Do you struggle with an itchy scalp? Dealing with this condition can be frustrating and uncomfortable. There are many symptoms and causes of an itchy scalp that we’ll cover. Taking care of your scalp is important, as healthy hair comes from a healthy scalp. We’re also going to discuss options to treat an itchy scalp and ways to prevent it from happening.
What is Scalp Pruritus?
Our scalp is skin just like the rest of our body, however its characteristics are unique. It contains more hair follicles, more sebaceous glands and a specific microbiome that makes the scalp susceptible to certain dermatological problems. Just one square centimeter of our scalp can be inhabited by up to one billion microorganisms including bacteria, fungi and viruses, making the microbiome complex. The scalp’s microbiome can be affected by an individual’s unique pH, temperature, moisture, and sebum content. External factors such as the environment, lifestyle, and cosmetic use may also contribute. That’s why you should use scalp-specific products to keep the microbiome balanced.
Scalp pruritus is the medical term for “itchy scalp” and can be challenging to diagnose because sometimes there is no visible evidence of irritation on the scalp. “Pruritus,” also known as itch, is an unpleasant sensation that evokes a desire to scratch. One study found that it is a common condition, with 25% of participants reporting an itchy scalp.
Symptoms of an Itchy Scalp
Itchy scalp is a symptom in itself of underlying conditions such as seborrheic dermatitis, dandruff, contact dermatitis, scalp psoriasis, and more. The itching sensation is often described as prickling, tightness, burning, and even pain. Itchiness can also become worse with touching the scalp or hair. Factors in the skin such as histamine, sensory receptors, and nerve fibres contribute to itchiness at the scalp. Scalp itch can be accompanied by redness, lesions, or flakes on the scalp, or there could be no visible signs of irritation.
7 Causes of Itchy Scalp
The most common cause of itchy scalp is seborrheic dermatitis, an inflammatory skin condition that occurs in areas of the skin with many sebaceous glands. This condition results from interactions among the scalp skin, sebum, Malassezia fungi, and the cutaneous immune system.
Dandruff is a mild form of seborrheic dermatitis that occurs at the scalp. Research has shown that alterations in the bacterial microbiome play a role in dandruff formation due to an imbalance between bacterial or fungal species. Common symptoms of dandruff include flakes, itchiness, tightness, or a burning sensation at the scalp.
Dry scalp also causes itchiness and has similar characteristics to dandruff but is caused by the lack of sebum, the scalp’s natural barrier and moisturiser. Overwashing the hair and using shampoos with harsh sulphate ingredients can strip the hair of its natural oils causing dryness. Weather changes can trigger dry scalp, specifically dry climates where there is a lack of humidity. Symptoms of dry scalp include itchiness, flakes, and a tight feeling at the scalp. Eczema is another dry skin condition that can cause an itchy scalp, often triggered by harsh shampoos, stress, and dry weather.
Another common cause of scalp itch is psoriasis, an immune-mediated disease that causes inflammation in the body. Visible signs include raised plaques and scales on the skin, commonly found on the scalp, elbows, and knees. Normal skin sheds off after about a month, but with psoriasis, the skin cells shed after three to four days and accumulate on the skin’s surface. Plaques can appear on the scalp, hairline, forehead, back of the neck, and around the ears. In addition to plaques, symptoms include itchiness, scaling, and flakes.
Contact dermatitis is another common cause of scalp itch and occurs as a result of allergens such as fragrance and preservatives found in hair products. Hair dye is another common sensitiser along with detergents in shampoos. Symptoms include itchiness, dry scalp, burning, and redness.
Atopic dermatitis, also referred to as sensitive scalp, is similar to contact dermatitis in that it’s triggered by irritants found in products. Symptoms of a sensitive scalp include itching, burning, tingling, or prickling when exposed to external or hormonal factors. An altered skin barrier predisposes the scalp to sensitisation. Those with sensitive skin and other areas of the body such as the face commonly experience sensitive scalp as well.
