Is itchy ever a good thing? The answer has to be never. And when it comes to your scalp, this kind of irritation is often accompanied by embarrassing flakes. Here, skin and scalp experts explain what could be causing your scalp to itch.
The Usual Itchy-Scalp Suspects
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.
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