Dry itchy scalp: causes, treatment and prevention
A myriad of scalp conditions can cause dryness and itching in the area, but not all of them are serious. Sometimes a dry, itchy scalp is the result of environmental factors such as changes in temperature or certain lifestyle factors such as excessive heat styling. Certain conditions that can cause a dry, itchy scalp require medical attention.
Dandruff is a common condition that can make the scalp dry, itchy, and scaly. Up to 95% of the population has or will have dandruff at some point in their life.
Contrary to popular belief, dandruff is not the result of poor hygiene, although not washing your hair regularly can make it more obvious. Some possible causes of dandruff include:
- Seborrheic dermatitis
- Tinea capitis (ringworm)
- contact dermatitis
- Cradle hat
Stress and cold can make dandruff worse.
Dandruff is generally harmless, but it can affect your self-esteem due to embarrassment. You can get rid of dandruff with an over-the-counter (OTC) anti-dandruff shampoo. The ingredients that are commonly found in these shampoos include:
- Zinc pyrithione
- Salicylic acid
- Selenium sulphide
- coal tar
When dandruff is caused by a skin condition like psoriasis or eczema, you will need treatment from a dermatologist.
Atopic dermatitis, also called eczema, is a skin condition that can cause the skin to become inflamed with itching. It is caused by a combination of an overactive immune system, genetics, environmental irritants such as tobacco smoke, and stress.
Eczema can cause a dry, itchy scalp. Other symptoms may include a red rash, swelling, lumps on the skin, crusty skin, and leathery patches of skin. Eczema on the scalp can affect people of all ages.
When to call a doctor
A dry, itchy scalp is usually not serious, but if you have severe itching and dryness with flaking skin, make an appointment with your healthcare professional. They can help you find the cause and the most effective treatments for the disease causing your symptoms.
Topical corticosteroids such as hydrocortisone are usually the first line of treatment. Topical calcineurin inhibitors may alter the way the immune system works by inhibiting the production of the enzyme calcineurin, which is involved in activating immune cells.
In severe cases, topical medications may not be strong enough to help. Immunosuppressive drugs may be needed to suppress the immune response.
It’s also important to identify the triggers that make your eczema worse and avoid them. You’ll also want to keep your scalp moist using lotions and creams, and minimize irritation with mild shampoo and lukewarm water.
Sunburn occurs when the skin is exposed to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays for long periods of time. Sunburns can range from mild to severe, and if they occur on the scalp, it can lead to dry, itchy skin.
In some cases, sunburns can take up to 36 hours to fully develop, so it can be difficult to assess damage before then. Other symptoms of sunburn apart from dry, itchy skin include:
- Redness in the area
- Swelling of the skin
- Peeling skin
In severe cases, sunburn can cause a person to go into shock, leading to fainting, weakness, and low blood pressure. Shock requires immediate medical attention.
Sunburns should heal on their own and usually do so within a few weeks. Treatment may be necessary for severe cases. Treatment options may include:
- Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol), or aspirin
- A wet and cool compress
As your sunburn heals, you should also avoid further exposure to the sun.
Contact dermatitis causes a red, itchy rash when your skin comes in contact with an irritant and can affect your scalp. There are three types of contact dermatitis:
- Allergic contact dermatitis, which occurs when the immune system responds to a generally harmless allergen
- Irritant contact dermatitis, which occurs when the skin comes in contact with an irritant that causes a rash and other symptoms
- Photocontact dermatitis, which occurs when a substance on the skin reacts with UV rays from the sun, causing irritation
Besides the redness and itchiness of the scalp skin, other symptoms of contact dermatitis can include:
- Cracked skin
- Tender skin
- Burning or tingling sensation in the area
- Bulbs filled with liquid
- Blisters that ooze and form or spread
Treatment is not always necessary because usually, once the allergen or irritant is cleared, symptoms will go away on their own. Therefore, treatment usually involves avoiding the thing that caused it. If this is not possible or if the rash is difficult to manage, you can:
- Get medications from your doctor or local pharmacy to help relieve the symptoms of the rash, such as hydrocortisone and fluocinolone.
- Use a cold compress to relieve the itching.
- Take the oral steroid prednisone to relieve symptoms that do not respond to other treatments.
In severe cases, several sets of oral steroids may be needed. This will limit the action of the immune system and thus reduce the symptoms.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease caused by an overactive immune system that causes skin cells to produce more quickly than they can be eliminated. It can cause a red, itchy rash and dander on the scalp.
Other symptoms may include:
- Cracked skin
- Scales on the scalp
The exact cause of psoriasis is unclear, but certain things can trigger a flare-up, such as stress, skin damage, infections, and cold.
If psoriasis affects the scalp, treatment may include:
- Medicated shampoos: Ingredients you should look for include salicylic acid and coal tar.
- Steroid creams: These products must contain the corticosteroid clobetasol.
- Phototherapy: Ultraviolet light on the scalp can help slow the growth of skin cells on the scalp.
- Dithranol and vitamin D analogues: These can control the rate of growth of skin cells, thereby reducing the overgrowth that leads to the symptoms of psoriasis.
- Organic Products : Drugs and therapies that suppress the immune system’s response can help reduce flare-ups of psoriasis by reducing inflammation in the body.
How to relieve dry scalp
Depending on the severity and the cause of your dry, itchy scalp, certain home remedies may help relieve the symptoms. If you think you have a health problem that is causing your dry, itchy scalp, see your doctor for an official diagnosis before trying any of the following:
- Avoid products that can irritate and dry out the scalp to the point of itching.
- Use shampoos that contain anti-inflammatory ingredients such as zinc pyrithione.
- Use moisturizing treatments for the scalp.
- Use oils that can help relieve dryness and itchy scalp, like coconut oil, jojoba oil, tea tree oil, and avocado oil.
- Use a humidifier to help with dry air.
- Use a cool compress on the area to relieve itching and pain and to prevent scratching.
Prevent dry scalp
Here are some ways to prevent a dry scalp:
- Use shampoos that contain aloe to help bring moisture back into the scalp. Aloe has also been shown to improve the function of the skin barrier, which is the top layer of the skin designed to trap moisture while keeping bacteria and other pathogens out. By improving the skin barrier function, you can help retain more moisture on the scalp.
- Use conditioners or other hair care products that contain mild or natural ingredients to help maintain the health of your scalp while keeping irritants away.
- Wear a hat to protect your scalp from overexposure to UV rays.
- Follow your doctor’s recommendations and take your medications as prescribed. Avoid triggers as best you can to help prevent flare-ups.
Frequently Asked Questions
How to treat dry, itchy scalp?
Something as simple as dandruff can be treated with the right shampoo, while a skin condition such as psoriasis may require prescription medication. The best thing you can do when you have a dry, itchy scalp is find out what is causing it so that you can get the proper treatment.
What does psoriasis look like?
Scalp psoriasis appears as red, thick patches of swollen skin with silvery-white scales on top. The edges of the patches are well defined. When you scratch the area, the patches peel off easily.
What’s the best shampoo for a dry, itchy scalp?
Moisturizing shampoos that contain natural, gentle ingredients are the best choice for a dry, itchy scalp.
A word from Verywell
Dealing with a dry, itchy scalp can be difficult as there are many factors that can cause it and the symptoms can be embarrassing. If your dry, itchy scalp has caused you to experience chronic disease, you may think that’s a bad thing. But knowing what the cause is can help you get to the bottom of a treatment plan that works for you.