With the heat (and the sweat) that comes with summertime, an itchy scalp is just about an everyday occurrence. But it doesn’t have to be!
And before you jump straight into a lice panic spiral, the real reason for your scratching could be entirely normal. Dandruff and fungus, for example, are common, manageable conditions that could be solved with the right shampoo or an OTC med.
That said, other causes may be slightly more serious. Think: precancerous legions, allergic reactions, and nerve issues. And while they are still treatable, you may need to seek professional help to clear them up.
“A lot of conditions make you scratch an itch,” says Michele Green, MD, a cosmetic dermatologist based in NYC. And, in many of the more serious cases, “the more you scratch, the worse your condition gets.” So, resist the urge even if you really, really want to.
Whether you're dealing with itching caused by greasy hair or lice you picked up at a weekend getaway, Dr. Green, a cosmetic dermatologist, has tips and tricks for your itch relief. (Even an old wives tale that actually works!) But she emphasizes that if after you’ve given her remedies a shot and you’re still uncomfortable, you should check in with a dermatologist.
Meet the experts: Dr. Michele S. Green, MD is a world-renowned cosmetic dermatologist based in NYC. She has been recognized by New York Magazine and Castle Connolly as one of the best doctors in New York.
Ife J. Rodney, MD, is the founding director of Eternal Dermatology + Aesthetics In Fulton, Maryland. She has been a dermatologist and dermatopathologist in the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan area since 2007 and has extensive experience in all aspects of cosmetic, surgical, and medical dermatology for all skin types.
What it looks and feels like: You've got white flakes and itchiness all over your head.
What causes it: Dandruff has three main causes: an oily scalp (not a dry one), a buildup of dead skin or styling products, or a yeast-like fungus called Malassezia.
How to get relief: Vigorously massaging shampoo into your scalp (not just into your hair) may lift product buildup, but if flaking persists, use shampoo containing zinc or salicylic acid, which treats fungus, buildup, and oil, like Head & Shoulders Classic Clean Shampoo ($6) or Nizorol Anti-Dandruff Shampoo ($25). Dr. Green gives Head & Shoulders and Nizorol her gold star of approval, saying they're "the only things on the market that work." Still itching after a few weeks? You may need to visit your derm to see if something else is going on.
2. Allergic reaction
What it looks and feels like: Your whole scalp feels itchy and either dry or overly greasy. Your hair often gets irritated when you put a lot of product in it, and that can cause you to scratch, per Dr. Green.
What causes it: Ingredients in some hair products can prompt an allergic reaction, says Maria Hordinsky, MD, a professor and the chair of dermatology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "The allergen is often fragrance or a moisturizing agent called propylene glycol (PG)," she adds.
How to get relief: Stop using these products for a week. If the irritation goes away, replace them with fragrance- or PG-free options (for the latter, try the Alba Botanica shampoo, $18.99). Scorching temps from styling tools like blow-dryers, flat irons, and curling irons can also dry out the scalp and cause itchiness, so keep heat settings on medium. Dr. Green sometimes tells her patients to put olive oil in their hair. "I know that sounds really disgusting, but olive oil will help with the dryness," she says. "It's an old wives tale that actually works!" She also recommends the Keravive Scalp Treatment and frequent hair washing.
What it looks and feels like: Your itch is just in one spot, and you have raised, scaly patches.
What causes it: This is an autoimmune condition and it runs in families, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Things like stress, an infection, some medications, and cold, dry weather can trigger flares, though.
How to get relief: If your dermatologist determines you have psoriasis, use a shampoo with coal tar—sounds weird, but it works—like Neutrogena T/Gel Therapeutic Shampoo ($5), says dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, the director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Your doc can prescribe stronger remedies if needed.
4. Precancerous lesion
What it looks and feels like: A crusty spot about a quarter-inch in diameter. Dr. Green describes precancerous lesions as red, scaly, and itchy patches on your body. Patients may also experience hair loss from the targeted scratching, she explains.
What causes it: It’s called actinic keratosis, and it’s the result of sun exposure over many years, says Dr. Hordinsky.
Next steps: About 10 percent of these actually become cancerous, so see your derm ASAP to have it checked and, if needed, removed. Dr. Green says precancerous lesions can be treated with creams and blue light after a discussion with your dermatologist. Ward off future damage by using a sunscreen specially formulated for the scalp, such as Banana Boat Sport Quik Dri Scalp Spray ($9.99)—yes, in the winter too.
What it looks and feels like: Red, itchy spots where the skin is raised.
