There was a time when an itchy scalp could only mean one thing. Now? We’d bet our entire haircare arsenal that pesky nits aren’t to blame for your irritable head.
In fact, there are a whole host of reasons why you could be plagued by a fussy scalp with matters only made worse by the fact some of the very products we’re wielding might actually be exacerbating the problem.
We grilled some of the industry’s best hairdressers and trichologists (they’re the experts in the science of hair and scalp health) for their tips, tricks and favourite products to combat the dreaded itch.
What causes an itchy scalp?
“Your scalp is skin so it can become itchy for similar reasons to the skin on the rest of your body. For instance, a change in season, central heating, and cold dry winter air all commonly make the scalp itch. Long haul flights can also cause your scalp to become itchy for a few days. It may even correlate with your mood, anxiety levels, menstrual cycle (itching might occur before or during your period) and state of health. Sometimes, your scalp can be sensitive for no apparent reason,” explains Anabel Kingsley, trichologist at Philip Kingsley.
There are also certain conditions that might be behind that persistent ‘gah’ feeling. “These include contact dermatitis (caused by an allergen or irritant), psoriasis (although this tends to leave more of a ‘tight’ feeling) and folliculitis (an inflammation of hair follicles.) However the main culprits are dandruff and seborrhoeic dermatitis (dandruff’s big and often oilier brother).”
Hairdresser Michael Van Clarke reckons the styling products we use and even how we wear our locks could also be to blame.
“The build-up of pollutants, sebum, dead skin cells and styling products – particularly those with silicones and other plasticisers – can suffocate follicles leading to inflammation. Also, if hair is pulled into a high ponytail, against the natural lay of the root direction, for long periods it can lead to an itching and aching as the individual tiny muscles at the base of each hair re-align themselves. Think how your shoulder would feel if your arm was held up behind your back for four hours then released,” Van Clarke comments.
What is dandruff?
“This is where the confusion often lies – dandruff is not dry, it is in fact an oily scalp condition,” reveals Kingsley.
“Dandruff and seborrhoeic dermatitis occur when the micro-flora of your scalp becomes unbalanced and certain yeasts (called the Malassezia species of yeasts) overgrow. This causes skin cells to re-produce more rapidly than usual, resulting in the development of tell-tale flakes and irritation.
“Why these yeasts overgrow can be the result of a number of factors including stress, a dairy-heavy diet or infrequent shampooing since yeasts thrive in an oily environment.”
How can I relieve or treat an itchy scalp?
Kingsley advises treating scalp conditions with consistent daily use of topical products – in the same way you’d address a skin condition like acne.
“Use a targeted shampoo and scalp toner daily. Then twice a week, apply an intensive scalp mask until your symptoms clear. Dandruff and seborrhoeic dermatitis tend to reoccur and are not ‘curable’ – so keep these products handy in your shower to use as needed.
“Make sure you are shampooing at least every other day – or daily, if you can. It is particularly important to remove dead skin cells and excess oils when you have a scalp condition. Other topical products you use are also better able to penetrate a clean scalp.
“Taking a holistic approach is also key – it is not simply the products you use, but how you are looking after yourself internally. If you frequently suffer from an itchy, flaky scalp, you should take a look at your diet. I recommend my clients increase their intake of foods rich in anti-inflammatory Omega 3 such as salmon, sardines, seaweed, chia seeds and flax seeds. Taking an Omega 3 supplement can help, too.
“You should try to deduce if certain foods or drinks make your scalp flare up and then adjust your diet accordingly,” suggests Kingsley.
Why is my scalp itchier in winter?
“Scalp crankiness often peaks in the winter due to central heating and cold weather – both of which can dry out your scalp.
“Stress levels can also skyrocket around the festive season, which can disrupt the skin’s barrier function and spark flaking and itching in those who are pre-disposed to dandruff. That said – you can get stress-related itching without tell-tale flakes as stress can trigger itch receptors in your skin.
“Diet also plays a role. Winter is the season of cheese plates and celebratory glasses of champagne which can aggravate your scalp. Other foods which can trigger itching are very sugary and spicy foods and tomatoes or red peppers. Psoriasis can also worsen in winter due to decreased sun exposure,” says Kingsley.
What ingredients are best for treating an itchy scalp?
According to Kingsley, power ingredients to look for are: camphor (soothing and cooling), witch hazel (anti-inflammatory and oil-absorbing), zinc PCA (anti-itching and oil-regulating), salicylic acid (exfoliating) and piroctone olamine (an anti-microbial that specifically targets the Malassezia yeasts).
“For more stubborn and scaly scalp conditions, prescription masks containing sulphur and coal tar derivatives can be very beneficial. Just avoid rubbing oils onto your scalp – dandruff and seborrheoic dermatitis are oily scalp conditions so these will only make them worse,” she adds.