Scalp Itch

" Scalp itch has a variety of causes, from frequent hair washing tin hot water to stress (see below for list ). Itchy scalp causes frequent scratching, which exacerbates the itching. Common causes of an itchy scalp include dandruff,  seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis. Trying dandruff shampoos or anti-itch liquids with different active ingredients can help to treat your particular itch. If the condition does not repond to shampoos or treatments, then a visit to a doctor is suggested."  

Causes of Itchy Scalp

  • Dry Scalp. Scalp skin that lacks moisture and a protective layer of oil can cause itching. Dry scalp can be caused by frequent hair washing, washing hair in water that is too hot or shampooing too aggressively and using a blow dryer too close to the scalp. Also, if a regular shampoo or conditioner (or the chemcials in the products) is too harsh, it can cause itching.

    Winter weather, when their is also low humidity in the air can also contribute to the condition.
  • Neurogenic Excoriation. An emotional condition where a person scratches their head excessively, often due to stress. The frequent scratching can cause small cuts which will lead to more scratching as the cuts heal.
  • Dirty Hair. Hair with an excessive buildup of oil can cause skin cells to build up on the scalp and cause dandruff and itching. 
  • Dandruff. White, greasy flakes of skin will appear on the scalp and cause itching. The condition is not harmful, but can itch.   It is not due to inflammation, but to skin flaking, which is a normal process.

    Another form of flaking called seborrheic dermatitis also starts with dandruff skin flaking. In more severe cases it is accompanied by yelloowish pimples can appear along the hair line, behnd the ears, in the ear canal, on the bridge of the nose, along the nose  and along the eyebrows. It can also  cause yellow greasy flakes that occurs when the oil glands become irritated and produce excessive amounts of oil.  This type of dermatitis can also occur when the face oil glands become inflamed.  It is seen in infants under 3 months and in adult between and 30 and 70.  It is seen more often in men than women.
  • Cradle Cap. A condition typically found in newborns, when oil glands produce excessive amounts of oil.
  • Shingles (Herpes Zoster) - nerve inflammation from the chicken pox virus.
  • Lupus erythematosus - an autoimmune disease and type of lupus that causes skin inflammation.  
  • Scalp Psoriasis - this condition causes skin lesions that are the result of new skin cells being developed faster than old skin is replaced.  These new cells form bunches or white scales on the surface of the skin.
  • Scalp Rash
  • Neruodermatitis (lichen) - a genearl term that refers to the multiple causes of  itchy skin
  • Sunburn
  • Acne
  • Basal Cell Carecinoma
  • Allergy
  • Eczema
  • Head Lice. Severe scalp itch can be caused by an allergic reaction to lice saliva.

    scalp itch
    Scalp Itch can be caused by the lice pictured here
    Source: CDC

Symptoms of an Itchy Scalp

Symptoms of itchy scalp include excessive itching and redness on the scalp. Flakes on clothes, especially in the shoulder area or on the forehead, is also a sign of scratching due to itching.


Diagnosis of itchy scalp can be performed by a doctor when examining the scalp.


Scalp itch treatment depends on the reason for the itch. In the case of dry scalp, using a shampoo specifically for dry hair can reduce the itching, and in reverse, excessively oily hair should be shampooed with shampoo for oily hair. 

For dandruff or other flake issues such as seborrheic dermatitis , a dandruff shampoo can be used.  Be sure to leave the shampoo on the hair for 5 minutes and then rinse. Use the selected shampoo everyday until the problem is controlled and then reduce to 2x per week.  Treatment can last for several weeks.

It may be necessary to try different dandruff shampoos or skin treatments to treat dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis to determine which works in your particular case. Differences between products are based on their active ingredient as indicated below::

 In addition to the shampoo, Maximum Strength Scalpicin (1% hydrocortinsone), an over the counter product, can often provide rellief if the problem is seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis .

Cradle cap is usually treated using mineral oil or baby oil.

Head lice are treated with a special over the counter or prescription products (malathion, Benzyl alcohol lotion or Lindane shampoo) and a comb to remove the dead larvae and eggs.  If two people share a bed, both are usually treated. The CDC recommends not using a shampoo/conditioner combination product or to rewash the hair for 1 to 2 days after the lice mediine is removed from the hair. Over the counter products contain that active ingredients pyrethrins combined with piperonyl butoxide and are found in the products Pronto and Rid.

For sunburn, cool showers or apple cider vinegar can be used to calm the itch.

Avoiding Scalp itch

The key to avoiding scalp itch is to protect the scalp against harsh chemicals or other ingredients that can cause skin irritation. Avoid using super hot water when bathing to avoid washng away natural body oils. Also, try purchasing shampoos that are suited to your hair type.

In the winter, scalp irritants include wool, such as wool hats, dry indoor areas and rooms that are kept above 68 degrees. In summer, wash chlorine off of hair, protect hair with a cap when swimming and avoid sunburn.


Centers for Disease Control

Wrong Diagnosis


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