What causes it: It’s usually linked to an allergic reaction to something, like your shampoo or a product you used, says board-certified dermatologist Ife J. Rodney, MD, the founding director of Eternal Dermatology + Aesthetics.
How to get relief: “Take an oral antihistamine, like Benadryl or Zyrtec,” Dr. Rodney says. One thing you shouldn’t try is a topical antihistamine cream. “They can make things worse,” she notes.
What it looks and feels like: Lice create an itchy feeling all over your head. You may also see the eggs of the parasites along your hair shaft (they can look like grains of rice), Dr. Rodney says.
What causes it: You get head lice from coming into contact with someone who has it, or from sharing things that they’ve used, like a hat, comb, or brush. Dr. Green advises her patients to watch out for the lice their children or siblings may bring home from school or summer camp.
How to get relief: Permethrin shampoo is usually used to treat lice. While you can find it OTC, you may need a prescription, especially if you have a particularly serious case, Dr. Rodney says.
What it looks and feels like: It causes really intense, annoying itching, according to Dr. Rodney.
What causes it: Scabies is caused by tiny mites that burrow in your scalp. It isn’t very common, but people who do get the condition usually have had close contact with someone else with scabies. They may have recently stayed at a motel or hotel that was infested, Dr. Rodney says.
How to get relief: “You need to see a dermatologist,” Dr. Rodney says. “Over-the-counter treatments don’t usually clear this up.” Like lice, scabies is usually treated with permethrin, she says.
8. Scalp ringworm
What it looks and feels like: Dandruff or scaliness, although it could be a round patch with raised borders.
What causes it: The contagious fungal infection is caused by direct contact with an infected person, Dr. Rodney says. Dr. Green adds that a furry friend may also be the culprit: "People who have kittens and things like that are more likely to get a fungus from their pets," she explains. "I know it's crazy, but is your pet's skin healthy?" It's likely that if your pet is also scratching, they may have a fungal infection that you could have picked up.
How to get relief: For more mild cases, an antifungal shampoo may do the trick. Though, if the itching is really bad, a steroid lotion or ointment may be the key to your relief, says Dr. Rodney. In some cases, you’ll need an oral antifungal med, which means you need to call your doctor. Make sure your pet is getting the appropriate treatment too!
9. Atopic dermatitis
What it looks and feels like: You'll notice itchiness and redness on your scalp. It’s also likely to show up on your elbows and backs of your knees, Dr. Rodney says.
What causes it: It’s usually genetic, so you’re more likely to have it if someone else in your family has the condition.
How to get relief: Try to figure out your triggers, like scented or abrasive shampoos. “It’s super important to take short, warm showers, instead of hot showers,” Dr. Rodney notes. You’ll also want to use a gentle conditioner to moisturize your scalp.
10. Nerve issues
What it looks and feels like: You won’t see anything on your scalp, except for maybe some scratch marks. “We can always tell when a patient has nerve issues because there’s no primary skin lesion,” Dr. Rodney says.
What causes it: Nerves in your scalp that are overreacting and firing too often. “No one really knows why the nerve roots are irritated or why it feels good to scratch, other than it makes them feel temporarily good and that seems to be psychological almost," Dr. Green says. She also notices that many of her patients with anxiety put finger to skin when they are stressed, which activates the nerves. She calls it a "scratch-itch cycle," which turns vicious when the motion further irritates the area.
While there's no one neurologic condition that does it, any injury of the spinal cord or brain can cause this type of itch, says Dr. Green. If you're experiencing an intensely itchy scalp without signs of a rash or another skin reaction, you may be dealing with neuropathy, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD).
An itch is also a symptom of neurodermatitis, which causes dry, itchy patches that can be found anywhere on the body, per Cleveland Clinic.
How to get relief: Meet with your primary care physician and undergo some basic testing to figure out what's going on. Your doctor will likely refer you to a neurologist. Corticosteroids, capsaicin creams, and antihistamines help reduce itching, but the most effective treatment is inhibitors of neuronal excitability, especially local anesthetics, and barriers to reduce scratching, a Seminars In Cutaneous Medicine And Surgery study found.
Your doctor may also suggest therapy. "Sometimes I'll send people to a psychologist because there is usually something going on psychologically," Dr. Green says, and many of these conditions can be triggered by an increase in stress.
11. Seborrheic dermatitis
What it looks and feels like: Seborrheic dermatitis, also known as seborrhea, is a very common skin condition. Dandruff is an example of mild seborrheic dermatitis. Both lead to a dry, itchy scalp, but seborrheic dermatitis causes redness, swelling, and inflammation of the area, in addition to the flaky skin, a review from The Journal of Clinical and Investigative Dermatology reports.
