It’s that dry time of year when the need for scalp massage and skin care increases exponentially. The colder and windier it gets, the dryer the air becomes, and the more moisture gets sucked out of your skin, including the skin of your scalp.
Skin is our first line of defense and the body’s largest organ. We know that dry skin makes you itchy, but when your sensitive scalp is affected, it can feel like a nuisance if all that scratching leads to hair loss and painful cracks or wounds on the skin. Dandruff, dry scalp, and other skin issues can come from a lack of natural oils on your head.
Stimulating the scalp and hydrating the body will nourish you, but why is it that the skin of our head is more susceptible to shedding?
What Makes Scalp Skin Different from Body Skin?
All skin is made up of 3 layers:
- The outermost layer is the epidermis.
- The middle layer is the dermis.
- The undermost layer is the hypodermis.
Although the scalp skin is more delicate, it is interestingly thicker than your body’s skin. It contains more blood vessels, hair follicles, and sebaceous (or oily) glands.
To maintain your skin’s hydration, it naturally lets water pass from the middle skin layer to the outermost layer. Your scalp counts on the secretions of the oil glands to keep the skin of your head hydrated. The sebum (oil) naturally lubricates your hair fibers, protecting your scalp from water loss and environmental aggressors like pollution and harsh climates.
However, due to the number of oil glands attached to hair follicles in the scalp skin, it is easy to build up debris at the hair root. It’s possible to have too much or too little sebum on the scalp and dandruff is a symptom of both over- and under-production of scalp oil.
Dandruff And Scalp Massage
Dandruff occurs when dead skin cell shedding of the scalp speeds up; faster shedding creates dead skin (dandruff).
This can be a chronic condition that tends to go away and return over time. The cause of accelerated skin shedding could be skin sensitivity, fungal infection, or excessive sebum production.
There are 2 types of dandruff: dry and wet.
Dandruff flakes that are smaller and whiter are due to a dry scalp.
A dry scalp presents an irritated, itchy, and slightly pink scalp with powdery white flakes resulting from prematurely shed skin cells. These small flakes are considered ‘dry’ dandruff and are related to insufficient moisture.
A weak skin barrier on the scalp, which causes an underproduction of oil, can be the result of the following:
- Not drinking enough water,
- Harsh climate / dry air,
- Styling product buildup,
- Over-washing or skin sensitivity to chemicals in used products,
- Skin conditions,
- Pollution and UV exposure.
The signs of a damaged skin barrier include hair dryness and dullness, hair loss and thinning, scalp redness, hypersensitivity, and itchiness.
Flakes that are larger or thicker with a yellow tint indicate an oily scalp.
Although sebum keeps hair healthy and smooth and prevents it from drying out and breaking, too much oil production on the scalp can cause bacteria to get trapped in the extra sebum, clogging the hair follicles and producing fatty acids that cause itching and swelling, and results in scalp tightness and shedding.
Common causes for oily hair are:
- Heredity problems,
- Unhealthy eating habits,
- Certain medications,
- Improper scalp and hair care,
- Hair texture,
- The changing of seasons,
- Hormonal fluctuations,
- Extended periods of stress,
- Overgrowth of naturally-occurring scalp yeast.
Sometimes, severe dandruff can indicate an underlying scalp skin condition due to a fungal infection.
What Causes Extreme Dandruff?
Seborrheic dermatitis, or inflammation of oil-producing skin, is a common and chronic form of eczema (a rash) usually caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
The inflammatory reaction gets triggered by an overgrowth of Malessezia yeast, an organism that naturally lives on the skin’s surface.
An overgrowth of yeast leads to a non-contagious fungal infection that results in skin changes that can present as tight, itchy, greasy, flaky, crusty, irritable, and red or orange scalp skin.
This overgrowth can also occur on other parts of the body that have a lot of oil-producing glands, such as the eyebrows, around the nose, chin, upper back, ears, and center of the chest.
Common triggers include:
- Hormonal changes
- Illness or fatigue
- Exposure to harsh detergents, solvents, chemicals, and soaps
- Cold, dry weather, or a difference in the season
- Certain medications and steroids
- Certain medical conditions
There are treatments to manage the symptoms and stop seborrheic dermatitis flare-ups in the future. These typically include prescription anti-fungal shampoos, non-prescription dandruff shampoos designed for sensitive skin, performing stress relief techniques, getting more rest, and staying hydrated.
Massage of the scalp, professionally or on your own, is a great and simple addition to your self-care routine. This practice is especially so if you’re prone to dry skin or experience stress daily.
Take a few minutes to stimulate your scalp skin by running your fingers through your hair (if applicable) and anchoring your fingertips onto your scalp, moving and stretching the skin of your head with circular strokes. You can re-anchor on different grooves of your skull and continue the C-strokes while you read the benefits of massaging your scalp.
Scalp Massage Benefits
- Strengthens the hair roots
- The gentle circular motions and firm pressure on the scalp help to stretch the hair follicles.
- Increases blood flow and circulation
- As the fibers stretch and relax, blood surges into the area and delivers nutrients into the hair roots.
- Exfoliates the scalp
- By disturbing dandruff, the hair roots are cleared of debris, making it easier to rinse and cleanse the skin after shampooing.
- Decreases stress hormones
- Rhythmic manual stimulation slowly activates the vagus nerve, reducing the cortisol levels in our body.
- Promotes serotonin production
- Since 90% of serotonin is found in the cells lining the gastrointestinal tract and part of the vagus nerve function includes modulating our gut health and digestion, activating this nerve allows the serotonin to be released into our circulation and absorbed by platelets.
Protecting your scalp protects your skin and your hair, and your self-esteem. These few minutes of self-focus throughout the day tremendously benefit physical and mental support, providing a brief escape and a quick reset. Be nice to your noggin!
Lex Alvarado contributed this blog:
Lex Alvarado has over 14 years of experience working with patients, collaborating care to improve pain and posture. She is certified in Active Release Technique (ART) and neuromuscular massage (CNMT) and is a Board certified massage therapist (CAMTC). She is currently on the rehab. team at Irvine Spine and Wellness Center and can be reached here.