Itchy Scalp and Hair Loss
An itchy scalp, which is medically known as scalp pruritis, can be a frustrating condition that can leave you scabbing, flaky, and sleepless. Some itchy scalps don’t come with any accompanying skin conditions, while others do. Hair Loss may occur wen scratching is aggressive or the medical condition is hindering the growth of the hair follicles.
The good news is that itchy scalps can be treated in most cases but they could point to underlying problems that could require medical treatment.1 Hair loss usually stops when the condition is treated. Let’s take a closer look at what are the common causes of itchy scalp.
Why is My Scalp so Itchy
Seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin condition that causes scaly patches of red skin and stubborn dandruff. Although seborrheic dermatitis can affect almost any oily part of the body, including your face, nose, ears, eyelids, eyebrows, and chest, it is most common on the scalp. Some common symptoms of the condition include:
- Skin flakes (known as dandruff) on your hair, scalp, eyebrows, and facial hair
- Red, itchy skin
- Greasy patches of skin covered with shite or yellow scales
- Crust on the scalp, face, sides of the nose, eyelids, eyebrows, ears, armpits, groin area, chest, or under your breasts
It is common in infants, wherein the condition is known as cradle cap and causes scaly, crusty patches of skin on the scalp.
The specific cause of seborrheic dermatitis still requires study, but it may be related to an irregular immune response or a yeast known as Malassezia that lives in the oil secreted by your skin.2
Seborrheic dermatitis will sometimes go away on its own, but most treatments involve shampoos, creams, and ointments to help control inflammation. While the condition isn’t based on hygiene, daily cleansing can help to keep down oiliness and the buildup of dead skin to reduce itchiness. Depending on the severity, your doctor may prescribe an antifungal medication in the form of a pill or topical cream.3
Psoriasis is a skin condition characterized by the sudden speed up of your skin cells’ life cycles. This results in cells rapidly building up on your skin’s surface causing dry itchy scalp. The extra skin cells form red patches and scales that can be itchy and in some cases painful. The most common symptoms of psoriasis include:
- Red skin patches covered in thick, silvery scales
- Small scaly spots
- Itching, burning, or sore skin
- Dry, cracked skin that may bleed
- Swollen or stiff joints
- Hair Loss due to excessive scratching and pulling of hair
Patches can range in severity from a few spots of dandruff-like flaking on the scalp to major eruptions covering the large areas of the skin.
Psoriasis is a chronic condition that can ebb and flow in cycles. Flare ups can last a few weeks to whole months before subsiding or potentially going into remission.6
There is no cure for psoriasis, but its symptoms can be managed through lifestyle and medication. Topical creams and ointments alone can effectively treat mild to moderate forms of psoriasis. Some common topical treatments can include:
- Corticosteroids, which can reduce inflammation and itching
- Vitamin D analogues, which slow skin cell growth
- Anthralin, which slows skin cell growth while also removing scales and smoothing skin texture
- Topical retinoids, which are derived from vitamin A and may help to speed up cell turnover and reduce inflammation
You doctor may also recommend light therapy, which involves using natural or artificial UV light to slow down cell turnover, reduce scaling, and relieve inflammation. For severe psoriasis or psoriasis that seems resistant to other treatments, your doctor may turn to systemic treatment, which consists of a series of oral or injected drugs.7
Atopic dermatitis, which is better known as eczema, is a condition characterized by dry, itchy, red skin. Eczema is a chronic condition that often comes in periodic flareups that may be accompanied by hay fever or asthma. Signs and symptoms can vary in severity from person to person, but the most common include:
- Itching, which can be particularly severe at night
- Dry skin
- Red or brownish-grey patches on your hands, feet, ankles, wrists, neck, chest, eyelids, the inside of the elbows and knees, and scalp
- Small, raised bumps that may leak fluid
Eczema is caused by a gene variation that keeps parts of your skin from retaining moisture and keeping out bacteria, irritants, and allergens.8
Atopic dermatitis can be persistent with random flareups. This may mean trying different treatments over several months or years to maintain control. Doctors will most often prescribe corticosteroid ointments and other creams that can help to control itching while repairing your skin. Your doctor may also prescribe an antibiotic cream to fight off bacterial infection if you have an open sore or cracks in your skin.9
An itchy scalp may point to an allergic reaction if you recently had your hair treated or colored or if you simply switched to different hair products. Allergic reactions can occur with basically any product, from hair dyes to straightening treatments to new shampoos, even if you have used the product before without any problems.10