What causes it: No one really knows. However, there are some common triggers. "It can be chronic. Sometimes stress can cause it, sometimes hormones, sometimes people get a fever and they get it, sometimes if you don't wash your hair enough," Dr. Green says.
Loprox Ciclopirox 1% Shampoo
Loprox Ciclopirox 1% Shampoo
How to get relief: It's thought that it may be fungal, Dr. Green says, which is why antifungal shampoos are often the best option for this condition. To be specific, ciclopirox shampoo is an antifungal medicine that is specifically used for treating seborrheic dermatitis, according to Cleveland Clinic.
12. Autoimmune diseases
What it looks and feels like: Your head feels itchy and there's redness or irritation on the scalp that isn't going away with shampoo substitutes or increased hair washing. Sometimes there is also hair loss in the area, which is uncommon for younger patients, says Dr. Green.
What causes it: A misdiagnosis for lupus or other autoimmune conditions revolving around the hair may manifest themselves as an itchy scalp, disguising the deeper issue, Dr. Green explains. Discoid lupus, specifically, can be found on the scalp and can look and feel like raised, thick, scaly patches, The Journal of Clinical and Investigative Dermatology reports.
How to get relief: For a misdiagnosis or the unveiling of a health concern such as this one, a diagnoses from a dermatologist is required. You can discuss next steps with your doctor from there.
Jessica Migala is a health writer specializing in general wellness, fitness, nutrition, and skincare, with work published in Women’s Health, Glamour, Health, Men’s Health, and more. She is based in the Chicago suburbs and is a mom to two little boys and rambunctious rescue pup.
Seborrheic dermatitis signs and symptoms may include: Flaking skin (dandruff) on your scalp, hair, eyebrows, beard or mustache. Patches of greasy skin covered with flaky white or yellow scales or crust on the scalp, face, sides of the nose, eyebrows, ears, eyelids, chest, armpits, groin area or under the breasts.How do you get rid of scalp dermatitis? ›
First try a mild corticosteroid cream, foam, ointment or oil (Scalpicin Scalp Itch) on affected areas, keeping it away from the eyes. If that doesn't work, try the antifungal cream ketoconazole. Don't use styling products. Stop using hair sprays, gels and other styling products while you're treating the condition.Can itchy scalp be caused by allergies? ›
You could also have an allergy to a shampoo, conditioner, or other product that touches your scalp. If that's the case, you'll likely have an itchy rash on your scalp and any other skin that the product touches. How to get relief: To stop the itch, you must stop using the product that's causing the reaction.Can you get dermatitis on your scalp? ›
Seborrheic dermatitis causes no serious harm to the body, including the hair. It appears as red, dry, flaky, itchy skin on the scalp and other parts of the body and is common but not contagious. Its presence doesn't mean the skin is unclean or infected.What causes scalp dermatitis flare up? ›
It is often made worse by cold weather, hormonal changes, and stress. Symptoms can include skin that is bumpy, scaly, greasy, and itchy. Treatment such as medicine in shampoo, body wash, and lotion can reduce symptoms. Seborrheic dermatitis is an ongoing (chronic) condition.What can be mistaken for dermatitis? ›
Skin infections are third on the list of things that can be confused with atopic dermatitis, particularly infections caused by bacteria (like staph), scabies mites or tinea (ringworm). “If we see honey-colored crusted scales we know to look for staph,” said Murase.
- Salty chips like potato chips.
- Sugar-rich foods, including those that contain high fructose corn syrup in them.
- Refined carbohydrates.
- Excessive alcohol consumption.
- Vegetable-based oils.
- Artificial trans fats in foods.
- Processed meats.
- Apple cider vinegar. ...
- Organic coconut oil. ...
- Peppermint oil. ...
- Meditation. ...
- Tea tree oil. ...
- Zinc pyrithione shampoo. ...
- Salicylic acid. ...
- Ketoconazole shampoo.
Signs of a shampoo allergy
Fragrances, botanicals, and surfactants are just a few of these common ingredients, and they can all cause contact dermatitis. The most obvious sign of a shampoo allergy is a dry, itchy scalp. You might notice red, scaly patches of skin or even painful blisters that ooze.
