Not so long ago I shared my struggles with my skin; skin issues that occurred after moving back to Israel from Chicago in late August. Bottom line – my skin went psycho, and it took months to get things under control. In part I blamed the hard water in Israel for my skin misfortunes. I mentioned in that post that not only had things gone haywire with my skin when I moved but my scalp was dry, itchy, irritated, and flaky as well. This was not the first time I had suffered from a dry, itchy scalp, but it was definitely the worst I had experienced. (In the past I even received a prescription shampoo from a dermatologist for the problem. The shampoo made the itch go away but my hair started falling out at an alarming rate so I stopped using it.) As a matter of fact my scalp was so itchy that I thought I was losing my mind. There are many things that can make a person crazy, but I rank an itchy scalp within the top ten. Anyhow, I definitely think that the hard water in Israel was to blame for my dry and itchy scalp. Regular shampoo (I shampoo every other day) did nothing good for me. I had to find a solution quick so I bought a medicated shampoo that greatly helped my situation. By now I’ve cycled through a few different shampoos that were either for sensitive scalp or dandruff or both. We also put a filter on our water pipes, and now things are under control with my dry, itchy, and flaky scalp. When I looked for a shampoo to help my problem I looked for ingredients like urea, salicylic acid, and zinc all of which are known to exfoliate and sooth. Of course there are other ingredients as well that can help combat this vexing problem. See below for more details. (By the way, have you noticed that the moment someone mentions or you start to read about an itchy scalp you start to feel itchy? Same goes for lice for me.)
Causes of an Itchy Scalp
Let’s be clear – an itchy, red, and flaky scalp are not caused by poor hygiene. You are not dirty if you suffer from this problem. There are a few different causes for an itchy scalp. The Live Strong website explains in the article What Are the Causes of Itchy Scalp in Women? (I’m not sure why women are singled out here since both men and women can have itchy scalps):
Dry Scalp Skin
One of the most common causes of an itchy scalp in women is simply dried out scalp skin. Your scalp can become dry because of regular exposure to very cold or very hot weather, using hair driers too frequently and even showering or bathing in extremely hot water or spending a lot of time in the sauna. Dry scalp skin can particularly be a problem in the winter when your skin is subjected to cold, windy weather outside and dry indoor heating in buildings for days and weeks on end.
Both washing your hair too seldom and too often can cause your scalp to become itchy. If you don’t wash your hair often enough, dead skin cells, oils and potentially skin-irritating substances can accumulate on the scalp. On the other hand, washing your hair too frequently — particularly with harsh shampoos or soaps — can cause the skin on your head to dry out and also become itchy. In addition, if you use too much shampoo while washing your hair, a residue can be left behind that may also act as a skin irritant.
Dandruff, also known as Pityriasis simplex capillitii, is a skin condition in which the scalp produces and sheds off excessive amounts of dead skin cells, making the scalp itchy. Dandruff can be caused by a wide variety of factors — exposure to temperature extremes, mild skin infections and overactive sebaceous cells in the scalp producing too much sebum, the oily substance that prevents the hair and scalp from drying out.
Dermatitis refers to a condition that makes your skin red, inflamed and itchy. There are two types of dermatitis that can affect your scalp, making it itchy: contact dermatitis and seborrheic dermatitis. Contact dermatitis develops when the scalp skin reacts to a substance that it has come into contact with — for instance, a hair dye, shampoo, soap, hairspray or any other hair product. You might be allergic to a compound contained in the product, or you could be reacting to the high amount of alcohol that makes up the inactive ingredients of many haircare items. High concentrations of alcohol on the skin can cause it dry out quickly and become irritated and itchy. Seborrheic dermatitis is a skin condition characterized by the overproduction of skin cells on the scalp, face, forehead, chest, neck and often abdomen and excessive dandruff. Seborrheic dermatitis can develop due to immune disorders, fungal infections and as a reaction to environmental factors. Dr. Anupam Biswas, writing for the website Health Cave, reports that genetics may also play a role.
Psoriasis is a chronic skin disease that can cause thick, itchy patches of red or silvery scaly skin to develop on various parts of the scalp, as well as on the elbows, knees and lower back. It may be caused either by the abnormally excessive production of skin cells or, as MayoClinic.com reports, by an immune system dysfunction caused by environmental or hereditary factors.
Both fungal and bacterial infections can result in an itchy, red scalp. Tinea capitis is an infection of the fungus dermophyte which infects and inflames hair shafts and causes the production of dead, flaky skin cells resembling dandruff, while lichen planus is another scalp-affecting fungal infection. Folliculitis, commonly caused by the bacteria staphylococcus aureus, is another type of infection that can cause itching and discomfort.
A number of other, more unusual factors can also cause your scalp to become itchy such as a head louse infection, also known as pediculosis capitis, too much stress in your daily life, a sunburn that causes damage on the scalp and results in the buildup of itchy, dead cells or the development of acne on the scalp.
