Itchy Scalp? Try These 5 Steps Now
With the cold winds of winter or the dry, blazing summer heat comes dry, itchy skin – and, for many of us, a dry, itchy scalp, too.
As embarrassing as it may feel to deal with a little dandruff on your shoulder, it’s a super common problem – and there’s plenty you can do to address it.
According to dermatologist Fayne Frey, almost everyone “experiences dandruff at some point in their lives — usually individuals from adolescence to about age 50, when the sebaceous glands are most active.”
Even if it’s small comfort to know you’re not alone, you’ll be relieved to learn there’s an end in sight to that persistent itch.
Here’s our five-step guide to stopping your scratching in its tracks:
1. Do Some Sleuthing
First things first – do you really know why you’re itching?
Dandruff – or seborrheic dermatitis – is one of the most common scalp problems dermatologists diagnose.
Your scalp might feel dry and itchy, but dandruff is often caused – paradoxically – by oil glands working in overdrive.
“It’s the cause of an overproduction of oil or other secretions in the skin, or an increase in normal skin yeasts,” cosmetic surgeon Carlos Wesley told Glamour.
As extra oil builds up on your scalp, the skin cells you would normally shed in the course of your day stick around instead.
The extra cells start to build up over time – and it feels really uncomfortable. Cue your furious scratching, and an embarrassing amount of dandruff flaking from your scalp.
Still, there’s always the possibility that your dry, itchy scalp isn’t dandruff at all, but an allergic reaction to a recent dye job or hair product.
“Allergic reactions will generally go away on their own if you can identify and avoid the chemical to which you are allergic,” reassure the experts at the Cleveland Health Clinic.
“This is challenging and specialized tests in a dermatologist’s office may be needed to sort out which chemical is causing the allergy.”
Even more serious can be cases of ringworm or autoimmune disorders like psoriasis, all of which can cause redness, irritation, hair loss, and unbearable itching.
“Unfortunately, it is not possible to prevent psoriasis, but the condition is often controllable,” Dr. Frey told Refinery29.
“Preventing flare-ups may be possible with shampoos containing tar or selenium sulfide.”
Like dandruff, psoriasis is an extremely common scalp condition, even though it only “affects 2% of the population,” according to Frey.
If a few weeks of avoiding styling products and using an anti-dandruff shampoo get you nowhere, then it’s probably time to make an appointment with your doc to discuss what’s going on up there.
2. Get Your Shampoo On
If you’ve got run-of-the-mill itchy scalp and want to fight back, find a way to treat that oil build-up as soon as possible. For most of us, that means it’s time to lather up.
With the right shampoo and the right balance of treatment, all of your efforts at “crowd control” will eventually translate into sustainable relief.
Look for shampoos that contain dandruff treatments like zinc or selenium sulfide, then apply your ‘poo directly to the scalp for the best results, says dermatologist Papri Sarkar.
“You can rotate it with other shampoos but make sure to use it at least a few times a week to prevent the spot from coming back.”
Flakes be gone!
3. Exfoliate Away
That’s right: you can – and should – exfoliate your scalp, especially if you’re experiencing dryness, itchiness, or dandruff.
“Yes, just like you’d exfoliate your face, your scalp…can benefit from the removal of dead skin cells, dirt, dandruff, oil, and product build-up, giving your roots an ideal environment for hair growth,” writes Victoria Moorhouse at StyleCaster.
Turns out exfoliation is good for your skin no matter where it is on your body – even if it’s covered by a head of thick hair.
According to beauty writer Alisa Hrustic, scalp exfoliation is also a great next step if you’ve been using an anti-dandruff shampoo but not seeing results.
“If moisturizing shampoos aren’t cutting it, try incorporating a scrub a few times a week to aid in removing any buildup on the scalp,” Hrustic writes at Women’s Health.
Like facial scrubs, scalp exfoliants contain natural ingredients like salt or sugar to help you rub away those extra dead skin cells. Citric acid, like lemon juice, can also help to zap dead skin and make it easier to remove from your scalp.
Hrustic even offers her own DIY scalp exfoliation recipe – a combination of sugar or sea salt with a moisturizing oil like coconut – for readers to try.
4. Make a Mask
When it comes to ditching that itch, managing moisture is key.
“As with the skin on any other part of the body, a dry, tight feeling can be due to a lack of moisture and oils, both in your diet and applied topically,” trichologist Sara Allison told Cosmopolitan.
Allison’s advice is certainly the general rule when it comes to maintaining a healthy scalp – but scalp health can also get thrown out of whack if you’re facing oil over-production, rather than under-production.
Dandruff, for example, is usually a sign of oil over-production, which is why the products that counteract dandruff buildup are often extremely drying.
Buildup on your scalp may actually be preventing your scalp’s natural oils from doing their job to keep your scalp and hair healthy, balanced, and well-moisturized.
Combine this effect with drying anti-dandruff shampoos, and you could wind up inadvertently adding to your itch factor.
“Oil can really help combat dry scalp conditions,” dermatologist Valerie Goldburt told Women’s Health. “This is true for any cause of dry scalp. I’ve actually recommended baby oil, but you can also use olive oil or coconut oil.”
Now’s the time to stock up on your favorite hair mask for instant relief.
5. Take It Easy
While you’re combating an itchy scalp, take a step back from chemical treatments, hair dyes, and styling products until you have a sense of how they’ll affect your tender noggin.
Dermatologist Michael Lin suggests avoiding these treatments because they can dry scalp out or irritate existing conditions.
“Sensitivity to ingredients in hair care products or hair dyes, especially paraphenylenediamine, can cause a red, itchy, scaly scalp,” explains Lin at Refinery29.
“Washing too often with shampoos that contain harsh chemicals like sulfates or using too many styling products also may irritate your scalp, causing dandruff.”
Worried about sulfate shampoo but not sure if making the switch is worth the hassle? The extra itch and irritation caused by these chemical lather-makers might make it worth your while.
Just beware – sulfate-free shampoos can also dry out your scalp even more (see step number four to avoid this dangerous cycle).
There’s no doubt about it: fighting dandruff or an itchy scalp brought on by cold weather can feel like the pits. But it doesn’t have to last forever.
By following our tried-and-true five-step plan to itch-free freedom, you can treat, exfoliate, and moisturize your scalp until it’s as healthy and happy as you are.
As a gentle reminder, don’t be afraid to seek help from your doctor or dermatologist if none of these steps work for you.
It’s okay to get extra oomph from a prescription treatment – not to mention expert medical advice!