If you’re scratching your head over what’s causing your itchy scalp, it’s worth noting that flaky and inflamed skin on this part of the body affects most women at some point.
The reason for your discomfort could be anything from dandruff to an allergic reaction but symptoms such as flaking, scaling, redness and bald patches shouldn’t be ignored as they are red flags that your scalp has been thrown out of whack.
“A scalp condition needs consistent treatment and care to help to bring it under control, in the same way as a skin condition,” says Anabel Kingsley, brand president and trichologist at Philip Kingsley, adding: “You would prevent yourself from scratching and itching your skin on your face or body, and you should try to do the same with your scalp.”
As ever, identifying the root cause is the first step to less inflamed skin and being back on good terms with your hair. With the help of a panel of experts, we reveal the 13 reasons your scalp may be itchy – and, all importantly, how you can rectify it.
What causes an itchy scalp?
Cause: This is the most common cause of an itchy scalp. A yeast-like fungus called Malassezia is responsible for the snowy white flakes that drift down and settle on your shoulders.
Treatment: A golden rule is to avoid going to bed with wet hair as the moist environment between the pillow and your strands provides an ideal environment for fungi, bacteria, and a yeast called Malessezia to thrive.
Contrary to popular belief, dandruff is not caused by dry skin, so applying a trusty hair oil in a bid to add hydration will only make matters worse. “Dandruff is almost always oily,” says Anabel. “Applying hair oils simply results in stickier, greasier flakes.” Instead, choose an over-the-counter product laced with antimicrobial agents, such as piroctone olamine, which you can find in the Philip Kingsley Flaky/Itchy Scalp Anti-Dandruff Shampoo and the Kérastase Symbiose Moisturising Anti-Dandruff Cellular Shampoo. Zinc is another go-to ingredient (Redken Scalp Relief Dandruff Control Shampoo is good).
As well as unplugging pores, salicylic acid can also help to reduce the flaking and itching associated with dandruff. OUAI Anti-Dandruff Shampoo boasts a 2% formula and is designed to be used twice a week for five minutes at a time, while Vichy Dercos Anti-Dandruff Shampoo for Dry Hair promises six weeks of anti-dandruff protection and comes in options for both dry and oily scalps.
Cause: When the outermost layer of skin lacks moisture, it can leave you with a dry scalp – a condition that is more common during the winter months, when you are exposed to cold weather outside and central heating indoors.
If you find the itching gets worse at night, it’s most probably the result of transepidermal water loss, a phenomenon where water evaporates from the skin, leaving it feeling drier. Your levels of anti-inflammatory hormones (corticosteroids) also naturally drop overnight, which may exacerbate itchiness.
Treatment: Dial down the temperature of your shower as well as your heated styling tools, such as your blow dryer and tongs, as volcanic temperatures of any kind can dry out the scalp. “Make sure you use hair products, particularly conditioners and hair masks with the word ‘hydrating’ in the product description,” says Wil. Ingredients such as aloe vera and hyaluronic acid, as well as natural oils including coconut oil and argan oil will help to replenish lost hydration.
E45 Dry Scalp Shampoo tackles dryness with panthenol (vitamin B5) while RANAVAT Veda⁴ Bond Complex Regenerative Shampoo leans on both traditional Ayurvedic ingredients and modern science to strength the scalp’s skin barrier so it holds on to moisture more effectively.
If you’re looking for a leave-in treatment, try Living Proof Scalp Care Dry Scalp Treatment, which is powered by hyaluronic acid and a vitamin B3 complex to rebalance the scalps natural ecosystem. Or slather on Briogeo’s Scalp Revival Charcoal + Tea Tree Cooling Hydration Scalp Mask to instantly soothe with cooling mint and aloe, while charcoal mops up potential irritants on the scalp’s surface and hyaluronic acid hydrates.
Cause: Psoriasis or eczema, which are inflammatory skin conditions that can appear on the scalp. “They’re not contagious and can’t spread from person to person,” says Wil Fleeson, owner of Rainbow Room International’s Stirling and Buchanan Street Salons and director of Trichology Scotland. “However, you can be more likely to develop psoriasis or eczema if someone in your family has it. Both conditions cause red, scaly and itchy patches on the scalp, but, like dandruff, these conditions can be treated to reduce the symptoms,” he continues.
Treatment: If you think your itchy scalp may be the result of psoriasis or eczema, your first step should be a consultation with a trichologist or dermatologist in order to establish the root cause and create the correct treatment plan based on the severity of your condition.
Cause: Fragrance is often an allergen, but your diet can also be a factor. “Similar foods that affect the skin on your face also impact your scalp,” Anabel says, noting that the main culprits are dairy products and very sugary and spicy foods. “Other scalp aggravators are white wine, champagne and red peppers,” she adds.