Scalp pruritus is a common and distressing symptom. It is most commonly associated with seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis but appears often without any noticeable skin lesion or obvious diagnosis.What autoimmune diseases can cause your head to itch? ›
Autoimmune diseases that have been linked with scalp itch are dermatomyositis, systemic lupus erythematosus, scleroderma and Sjögren syndrome. Itch may or may not be associated with skin lesions. If present on dermoscopy, erythema and enlarged interfollicular vessels may aid the diagnosis.How long does it take to get rid of scalp dermatitis? ›
For adult scalp SD, especially moderate to severe, use of a mid-to-high-potency TCS solution, foam, or spray often controls the disorder within 1 to 2 weeks, and sometimes longer.How long does it take for scalp dermatitis to go away? ›
It can take up to four weeks of using these treatments daily for your symptoms to get better. Or your doctor may suggest you use an antifungal shampoo as a body wash. If your ears are affected, your GP may prescribe medicated eardrops. A corticosteroid cream to reduce inflammation.How do you get rid of contact dermatitis on your scalp fast? ›
- Identify and avoid irritants or allergens triggering your skin reactions. ...
- Remove any irritants or allergens from your skin as soon as possible using warm water and soap.
- Avoid scratching affected areas. ...
- Try over-the-counter Cortef ® (hydrocortisone) cream or ointment.
Hydrocortisone is used to treat many health problems. The medicine comes in different forms, including skin creams for the body and scalp, injections and tablets.What are the 3 types of dermatitis? ›
Three common types of this condition are atopic dermatitis (eczema), seborrheic dermatitis and contact dermatitis.Why have I suddenly got dermatitis? ›
Contact dermatitis is most commonly caused by irritants such as soaps and detergents, solvents or regular contact with water.What things trigger dermatitis? ›
Common triggers include: irritants – such as soaps and detergents, including shampoo, washing-up liquid and bubble bath. environmental factors or allergens – such as cold and dry weather, dampness, and more specific things such as house dust mites, pet fur, pollen and moulds.What deficiency can cause seborrheic dermatitis? ›
Considering the role of inflammatory cascade in the pathogenesis of seborrheic dermatitis and the inhibitory effect of VDR and vitamin D on immune system, vitamin D deficiency can be suggested as a risk factor for developing seborrheic dermatitis.
Many cases of seborrheic dermatitis are effectively treated by shampooing daily or every other day with antidandruff shampoos containing 2.5 percent selenium sulfide or 1 to 2 percent pyrithione zinc. Alternatively, ketoconazole shampoo may be used.Does vitamin D Help seborrheic dermatitis? ›
Conclusion. This study suggests that low vitamin D levels have a potential role in seborrheic dermatitis of the scalp. These data do not tell us that taking vitamin D is a good treatment for SD.How do you calm an allergic reaction on your scalp? ›
Use shampoos containing topical corticosteroids, such as Clobex, on your scalp. Apply hydrogen peroxide. It's a mild antiseptic and may help calm the skin and reduce irritation and blistering. Take an oral antihistamine, such as Benadryl, to help reduce skin inflammation and itching.Why does my scalp keep getting inflamed? ›
A sore scalp can be caused by infected hair follicles, scalp pimples, or tension from certain hairstyles that may pull the hair too tight. Other causes for scalp tenderness include trauma from a head injury, or underlying skin condition like eczema or cellulitis.What foods trigger seborrheic dermatitis on scalp? ›
While there are no good clinical studies, yeast and mold elimination diets may be helpful for people who have a difficult time controlling their seborrheic dermatitis. This entails eliminating breads, cheeses, wine, beer, excessive carbohydrates, and other foods made by yeast or fungi.What vitamins help seborrheic dermatitis? ›
Supplementing with folic acid has been shown to improve adult seborrheic dermatitis. One physician reported that injections of B-complex vitamins were useful in the treatment of seborrheic dermatitis in infants.Is scalp dermatitis a fungus? ›
Abstract. Seborrheic dermatitis is a superficial fungal disease of the skin, occurring in areas rich in sebaceous glands. It is thought that an association exists between Malassezia yeasts and seborrheic dermatitis. This may, in part, be due to an abnormal or inflammatory immune response to these yeasts.How often should I wash my hair if I have seborrheic dermatitis? ›
This may be a problem for many people, but daily hair washing is important if seborrhea is to be controlled. There are some people who shampoo once per week or once per month and never get seborrhea. Unfortunately, if you're the one who suffers with seborrhea, you will need to wash your hair every day.What does an inflamed scalp feel like? ›
Scalp tenderness is defined as pain, inflammation, tingling, numbness, irritation, itching, throbbing, or sensitivity of the scalp. Often, many of these symptoms appear together, being linked immune processes in response to a variety of conditions.What shampoo is good for allergic scalp? ›
- Vanicream Free and Clear Shampoo & Conditioner. ...
