Why Your Scalp Is So Itchy and Dry — and How to Find Relief
Hair Health Hotline is your direct access to dermatologists, trichologists, hairstylists, and other beauty pros. Each story in this series tackles a common hair or scalp concern and offers science-backed solutions to care for your strands.
Like tequila and regret, scalp dryness and itchiness often go hand in hand. As if parched skin weren't bad enough on its own, it's often part of a package deal that can make the decision of whether to scratch feel like the ultimate test of willpower.
If you're a member of the itchy scalp club, though, you're well aware that scratching offers fleeting relief (and may even exacerbate an issue). For a better fix, turn to this guide to addressing a dry, itchy scalp from top trichologist Bridgette Hill.
Q: Why is my scalp so itchy and dry, and how can I address the problem?
A: An itchy, dry scalp can result from a wide range of causes. While finding a solution may be as simple as switching your hair products, it may require a more involved diagnosis and treatment.
Common Causes of a Dry, Itchy Scalp
The causes of a dry, itchy scalp vary in severity. On the more insignificant end, using drying products or products with ingredients that you're allergic to may be to blame, says Hill. It may also be your body's response to a medication you're taking, she says.
A step up on the severity scale: You could've developed "a small abrasion that has a little bit of infection," from picking at, say, a pimple, according to Hill. "I think sometimes when people have scalp acne, they pick," she says. "Or they use a product to combat the acne, and some prescription-based products can be drying to the scalp." (Related: These Are the Best Products for Treating Scalp Acne)
Finally, you could be dealing with the likes of "a fungus or ring worm or bacteria or head lice, going into that more serious category," says Hill. Past a certain point, it's best to check in with a pro to rule out one of the major issues. If you aren't able to eliminate your itchiness and dryness within 30 days using the steps laid out below, head to a doctor or trichologist, recommends Hill.
Best Solutions for a Dry, Itchy Scalp
Since many factors can lead to an itchy, dry scalp, improving the situation is often a process of elimination, says Hill. These steps are all helpful starting points.
Rethink Your Hair Products
As mentioned, your hair products may be doing you dirty, so consider swapping in a gentler shampoo. "Anyone who has irritation or feels any type of periodic itchiness or dryness should always consider switching to oat- and clay-based shampoos," says Hill. "Those can be very healing to the scalp. They also help regulate sebum [oil]; they also help reduce inflammation, and itchiness and dryness can be attributed to inflammation in the body," she explains.
While you may be tempted to reach for an anti-dandruff shampoo, that may not be the best option, even if you're experiencing flaking, says Hill. Fine, sugar granule-like flakes are often a result of dryness and are best addressed by making sure you're moisturizing your scalp enough, she says. Anti-dandruff shampoos with anti-fungal ingredients tend to be better for people with thicker, crustier flakes, says Hill.
Hill is also an enthusiastic fan of pre-shampoos for anyone seeking a dry, itchy scalp treatment. As the name suggests, you apply these treatments to your scalp before a shower, wait a beat, then wash them out when shampooing. "Pre-shampoo scalp treatments are game changers," says Hill. "The beauty of those is that you can choose a formula based on your scalp concerns." For example, formulas with oils can help with dryness, and products with aloe or eucalyptus can soothe an itch, says Hill. Finally, try to avoid the overuse of dry shampoo and other spray-on products, which can contribute to build-up (and by extension, itchiness), advises Hill. (Related: Experts Explain If Dry Shampoo Is Actually Bad for Your Hair)
Remember Sun Protection
Your scalp may be the last place you'd think to apply sunscreen, but if your dry, itchy scalp tends to make an appearance every summer, you may be developing sun burns without even realizing it, says Hill. Pro tip: When you're hitting the beach or pool, consider slathering on sunscreen, applying a hair mask, and leaning into a slicked-back hairstyle, suggests Hill. For everyday application, brands have developed products for protecting your hair and scalp without contributing to greasiness and weighing down your strands. (See: Scalp Sunscreen Is a Sun Protection Step You Don't Wanna Skip)
Wearing a sun hat can also help shield you from the sun's UV rays. Just make sure you're washing those hats (and pillowcases, scarves, or anything else coming in contact with your head) regularly. Failing to do so can create a build-up of bacteria and can lead to itchiness, notes Hill. (Related: Do You Know How Often You Should Wash Your Sheets?)
Itchiness and dryness can sometimes result from shampooing with detergent-based cleansers (think: formulas containing sulfates) too often, says Hill. While detergent-based cleansers are a necessary part of any routine, using them too frequently can contribute to inflammation, leading to an itchy, dry scalp, says Hill. Don't be afraid to cut back on how often you use the shampoos, and rely on alternate ways to cleanse your scalp in between, she says. Using vinegar-based rinses or just rinsing your hair and applying conditioner to the ends can help remove debris without stripping your hair as much as shampooing, says Hill. (Here's more detail on how often you should wash your hair, based on your hair type.)
Appeasing your dry, itchy scalp may take some trial and error. While it sometimes requires you to address an underlying issue, other times it's simply a matter of adjusting your hair-care habits.
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