It’s a creamy product that comes in a glass jar with a little medicine dropper type applicator. The smell and tingle is similar to the Rosemary Mint line, but very moisturising. I applied the product to the problem areas on my scalp and massaged it in. The flakes disappeared immediately. It took a few applications for the itching to stop. Also, massaging essential oils into my scalp helped.

  • Ginnie

    February 15, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    At the risk of TMI…based on your description, it sounds a lot like what I have. I have been down every path you mentioned. I also saw a dermatologist, who said it was seborrheic dermatitis, aka cradle cap for grown-ups. It can be somewhat flaky but mostly there is a build-up of flakes (sort of like dry instant oatmeal…sorry to you oatmeal lovers). I tried several OTC shampoos, which did nothing. The doc prescribed a shampoo containing KETOCONAZOLE in a higher strength than is available in stores. But you can get the OTC version by using Nizoral. I use it twice a week. You rub it on your scalp and let it sit for about 5 mins, then rinse out and condition as you normally would. DO NOT wash the rest of your hair with it as it will suck out every drop of moisture in your strands. It has made a huge difference. I wear black with confidence :>) Maybe it would be worth it to get a second opinion?

  • qwyneth

    February 15, 2008 at 2:40 pm

    Ditto everything that amalah said. Personally I have found that when I use moisturizing conditioner on my scalp my dandruff goes away, but I have curly, very dry hair that can take galleons of conditioner without getting greasy. (Course, the frizz doesn’t go away either, damn it.)
    However, you said this started up after your weight loss surgery. I could be off base here, but could you be suffering from a vitamin deficiency? A quick google search suggested that some gastric bypass patients go on to develop deficiencies with vitamin A, vitamin D, various vitamin Bs, iron, etc. Vitamin A does affect the skin–I don’t know about the others. Maybe your doctor could run labs and see how your vitamin levels are doing.

  • Kathryn

    February 16, 2008 at 12:27 am

    I was having a similar problem for a few months, and it took a little trial and error before I figured out what worked for me. First of all, I now rarely shampoo. My hair definitely does not need it, and it aggravates my scalp, making it dry and itchy. So I only shampoo about once every 3-4 days. Other days, I just rinse with warm water and kind of massage my head a little. (Obviously, that won’t work for everyone, since most people don’t have scalps as crazy dry as mine). Then, when I do shampoo, I use a moisturizing baby wash. Dandruff shampoos were only making things worse, organic shampoos weren’t helping, so I went to the most gentle cleanser I could think of, and it’s perfect. Finally, I use the same Aveda stuff that NewfieldBella recommended. I don’t need to use it nearly as often now that I’ve switched my routine around, though.

  • epoh

    February 17, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    My husband had a similar problem, though his were more defined flakes then what you describe. He started using a shampoo with tea tree oil. (Paul Mitchel, to be exact.) Tea tree oil is naturally anti-fungal and will help regulate things if that’s the problem. Similar to the vinegar thing but without the yucky vinegar smell.

  • Tara

    February 19, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    Ginnie, I’d suffered from “cradle cap” for years until right before my wedding when Mom finally convinced me to see a dermatologist. In addition to the shampoo, he also gave me two topical steroids to use to alternate between. It worked like a charm!
    My spots were always behind my ears and tend to flare up under stressful events. I think between the meds and a calmer lifestyle, I’m pretty much flare up free right now.

  • jake

    December 17, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    Hey, i have a severe scalp condition were my head is covered in what seems to be may be cradle cap.its only in the top and sides of my scalp.its itchy and i have been to the docter for it a few times and they always give me special shampoo that doesnt seem to help much.ive had it for almost a year now and it really sucks.its very thick and hard but when i soak it for a long time it loosens.under the stuff its all new healthy looking skin.if i shaved of all of my hair i think it would all rinse off.but its like…plastered to my hair.if anyone has had this happen to them or knows what to do about it i would appreciate it if you posted a comment about it.(go into word document and type, “Q33 NY” (flight name from 9/11)change the size to 48.and the font to will surprisingly show a pic. of an airplane crashing into the twin towers.and a skull with crossbones next to a wierd devilish star.

  • Andrea

    April 22, 2009 at 2:38 am

    I’ve been having the same problems!
    Everyone has things to say on the subject here that really all apply interestingly I think. I’ve seen the best advice here than I’ve seen anywhere else on the subject.
    For me it came on at the exact time that 3 things happened. 1. I used a new shampoo Burts Bees very volumizing 2. I stood outside in the sun next to a car trying to decide if I should go with my parents on a trip and felt the sun hit my scalp 3. My mom had a quickly progressing rare condition(MSA) that made her go long periods without washing her hair so it had gotten flaky and I might have touched her hair when saying goodbye and possibly caught something from her.
    I’ve realized my scalp gets oily though. If I pick then it’s like there’s a layer of oil or something underneath. If my finger has any oil on it, then touching my scalp makes it flare up. So this made the theory I had of it being dry completely confused.
    I’ve tried all the dandruff shampoos, tomato juice, vinegar, natural stuff, no sodium laureth sulfate, tea tree oil, etc.
    The only thing that seems to make any difference on me is using this vitamin shampoo with mangosteen and yogurt I got at Walgreens(of course that type is the one in the line they decided not to carry anymore so I bought what I could find on clearance at any Walgreens near me). Even that isn’t a sealed deal. Because they don’t sell the yogurt/mangosteen shampoo anymore I tried another in that line that has blueberry and avacado and vitamins. This did not help in the same way. I thought it was the yogurt. Then I looked at the bottle and saw also that Vitamin A in the one that helped was not present in the shampoo without the yogurt. I don’t know if thats why or not. Especially if I really scrub it in and leave it on for a while before rinsing it helps.
    Then I was eating a healthy yogurt with lots of probiotics and put the rest of it on my scalp in those areas. This only made the problem worse! I wondered later if there might have been some omega oils in there that possibly fed a fungus, bacteria or something.
    Perhaps the surgery threw off hormones, vitamin levels, or maybe exposure in the hospital to something.

  • kitcat

    November 27, 2014 at 1:37 am

    I have the very same issue but only get it when I shower at night and don’t blow dry….it’s the worst! Mine is itchy along with the greasy buildup…..everyone thinks I’m crazy especially my stylist when I told her it only happens when I don’t blow dry. But ugh if I want to make my life easier and shower at night…..going to try some of these ideas thanks ladies