- Kristin Ess Extra Gentle Conditioner for Sensitive Skin + Scalp. ...
- Serge Normant Meta Silk Shampoo. ...
- DHS Clear Shampoo. ...
- Nécessaire The Shampoo and Conditioner. ...
- Briogeo Be Gentle, Be Kind Aloe + Oat Milk Ultra Soothing Shampoo. ...
- SheaMoisture Wash 'N Go Conditioner.
A sensitive or hypersensitive scalp can cause significant discomfort. Symptoms of a sensitive scalp can include burning, tingling, pain, itching and redness. Your scalp may also simply feel tight and itchy. If your symptoms are severe you may have a hyperreactive or hypersensitive scalp.Why is my skin so itchy and my scalp? ›
Causes of itchy skin include: Skin conditions. Examples include dry skin (xerosis), eczema (dermatitis), psoriasis, scabies, parasites, burns, scars, insect bites and hives. Internal diseases.What is scalp dysesthesia? ›
In conclusion, scalp dysesthesia is a syndrome characterized primarily by scalp burning or pruritus in the absence of any other unusual physical examination findings and may be associated with cervical spine disease.Why does my scalp itch and have bumps? ›
This common condition can be caused by a yeast overgrowth on your scalp, or by hair products that are drying out your scalp. Symptoms include bumps on your scalp as well as scaly, dry patches of skin underneath your hair. Stress and dehydration can make dandruff worse. So can itching.
Non-trigeminal facial neuropathic itch can indicate lesions of the nervus intermedius of the cranial nerves VII or IX, or of the cervical spinal nerves C1 or C2, he adds. Herpes zoster is the most common cause of cranial neuropathic itch, and the forehead and anterior scalp are most commonly affected.Is itchy scalp a symptom of lupus? ›
Chronic Cutaneous Lupus
Lesions most often appear on the face, ears, scalp, neck, and hands. They are usually not itchy or painful, but they may cause dark spots or scars that remain on the skin after they heal.
Central nervous system lesions affecting sensory pathways, including strokes, multiple sclerosis, and cavernous hemangiomas can cause central itch. Neuropathic itch is a potent trigger of reflex and volitional scratching although this provides only fleeting relief.Why do I have crusty scabs on my scalp? ›
What can cause sores or scabs on the scalp? Sores or scabs on the scalp are often harmless and clear up on their own. However, they can sometimes be a sign of a condition that may require treatment, such as psoriasis, contact dermatitis, or head lice.Will Benadryl clear up contact dermatitis? ›
Antihistamines. Over-the-counter oral antihistamines like Benadryl, Zyrtec, or store-brand allergy medication might help with allergic dermatitis. If you're frequently experiencing contact dermatitis due to minor allergies, you can take a prescription allergy medication to prevent future outbreaks.What is the difference between seborrheic dermatitis and dermatitis? ›
Atopic dermatitis is an eczematous disease. It is an inflammatory reaction of the skin, which is clinically visible with erythematous and scaling patches, sometimes moderate in size but sometimes very extended to several skin areas. Seborrheic dermatitis is a chronic relapsing erythematous-desquamative disease.
Symptoms of contact dermatitis
Contact dermatitis causes the skin to become itchy, blistered, dry and cracked. Lighter skin can become red, and darker skin can become dark brown, purple or grey. This reaction usually occurs within a few hours or days of exposure to an irritant or allergen.
Recognition of seborrheic dermatitis is important for the primary care physician, because it may be associated with systemic disease, such as Parkinson's disease and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection.How do you get rid of scalp dermatitis naturally? ›
- Apply coconut oil to your scalp. ...
- Use tea tree oil. ...
- Put honey in your hair. ...
- Wash your skin with apple cider vinegar. ...
- Take fish oil supplements. ...
- Avoid styling products. ...
- Try baby shampoo. ...
- Change up your diet.
What do stress rashes look like? Stress rashes often appear as raised red bumps called hives. They can affect any part of the body, but often a stress rash is on the face, neck, chest or arms. Hives may range from tiny dots to large welts and may form in clusters.What happens if dermatitis is untreated? ›
Bacterial skin infections
As atopic eczema can cause your skin to become cracked and broken, there's a risk of the skin becoming infected with bacteria. The risk is higher if you scratch your eczema or do not use your treatments correctly. Signs of a bacterial infection can include: fluid oozing from the skin.
Seborrheic dermatitis is a condition that comes and goes. At times you may be surprised to find that you are practically symptom-free, while at other periods the condition may be very active and unsightly. The most important thing you can do to get rid of and prevent seborrhea is to wash your hair every day.