There was a time when eczema was a skin concern that elicited embarrassment. However, as the conversations around the condition became more common, the uneasiness began to fade. Today, there are a plethora of products designed to soothe and treat the inflamed skin on arms and legs. But the reality is that eczema is just as common on the scalp as it is on the rest of your body. And for those with textured hair, the symptoms have a different effect. “On darker skin, the inflamed areas appear more violet than red and become harder to detect,” says Chuck Hezekiah, scalp and haircare expert and educator at René Furterer. Learning how to treat a dry scalp with natural hair can make all the difference when it comes to seborrheic dermatitis — a chronic form of eczema most commonly found on the scalp and in the hairline.
According to a scientific study by the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, seborrheic dermatitis presents differently in individuals with skin of color. Instead of redness, the most common symptoms are scaly petal-like patches that cause flakiness, itching, and irritation. Calming this form of scalp eczema means developing a thorough routine targeting its symptoms. While switching out your shampoo will help, adjusting your full wash day lineup is ideal. But just how do you treat an area you can’t see?
Ahead, TZR spoke with trichologists and scalp experts for insight on creating a regimen that effectively treats dryness and the habits that could be making your seborrheic dermatitis worse.
What Causes Seborrheic Dermatitis?
Seborrheic dermatitis is a form of eczema. But unlike the rough patches on your arms and legs, this type affects excessively oily areas. “Though the skin condition can occur in other areas, such as the face, upper chest, and back, it mainly affects the scalp,” says Hezekiah. In pigmented skin, seborrheic dermatitis is characterized by scaly patches and discoloration. Although it occurs on sebum-producing skin, dryness and flaking are among its most notable symptoms. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what causes seborrheic dermatitis, but according to the National Eczema Association the likely source is an overgrowth of Malassezia yeast— a substance naturally found in the skin.
So, what does this mean for your scalp? According to trichologist and hairstylist Shab Caspara, the condition is usually triggered by improper scalp hygiene. She explains that buildup from products and natural oils causes itching and irritation. While a little buildup is normal, an accumulation can exasperate the issue. “This can result in flaking, dandruff, and irritated scabs on the scalp’s surface,” she says.
Treating Seborrheic Dermatitis When You Have Natural Hair
Changing up your hair care regimen can feel laborious, especially for naturals, but it is the key to mollifying the discomfort. Prioritizing scalp care is also essential and begins in the shower before you wash your hair. “Start by choosing a shampoo that gently and sufficiently cleanses the scalp,” says Caspara. This, she notes, reduces the risk of scalp imbalance and helps prevent buildup. A clarifying shampoo is ideal for deep cleansing, but it’s important to opt for products that won’t completely strip the moisture from your strands. She recommends looking for shampoos such as Biotera’s Ultra Moisturizing Shampoo, that work to balance and calm the scalp while sufficiently cleansing the skin’s microbiome.
How often you wash also plays a role in calming the symptoms. “Infrequent or aggressive shampooing can contribute to the buildup of oils and scales and make things worse,” says Hezekiah. Though it can be tempting when your scalp feels particularly itchy, Caspara says that it’s best to limit washing your hair to once a week or every other week.
Incorporate Scalp-Specific Products
Despite scalp care becoming a hot topic in the natural hair community, it’s still a commonly neglected area. Yes, washing your curls involves shampoos and conditioners, but your scalp will benefit from products designed specifically for it. Natural hair tends to need more moisture, especially at the scalp level. “After cleansing, you’ll need to replenish and condition the scalp,” says Whitney White, hairstylist and founder of Melanin Haircare.
While an oil may sound beneficial, it can exacerbate seborrheic dermatitis and worsen its symptoms. One study actually showed that certain oils can be counterproductive as they can encourage an overgrowth of Malassezia yeast. Castor and olive oils are known to have moisturizing benefits for dry hair. But when it comes to your scalp, it’s best to reach for a scalp serum that will hydrate and condition the area. If you do choose to use an oil, White recommends opting for a lightweight blend that absorbs quickly and won’t cause buildup.
Limit The Use Of Styling Products
Gels, edge controls, and curl creams are common products for styling natural hair. While they expertly slick down rogue curls, they can exaggerate seborrheic dermatitis. “These kinds of products can be hard to remove with gentle shampoos. Limiting how often you use them can be helpful in the long run,” says Caspara. As she explains, inflammation on the scalp is often caused by blocked follicle openings. “Scalp-clogging products can slowly build up, resulting in the overproduction of sebum and leading to seborrheic dermatitis over time,” she says.
Assessing the make up of your favorite styling products also goes a long way. “Many items have ingredients that can irritate the scalp,” notes Hezekiah. He recommends using products containing ingredients known to treat microbial issues and scalp dryness— think tea tree oil, Asteraceae extract, and other antifungal agents.
Although it is just as common as eczema, Caspara tells TZR that seborrheic dermatitis is often overlooked and mislabeled. “While it is a medical issue, most people can find relief in creating a hair-washing routine that prioritizes quality,” she says. With a few simple adjustments, you can manage the symptoms and maintain a healthy scalp that will lessen the chances of a flareup.