What Causes Dry Hair?

Conditions list medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA

Dry hair develops when your hair doesn’t get or retain enough moisture. This reduces its sheen and can make it appear frizzy, lifeless, and dull. Dry hair can affect men and women of any age, but you’re more likely to develop it as you get older.... Read More

What is dry hair?

Dry hair develops when your hair doesn’t get or retain enough moisture. This reduces its sheen and can make it appear frizzy, lifeless, and dull. Dry hair can affect men and women of any age, but you’re more likely to develop it as you get older.

Your hair consists of three layers. If your hair is healthy, natural oils in the outer layer help protect the inner layers. They also reflect light, making your hair appear shiny. Sheen and luster are two important signs of healthy hair.

When your hair is dry, the outer layer breaks down, causing it to appear dull and unhealthy.

Causes of dry hair

A variety of factors can lead to dry hair, including environmental conditions, hair care habits, and your physical health.

Some of the environmental conditions that can cause dry hair include:

  • living in a dry, hot climate
  • spending a lot of time in the sun or wind
  • frequently swimming in chlorinated or salty water

Hair care practices that often contribute to dry hair include:

  • washing your hair too often
  • using harsh shampoos, conditioners, or styling products
  • dying or chemically treating your hair
  • regularly blow-drying your hair
  • using electric curling irons, straighteners, or curlers

In some cases, dry hair is the result of an underlying health problem that that affects your hair’s ability to retain moisture. Examples include:

Anorexia nervosa: This eating disorder can lead to malnutrition. It can cause dry and brittle hair, along with more serious complications.

Hypoparathyroidism: This condition causes the parathyroid gland in your neck to produce too little parathyroid hormone, which decreases the level of calcium in your blood. Calcium is a key nutrient for healthy hair, as well as bones, teeth, and other tissue.

Hypothyroidism: If you have this condition, your thyroid glands don’t produce enough thyroid hormones. Dry and brittle hair is one of the early symptoms of this condition.

Menkes syndrome: In this rare genetic condition, your cells don’t absorb enough copper. Low copper absorption affects the health of your hair, causing dryness.

Diagnosing dry hair

If you have severely dry hair and it doesn’t get better with changes to your hair care routine, make an appointment with your doctor. They may be able to pinpoint the underlying cause. They may also refer you to a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in skin and hair conditions.

During your appointment, your doctor or dermatologist may ask you questions about your symptoms, hair care routine, and lifestyle, such as:

  • How long have you had dry hair?
  • How often do you wash your hair?
  • What type of hair products do you use?
  • What tools do you use to style your hair?
  • What does your typical diet entail?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?

They will likely examine your hair and scalp. In some cases, they may order one or more tests. For example, they may collect a sample of your blood or urine to check for signs of certain medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism or hypoparathyroidism.

Treating dry hair

In many cases, you can treat dry hair through simple lifestyle changes. For example, it may help to:

  • avoid shampooing your hair every day
  • condition your hair every time you wash it
  • use a shampoo and conditioner that are meant for your hair type
  • use moisturizing styling products
  • avoid chemical hair treatments
  • blow-dry your hair less frequently
  • avoid flat irons, curling irons, and electric rollers

Daily shampooing can rob your hair of its protective oils and lead to dryness. Try washing your hair once or twice a week instead. You can also apply hair oils or leave-in conditioners to add luster and softness.

Protecting your hair from heat and sun exposure is also important. If you live in a dry climate, wear a hat when you go outdoors and avoid long-term exposure to dry or windy air. You should protect your hair from chlorine and salt water by wearing a bathing cap when swimming in a pool or ocean.

If an underlying medical problem is causing your dry hair, your doctor may recommend medications or other treatments to address it. Your hair may improve once you treat the underlying condition. Work with your doctor to find the best course of treatment for you.

Complications from dry hair

Dry hair is a sign of hair damage. If left untreated, your hair can become brittle, causing it to break or fray easily.

Most cases of dry hair can be effectively treated with simple lifestyle changes. If your dry hair persists, make an appointment with your doctor. They can help you pinpoint the cause of your dry hair and recommend treatments.

Medically reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA, COI on October 25, 2016Written by Valencia Higuera


4 possible conditions

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.