What’s Causing Flakes in Your Hair and How to Treat Them

When flakes appear in your hair, you may suspect it is dandruff, but there are actually several different reasons why they might appear.

This article will address what’s causing the flakes in your hair and when it’s important to see a healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment.

flakes in hair

Jay Zynism / Getty Images

Dry Skin

Usually, when flakes appear in your hair, it is because your scalp is dry and the flakes fall off onto your hair.

Skin conditions that can cause dryness and flaking in the scalp and hair include:

If the dryness is due to a skin condition, the flakes are heavier, and in some cases, itchy plaques on the scalp or powdery-type flakes may appear as well.


Treatments can include:

  • Shampoo that helps dandruff control
  • Tea tree oil
  • Tar shampoo
  • Topical steroids

If there is no change with an over-the-counter product, a healthcare provider can prescribe shampoos and ointments that will reduce the flakes.


Gel is a common product used to keep the hair in place. It can also cause flakes that can be mistaken for dandruff.

Gel is not known to be water soluble, and due to the ingredients mixed with other products in the hair, it hardens and flakes. This can leave a white substance on hair strands.


When using hair gel, try not to overuse other products as this can cause buildup. Make sure the hair is clean and wet enough to absorb the gel. Try not to touch the hair with your fingers after application.

Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is a skin condition that is known to cause yellow, white powdery, or crusty flakes on the scalp. It is a lifelong condition that can flare up on occasion, but it is relatively easy to manage.

People who have oily skin or psoriasis are prone to get seborrheic dermatitis as well. Symptoms of this condition also include flaky patches on the hairline, and when the scalp is scratched, the flakes can fall off onto the hair.


Treatment for seborrheic dermatitis includes prescription and over-the-counter products.

Some prescription options include:

  • Corticosteroids
  • Calcineurin inhibitors
  • Topical antifungals

Shampoos that reduce flaking can also help.

A healthcare provider can give you treatment options based on your condition.


When an individual has dandruff, it is due to too much oil on the scalp and the skin cells on the scalp tend to shed faster than usual. It can also be due to an overgrowth of yeast on the body.

Although dandruff is normal if mild, if it is excessive, it can be due to an underlying skin condition like eczema or psoriasis.

Other factors that can contribute to dandruff include:

  • Climate
  • Diseases that affect the nervous system
  • Weakened immune system


Many shampoos are available that can help reduce dandruff:

  • Zinc pyrithione in shampoo serves as an antibacterial agent.
  • Tar-based shampoos are known to slow down the skin cell growth on the scalp.
  • Salicylic acid helps reduce scaling on the scalp.

Other ingredients like selenium sulfide and Nizoral A-D have antifungal agents and help reduce dandruff-causing fungi.

If the over-the-counter shampoos do not work, a prescribed shampoo from a healthcare provider may be needed.

It is important to read the instructions and use these shampoos as directed. If you have any questions, contact your healthcare provider.


Psoriasis is a condition that causes thick scaly patches on the skin. This is due to rapid skin cell growth.

When a person has psoriasis, the skin cells develop within three to four days instead of the typical 28 to 30 days. This is due to an immune response in the body.

There are several types of psoriasis. The most common is plaque psoriasis; another common form is scalp psoriasis.

About 45% to 56% of people who have this condition have scalp psoriasis. It appears as scales on the scalp that look like crusty plaques. When scratched, the falloff from the scales and plaque can give the appearance of dandruff.


If the scalp psoriasis is mild, an over-the-counter shampoo with tar or salicylic acid can manage the symptoms. The tar is known to reduce inflammation, scaling, and itching, and the salicylic acid is known to remove the scales from the skin and soften the plaques.

If the condition is more extreme, medicated shampoos and phototherapy using a UV light is another option for treatment. Depending on the severity, a dermatologist would determine the best treatment for the condition.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

The determining factor on when to see a doctor depends on the condition and the severity of the flakes.

If there is consistent itching, plaques on the scalp, and the issue is not improving with over-the-counter medication, it is time to make an appointment with a healthcare provider. They can help you with your condition and/or refer you to a dermatologist so you can get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

A Word From Verywell

Having flakes in the hair is manageable. The first step is to understand the reason why you have the flakes. If you have a skin condition, your healthcare provider can help you with ways to manage the specific diagnosis.

If you have flakes and you find that over-the-counter products are not working, call a healthcare provider. They can help you find a treatment plan that fits your lifestyle needs so you can move forward with confidence and not worry about the flakes in your hair. There is always a solution.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you get rid of flakes in your hair?

    To get rid of flakes in your hair, you will have to figure out why they are there in the first place. If the flakes are dandruff caused by dryness and product buildup, a dandruff shampoo should help. If a specific skin condition is responsible for the flakes in your hair, a healthcare provider can help you with a treatment plan.

  • How do you get rid of flakes in your hair without washing it?

    One way to get rid of flakes in your hair without washing it is to use a fine-tooth comb to get them out. Massaging jojoba oil or coconut oil into the scalp may also help, but their effectiveness can vary between people.

  • What’s the best treatment for seborrheic dermatitis?

    The best treatment for seborrheic dermatitis depends on the severity of the condition. If it is mild, over-the-counter products can help. For more severe conditions, a healthcare provider may prescribe medications, including corticosteroids, calcineurin inhibitors, and antifungals. A dermatologist can create a specialized treatment plan that may include dandruff shampoo, topically-applied medicine, and barrier-repair cream.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cleveland Clinic. Do you have an itchy scalp? 5 common problems and fixes.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Seborrheic dermatitis.

  3. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Seborrheic dermatitis: diagnosis and treatment.

  4. National Psoriasis Foundation. Scalp psoriasis.

  5. American Academy of Dermatology Association (AADA). Seborrheic Dermatitis: Diagnosis and Treatment.

By Yvelette Stines
Yvelette Stines, MS, MEd, is an author, writer, and communications specialist specializing in health and wellness.