The article What is Causing Your Itchy Scalp? on Daily Glow further expands on the causes mentioned above:
Dandruff is the most common culprit to blame for an itchy scalp. “The medical condition of dandruff is caused by an overgrowth of yeast,” says Jessica Wu, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Southern California Medical School and the author of Feed Your Face. The yeast normally live on your scalp and in other hairy areas, such as the eyebrows, the ears, and men’s beards. “With changes in body chemistry, the yeast overgrow and feed on your dead skin cells and oils,” says Dr. Wu, “which causes the itching and flaking.”
To properly control dandruff, you need to eliminate its fungal component without creating more irritation and redness, says Ilyse Lefkowicz, M.D., a dermatologist for Head & Shoulders North America.
For mild cases, Wu suggests using an over-the-counter shampoo that contains selenium, zinc pyrithione, or tea tree oil, all of which help control yeast. “If your scalp is not itchy but more flaky, then try a salicylic acid shampoo to reduce buildup,” she says. More stubborn cases may require a prescription antifungal shampoo or cortisone foam, or, for especially severe cases, anti-yeast pills, Wu says.
Scalp itch can also result from trips to the hair salon, says cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson, vice president of research and innovation for Englewood Lab. “Repeated chemical hair treatments like permanent color, relaxers, and keratin treatments can sap your scalp of moisture,” she says.
Another culprit could be a daily blow-drying habit, says Dr. Lefkowicz. The excessive heat can irritate and dry out the scalp. “Avoid using the hair dryer at its hottest setting, especially when hair is very wet,” she says. “That’s actually the hair’s most fragile state.”
An itchy scalp can also be an allergic reaction to certain hair products, says Wu. “Some products, such as hair sprays, contain ingredients that tighten as they dry,” she says. “This causes a slight pulling sensation on the scalp, leading to itchiness.”
Don’t Scratch — Moisturize Instead
Sometimes the root of the problem is environmental, Lefkowicz says. “Other factors that contribute to scalp irritations include exposure to cool environments with low humidity, and the effects of wind and sun.”
According to Lefkowicz, the way back to a healthy scalp (and healthy, shiny hair) begins with upping the moisture. Avoid hot water when washing your hair, she says, because it can strip the natural oils from your scalp, making it very dry and sensitive.
“Look for moisturizing and protective ingredients like dimethicone, a silicone compound that smooths the hair surface, making it shiny,” Lefkowicz says. She also recommends using a good conditioner to soothe the scalp and leave hair moisturized.
When to Worry About an Itchy Scalp
Sometimes an itchy scalp can be a red flag signaling other, more serious medical conditions. If your scalp develops thick, scaly patches that hurt, crack, or bleed, Wu says, you may have psoriasis — a chronic autoimmune disease that appears on the skin. If, along with the itchiness, your hair is falling out or breaking, you may have ringworm. If any oozing occurs, or a crust develops or pus appears on the scalp, you could be suffering from a staph infection. Your safest bet is to consult your doctor with any concerns about an itchy scalp.
As mentioned in the information above (and from my personal experience which I shared) an itchy scalp can be treated with OTC hair products. But if you feel that you might have scalp psoriasis for instance please see a doctor since prescription products might be needed to treat this condition and offer you relief.
For some people simply being vigilant about exfoliating and moisturizing their scalp can offer the needed relief that they need from a dry and itchy scalp. Allure explains how to go about exfoliating your scalp:
You can try at-home scalp exfoliants, such as Kiehl’s Deep Micro-Exfoliating Scalp Treatment or Rescue EMS Exfoliating Shampoo, or if you’re feeling crafty, you can also create your own. Start with a clarifying shampoo (we likeFekkai Apple Cider Clarifying Shampoo) mixed with an equal amount of natural exfoliant such as cornmeal or ground almonds. Add a few drops of your preferred essential oil—peppermint stimulates blood flow, lavender and vitamin E soothe, and tea tree acts as an antiseptic to fight dandruff. Massage the mixture into your scalp for three minutes, rinse, condition, and voilà! If you don’t shampoo frequently or have oily hair, exfoliate every other week. Otherwise, you just need to do it once a month to maintain a healthy scalp.
If you have any tips on how to treat a dry, itchy scalp please share below. Just remember – there are numerous solutions to this very frustrating problem so there is no need to suffer long-term.
- More information about ingredients and products that can soothe an itching scalp: Useful for Itching and Flaking: Dermarest and Scalpicin from Future Derm
- 8 Ways to Fight Dandruff and Itchy Scalp – The Beauty Brains
- Scalp Psoriasis vs. Seborrheic Dermatitis – The Mayo Clinic
- Seborrheic Dermatitis – The Mayo Clinic
- I haven’t tried these products for sensitive scalps, but La Roche-Posay is one of my favorite skincare companies. I’m not sure where these products are actually available, but they sound intriguing.
- I’m a fan of Tecniche skincare and I just got an email with information about a new product for theirs – S1 Serum Scalp Therapy. The product is meant to nourish a healthy scalp and promote healthy, strong hair.
- My current shampoo is this one from Vichy. (I could only find it online in French)
- Since Dr. Jessica Wu is quoted above I thought I would remind readers of my review of her book
Image from spryliving.com