What Causes a Dry, Itchy Scalp?

A myriad of scalp conditions can cause dryness and itchiness in the area, but not all of them are serious. Sometimes a dry, itchy scalp is a result of environmental factors such as temperature changes or certain lifestyle factors such as excessive heat styling. Some conditions that could cause a dry, itchy scalp require medical attention.

Woman Worried about Hair Loss and Dandruff

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Dandruff

Dandruff is a common condition that can cause the scalp to become dry, itchy, and flaky. As much as 95% of the population have or will have dandruff at some point in their life.

Contrary to popular belief, dandruff is not a result of poor hygiene—though not washing your hair regularly can make it more obvious. Some possible causes of dandruff include:

  • Seborrheic dermatitis
  • Tinea capitis (ringworm)
  • Eczema
  • Contact dermatitis
  • Psoriasis
  • Cradle cap

Stress and cold weather may worsen dandruff.

Treatment

Dandruff is generally harmless, but it can affect your self-esteem because of embarrassment. You can get rid of dandruff with an over-the-counter (OTC) anti-dandruff shampoo. Ingredients typically found in these shampoos include:

  • Ketoconazole
  • 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

Atopic dermatitis, also called eczema, is a skin condition that can cause itchy inflammation of the skin. It is caused by a combination of an overactive immune system, genetics, irritants in the environment like tobacco smoke, and stress.

Eczema can cause a dry, itchy scalp. Other symptoms may include a red rash, swelling, bumps on the skin, crusting skin, and leathery patches of skin. Eczema on the scalp can affect people of all ages.

When to Call a Doctor

An itchy, dry scalp is typically not serious, but if you have intense itching and dryness with flaking skin, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. They can help you find the cause and the most effective treatments for the condition causing your symptoms.

Treatment

Topical corticosteroids such as hydrocortisone are typically the first line of treatment. Topical calcineurin inhibitors can change how the immune system works by inhibiting the production of the enzyme calcineurin, which plays a role in the activation of immune cells.

In severe cases, topical medications may not be not strong enough to help. Immunosuppressive medications may be needed to dampen the immune response.

It's also important to identify triggers that worsen your eczema and avoid them. You will also want to keep your scalp moist by using lotions and creams, and minimize irritation with a mild shampoo and lukewarm water.

Sunburn

Sunburns occur 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, they can lead to dry and itchy skin.

In some cases, sunburns can take up to 36 hours to fully develop, so it can be hard to assess the damage before then. Other symptoms of sunburn aside from dry and itchy skin include:

  • Redness in the area
  • Skin swelling
  • Pain
  • Blisters
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Peeling skin

In severe cases, a sunburn can cause a person to go into shock, leading to fainting, weakness, and low blood pressure. Shock requires immediate medical attention.

Treatment

Sunburns need to heal on their own and typically do so within a couple of weeks. Treatment may be required 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 sun exposure.

Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis causes a red, itchy rash when your skin comes into contact with an irritant, and it can affect your scalp. There are three types of contact dermatitis:

  • Allergic contact dermatitis, which occurs when the immune system reacts to an allergen that is typically harmless
  • Irritant contact dermatitis, which occurs when the skin comes into contact with an irritant that leads to the rash and other symptoms
  • Photocontact dermatitis, which occurs when a substance on the skin reacts with UV radiation from the sun, leading to irritation

Other than red and itchy skin on the scalp, other symptoms of contact dermatitis may include:

  • Hives
  • Cracked skin
  • Tender skin
  • Burning or stinging sensation in the area
  • Fluid-filled blisters
  • Blisters that ooze and crust or scale over

Treatment

Treatment isn’t always necessary because usually once the allergen or irritant is removed the symptoms clear up on their own. Therefore, treatment usually involves avoiding the thing that caused it. If that’s not possible or if the rash is hard to cope with, you can:

  • Get medication from your doctor or at your local drug store to help relieve the symptoms of the rash, such as hydrocortisone and fluocinolone.
  • Use a cool compress to relieve the itchiness.
  • Take the oral steroid prednisone to relieve symptoms that don't respond to other treatments.

In severe cases, several rounds of oral steroids may be needed. This will limit the action of the immune system and thus reduce symptoms.

Psoriasis

Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease caused by an overactive immune system that causes skin cells to be produced faster than they can be shed. It can cause a red, itchy, and scaly rash on the scalp.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Cracked skin
  • Pain
  • Scales on the scalp

The exact cause of psoriasis is not clear, but certain things can trigger a flare-up of the condition, such as stress, skin injuries, infections, and cold weather.

Treatment

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 should contain corticosteroid clobetasol.
  • Phototherapy: Ultraviolet light on the scalp may help slow skin cell growth on the scalp.
  • Dithranol and vitamin D analogs: These can control how quickly the skin cells grow, reducing the overgrowth that leads to psoriasis symptoms.
  • Biologics: Medications and therapies that suppress the immune system response may help reduce psoriasis flare-ups by reducing inflammation in the body.

How to Relieve Dry Scalp

Depending on the severity and cause of your dry, itchy scalp, some home remedies may help relieve symptoms. If you suspect you have a health condition that's 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 the scalp to the point of it becoming itchy.
  • Use shampoos that have anti-inflammatory ingredients such as zinc pyrithione.
  • Use moisturizing scalp treatments.
  • Use oils that can help relieve scalp dryness and itchiness, such as coconut oil, jojoba oil, tea tree oil, and avocado oil.
  • Use a humidifier to help with dryness in the air.
  • Use a cool compress on the area to relieve itchiness and pain and to prevent yourself from scratching.

Preventing Dry Scalp

Some ways you can prevent a dry scalp include the following:

  • Use shampoos that contain aloe to help reintroduce moisture into the scalp. Aloe has also been shown to improve the function of the skin barrier, which is the uppermost layer of skin designed to lock in moisture while keeping out bacteria and other pathogens. By improving the skin barrier function, you can help retain more moisture on the scalp.
  • Use conditioners or other hair-care products that contain gentle 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 do you treat dry, itchy scalp?

Something as simple as dandruff may be treated using the right shampoo, whereas a skin condition such as psoriasis may require prescription medications. The best thing you can do when dealing with a dry and itchy scalp is figure out what is causing it so you can get the proper treatment.

What does psoriasis look like?

Scalp psoriasis appears as thick, red patches of swollen skin with silvery-white scales on the top. The edges of the patches are well defined. When scratching the area, the patches flake off easily.

What is the best shampoo for a dry, itchy scalp?

Moisturizing shampoos that contain natural and gentle ingredients are the best choice for a dry, itchy scalp.

A Word From Verywell

Dealing with a dry and itchy scalp can be difficult because many things can cause it and the symptoms could be embarrassing. If your dry, itchy scalp led you to discover a chronic condition, 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.

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