Thankfully, allergic reactions should go away on their own once you can identify and eliminate the chemical or product that you’re allergic to. However, this can potentially pose a problem considering the amount of different ingredients in any given hair product. You may need a specialized test to determine which ingredients you may be reacting to.11
Dandruff can be a condition in itself or a symptom of other skin disorders, like with seborrheic dermatitis. On its own, dandruff can be a chronic scalp condition that is mainly characterized by itchiness and flaking skin on the scalp. It isn’t contagious or serious, but it can be hard to treat and lead to a variety of symptoms. Along with an inflamed scalp, itchiness, dandruff can lead to hair loss especially if it is caused by a yeast infection that is known to weaken the hair follicles. Dandruff can have various causes, including:
- Dry skin
- Not washing your hair enough
- A fungal infection
- Seborrheic dermatitis
- Contact dermatitis (essentially sensitivity or allergy to certain hair products)12
Given some trial and error, dandruff can easily be controlled and treated. General care involves gentle washing to keep down oiliness and skin cell buildup. You can also find dandruff-specific shampoos which can eliminate scaling skin, slow down skin cell growth, or act as antifungal and antibacterial agents.13
Head lice are small insects that can end up in your hair, feeding on blood in your scalp. An infestation of head lice is known as pediculosis capitis and most often affects kids. Contrary to popular belief, head lice infestations do not come from poor hygiene or unclean living environments. Head lice come from a direct transfer of the little creatures from one head to another or indirect transfer, like through hats, scarves, hair accessories, or pillows.
Thankfully, lice are not known to carry any bacteria or viruses, but they can still be bothersome. The main symptoms is itchiness on the neck, scalp, and ears. The itching is actually an allergic reaction to lice saliva. For a first-time infestation, you may not experience any itching for the first two to six weeks of the infestation.4
Over-the-counter treatments for lice usually involve pyrethrin, a compound that is derived from the chrysanthemum flower. Pyrethrin is toxic to lice, making it an effective treatment. However, the side effects of pyrethrin can include redness and itching. If over-the-counter medications don’t work, your doctor may prescribe a topical medication, like benzyl alcohol (Ulesfia). It is a common prescription medication that works by depriving the lice of oxygen. Home remedies can include essential oils or smothering lice and eggs using anything from mayonnaise to petroleum jelly.5
Home Remedies for Itchy Scalp
While you should see your doctor or dermatologist if your itchy scalp is becoming an issue, you can treat mild scalp itchiness with a variety of home remedies.
1. Tea Tree Oil
Also known as melaleuca, tea tree oil is an essential oil that has been found to have potent antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Studies suggest that tea tree oil may also help reduce inflammation, which is often a big part of itchy scalp culprits like seborrheic dermatitis.14 Another study on a group of participants dealing with dandruff found that a shampoo with just 5 percent tea tree oil offered a 41 percent improvement on the severity of dandruff and itchy scalp.15
2. Aloe Vera
Aloe vera is commonly used to soothe and treat cuts, rashes, and sunburns, so it may naturally help to relieve an itchy scalp. Much of that comes from the sheer number of vitamins and nutrients packed into aloe vera, which include:
- Vitamins A, C, E, and B12
- Anti-inflammatory enzymes (including amylase, bradykinase, and catalase)
- Calcium, magnesium, potassium
- Anti-inflammatory fatty acids (including lupeol and campesterol)16
To get the most out of aloe, rub aloe gel into your scalp to soothe itchy, inflamed skin.
3. Dry Itchy Scalp Shampoo
Although most itchy scalp triggers aren’t caused by poor hygiene, washing your hair is the first line of defense to protecting your scalp while washing away dead skin, excess oil, and debris. Use a gentle shampoo with tea tree oil followed with an enriching conditioner to calm your scalp and maintain healthy hair. The best oil to have in your conditioner is jojoba oil as it mimics natural hair oils the best.
That said, avoid washing your hair too often. Washing every single day can actually dry out your scalp and strip your hair of its natural oils. The scalp will compensate by over-producing oils, which can contribute to dandruff and an itchier scalp. Unless you naturally have an oily scalp, aim to wash every other day or every third day. Conditioner can be used daily to nourish and re-hydrate your hair (with the exception for those who have a naturally oily scalp).17
4. Be Gentle with Your Hair
To limit hair loss avoid: scratching, tying your hair, exposing your hair to heat and harsh chemicals
5. Vitamins & Nutrients
A healthy diet packed with nutrients is essential for your scalp and hair growth. Important nutrients in your diet include: iron, zinc, niacin, slenium, vitamin A, D, E, biotin, amino acids, proteins