Treatment: Opt for fragrance-free hair care. Dr Barbara Sturm Balancing Shampoo is a good option as it cocktails Japanese camellia, algae and lavender extracts to ease irritation. Likewise, Necessaire The Shampoo is infused with hydrating and balancing ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, niacinamide and celery seed extract.
Trigger foods aren’t the same for everyone, so it may be a case of working out yours based on a process of elimination.
Cause: Head lice or nits are tiny eggs that attach themselves to your hair strands and are usually picked up from head-to-head contact.
Treatment: “With hair lice, the key is to treat them as soon as you spot them and there are plenty of products on the market that can help to get rid of them, including medicated lotions and sprays, tea tree oil remedies and special head lice combs [try Nitwits All-In-One Headlice Solution],” says Wil.
Cause: The build up of minerals such as calcium and magnesium found in hard water, produces a film on the scalp that blocks the follicles. This makes it difficult for moisture to get through and can lead to itchiness and inflammation.
Treatment: Try the Act + Acre Cold Processed Scalp Detox – a pre-cleanse oil, which breaks down build-up, delivers nourishment directly to the hair follicle and stimulates blood flow for hair growth via basil leaf extract. A shower filter such as Hello Klean’s Purifying Shower Head, can also help as it is powered by a two-step filtration system that removes unwanted impurities, boosts your shower pressure and even reduces water usage by up to 25% (in fact, it’s so good, it won an Editor’s Choice Award in the GLAMOUR Beauty Power List Awards 2023).
Cause: Skin that shows up as red and itchy could be atopic dermatitis, a skin condition that is usually genetic and also typically affects the elbows and backs of the knees.
Treatment: First seek a diagnosis from a trichologist or dermatologist. It’s also worth avoiding fragranced hair products, which could exacerbate the symptoms and invest in a super hydrating conditioner or hair mask for added relief.
Cause: Scalp ringworm appears as a round patch with raised borders and is caused by a contagious fungal infection (often transferred from a pet).
Treatment: Your GP will be able to determine whether you need oral or topical anti-fungal medication.
Cause: Product buildup can make your scalp really dry, itchy and irritated. Many hair styling products, shampoos and conditioners contain allergens and irritants and the longer these are left on the scalp, the more likely they are to cause flare-ups.
“Product build-up can also interrupt your natural shedding rate,” warns Wil. “Naturally, we should lose between 50-100 hairs a day, but product buildup can interrupt this natural shedding process and cause hair to become dry, flaky and itchy.”
Treatment: Wil recommends streamlining the number of styling products you use on your hair, particularly those that contain silicones. Also beneficial is adding a clarifying shampoo such as Bumble & Bumble’s Sunday Shampoo, £20 or K18 Peptide Prep Detox Shampoo into your weekly hair routine to melt away product buildup.
Cause: Infrequent shampooing – as in lathering up with water – can cause a build up of dry shampoo on the scalp’s surface. “Like the skin on your face, your scalp sweats, contains sebaceous glands and sheds dead skin cells,” Anabel says. “Unlike an actual shampoo, which is rinsed away with water, dry shampoo does not remove dirt and product debris.”
Treatment: Limit your use of dry shampoo to only a day or two between washes, says Anabel.
Cause: According to the Mayo Clinic, a telltale sign of seborrheic dermatitis is greasy skin covered with flaky white or yellow scales and stubborn dandruff. It usually affects oily areas of the body and is a common skin condition that mainly affects your scalp.
Treatment: Although irritating, seborrheic dermatitis is not contagious – your local pharmacist may just recommend using a medicated shampoo to clear up symptoms.
Cause: Most skin cancers are caused by sun damage or sun beds as UV rays can cause changes to the DNA in skin cells. “Your scalp can burn, just like the skin on your face,” warns Anabel. “While this can lead to short-term effects of discomfort, flaking and peeling, repeatedly exposing your head to the sun may result in serious changes on a cellular level, such as skin cancer.” As the skin cancer develops on your scalp, it may itch.
Treatment: If you’re concerned, Anabel recommends seeing a board-certified dermatologist, who will examine your scalp and determine whether you need to be tested for skin cancer or if something else may be causing the itch.
Cause: It’s well-known that an iron deficiency can impact hair growth but a lesser-known side effect is an itchy scalp. While the exact reason is currently unknown, low iron levels are thought to make the skin thinner, causing more water loss. “Physiologically, hair is not an essential tissue so it is the first part of the body to be withheld from, and the last to benefit from, what we eat,” says Anabel.
Treatment: Speak to your GP who will be able to determine whether you are indeed suffering with an iron deficiency. Good ways to supplement include JS Health Iron + High Absorption and Dr Barbara Sturm Growth Cycle Hair Supplement.
For more from Fiona Embleton, GLAMOUR’s Acting Associate Beauty Director, follow her on @fiembleton.
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