Developing an inflamed, flaky scalp is not only embarrassing, but it can also be extremely uncomfortable. Nobody wants to deal with persistent scalp redness and flaking—or the extreme itching that often accompanies it.
Unfortunately, treating an itchy and flaky scalp is not as simple as it may seem. There are multiple problems that could cause scalp flaking, including dandruff and scalp psoriasis. These two conditions present similar symptoms, but they have drastically different underlying causes and must be treated differently.
If you’ve recently been plagued with scalp inflammation or flaking, here’s what you should know to determine what problem is causing your discomfort.
One of the most common problems that plagues people’s scalps is dandruff—small flakes of skin, accompanied by itching and some redness.
There are a lot of things that people believe to be dandruff. However, true dandruff is caused by a problem called seborrheic dermatitis. This is an imbalance or overgrowth of the yeasts that naturally live on the skin. These yeasts feed on the oils your scalp produces and create by-products that lead to irritation.
The flakiness that results from dandruff is caused by the rapid death and flaking of your skin cells. Typically, these flakes will be white or yellow in color and will appear oily. Your scalp may become slightly irritated and red all over, and you might experience significant itching and a minor burning feeling. Additionally, your hair and scalp might feel oily.
Overall, dandruff is not a dangerous condition. It may be uncomfortable and a little embarrassing, but it cannot be transmitted to other people and it won’t harm your health.
Other problems that you might mistake for dandruff are dryness of the scalp, which causes dry flakes and minor itching, or skin sensitivity to a hair product, which might cause dryness, flakiness, irritation and a burning sensation.
Psoriasis of the scalp, on the other hand, presents somewhat similar symptoms to dandruff. It can cause flaking of the skin, redness, itchiness and some burning or pain. However, the way psoriasis actually looks on the scalp can help you differentiate it from dandruff.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition that affects the way your skin cells grow and die. If you have psoriasis, your skin cells grow and die faster than normal, causing build-up on the skin’s surface.
Psoriasis typically appears as dry, flaky and scaly patches. These patches are usually thick, raised and well defined in shape, and they may have a silver sheen to them. The skin surrounding the patches may appear red or inflamed.
When psoriasis of the scalp occurs, it might be slightly harder for you to notice right away because your hair covers the dry patches. However, as skin cells flake off, you might notice dandruff-like flakes in your hair that look small and white. Sometimes, the dry patches can crack, causing bleeding and pain.
Psoriasis does not solely affect the scalp. It can also cause scaly patches of skin in other areas of the body, including the elbows, knees and hands. It may also be associated with symptoms of arthritis.
Scalp psoriasis may come and go over time. Some triggers, such as stress, infections or medications, may cause a sudden flare-up or worsening of the condition. However, it is a chronic condition that you might have to battle for the rest of your life.
Identifying and treating your scalp problem
If you have thick hair or a lot of hair, it might be difficult to determine what your scalp looks like. Parting your hair into sections may help you get a closer look at your scalp to see whether you have the raised, silvery patches of psoriasis or the redness and yellow flakes of dandruff.
However, you might not always be able to tell on your own. In this case, you might want to start with an at-home or over-the-counter treatment to see if that helps solve the flakiness. Dandruff typically improves after washing with an anti-dandruff shampoo, but psoriasis doesn’t. This is one of the easiest ways to determine what kind of scalp problem you’re experiencing.
If you use anti-dandruff shampoo and your flakiness problem persists, you will want to visit a dermatologist to have them examine your scalp and reach a diagnosis. You might have a severe form of dandruff that requires more intense prescription shampoos, or you may have psoriasis, which has its own treatments. Some psoriasis flare-ups can be managed with at-home treatments like tea tree oil, while more severe cases may require medications or prescription topical treatments. Whatever the case, working with a professional will put you on the path to rectifying your scalp irritation and flakiness for healthier skin.