Hair products can also often be the culprit of an itchy scalp, even for those that do not have a sensitive scalp. Some gels can cause flakes on the hair that can end up on the scalp and cause itchiness. Mousses, hair sprays, and dry shampoos that contain denatured alcohol can dry out the scalp and hair. Unless a product is designed to be used on the scalp, you should avoid applying hair products directly on your scalp. Techniques such as scrunching and “plopping” the hair on top of the head in a hair towel can cause products to end up on the scalp. Without proper cleansing, product build-up can occur over time which contributes to itchiness, flakes, and clogged hair follicles.
Maintaining a healthy scalp is essential to healthy hair and preventing scalp conditions from developing. Removing and preventing the build-up of products and oils on the scalp will keep it clear and foster an environment for healthy hair growth. Having a balanced microbiome and protective skin barrier will prevent inflammation and scalp itch.
Curlsmith’s Scalp Recipe line of products are specifically formulated to reduce build-up and soothe the scalp. If you suffer from a flaky, dry, or itchy scalp the Detox Kit is particularly beneficial no matter your hair type. Just like all Cursmith products, they are free of sulphates, parabens, silicones, mineral oils, phthalates, and DEA.
Traditional clarifying shampoos can dry and strip the hair from its natural moisture, so the Curlsmith Detox Kit is a three-step system to protect the hair, clarify, and restore moisture.
- Primer is the first step in the kit that creates a shield around the hair to protect the hair’s moisture and help you detangle to prevent breakage. It contains fermented rice water, known for its detangling and fortifying properties.
- Wash & Scrub is the second step and is a foaming shampoo that contains microbeads that help exfoliate the scalp, loosen build-up, dirt, and dry skin. It also contains apple cider vinegar that helps melt away build-up and add shine.
- The final step is the Calming Conditioner that soothes and refreshes the scalp with a tingly sensation while rebalancing the pH and moisture levels. It contains peppermint and tea tree essential oils, which are great anti-inflammatory agents.
The Detox Kit contains prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics that feed the “good bacteria” which form the scalp’s protective barrier, the microbiome.
When to see a medical professional
Treatment for an itchy scalp varies depending on the cause. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms and have severe discomfort, consult with a dermatologist who can accurately diagnose your condition.
Many conditions that cause scalp itch can be treated at home and with over-the-counter remedies. However scalp psoriasis may require medicated shampoo or prescription medication. Those with contact dermatitis should eliminate one product from their routine at a time that contains common allergens such as fragrance and preservatives until symptoms improve to determine the culprit. Dandruff, contact and atopic dermatitis, and dry scalp can be treated with over-the-counter shampoos and scalp treatments.
Expert tips for preventing the Itch
Keeping your microbiome balance is the first step to achieve a healthy scalp. Using the Detox Kit on a regular basis will help you do that. You should not exaggerate though - the Detox Kit should not be used more than once a week to prevent drying out your hair. Most hair types should clarify every 4-5 washes. If your curls are looking limp, dull, flat, and not cooperating overall it is likely time to clarify.
Avoiding harsh sulphates ingredients in your routine is another important factor to help prevent a disruption in the scalp’s microbiome and moisture balance. These can strip the scalp causing dry, flaky skin or cause the scalp to overproduce sebum to compensate for this dryness. Excessive sebum and dead skin cell build-up can cause dandruff and other scalp conditions mentioned prior.
It’s also recommended to avoid ingredients that can build up on the hair and scalp such as silicones, heavy butters and heavy oils if you’re using mild cleaners like a co-wash in your routine. The styling products in the Curlsmith Scalp Recipe line are designed to be lightweight and prevent build-up on the hair and scalp.
Using a shampoo brush can also help loosen build-up and dead skin while cleansing. Ensure you are thoroughly rinsing out conditioners from the hair and massaging the scalp to ensure residue is not left behind. Avoid “plopping” which can press hair products onto the scalp, and never sleep with wet hair which fosters bacteria growth at the scalp.
How to treat itchy scalp
Fortunately, itchy scalp can often be treated and prevented at home with proper care. If you’re experiencing severe discomfort or have not been able to get rid of an itchy scalp at home, make sure to seek advice from your doctor or dermatologist.