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We’ve all suffered from an itchy scalp at some point. No matter the cause (e.g., dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, an allergic reaction, lice, or a fungus), itchy scalp can be both uncomfortable and embarrassing. Just thinking about scalp pruritus (the medical term for this common condition) has got me scratching my head. Want to stop the itch? Try one of these itchy scalp treatments.
To properly treat your itchy scalp, it’s important to learn its cause (see our sidebar “What Causes an Itchy Scalp” to determine what’s triggering your itch). Once you (and your health-care provider or dermatologist) have determined the culprit, the itchy scalp treatment options listed below will help.
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Which Itchy Scalp Treatment?
Finding the itchy scalp remedy that works best for you may require some trial and error. For instance, while some people do well with avoiding shampoo for two or three days, others may require daily treatment to notice an improvement.
Note: As always, consult with your doctor if your condition worsens or doesn’t improve. Also, always follow the instructions. For instance, some products may advise you to leave them on for a few minutes before rinsing while others suggest you wash them off immediately.
WHEN TO SEE A DERMATOLOGIST
If you’ve tried over-the-counter products to no avail, the itching is impacting your everyday life (i.e. making sleep, work, or study difficult), your symptoms last longer than a week, or your itchy scalp is sore and swollen to the touch, it’s time to seek professional help—they’ll be able to suggest a targeted itchy scalp treatment for your specific condition.
#1. Tea Tree Oil
This oil is a known antibiotic, antiseptic, and antifungal agent which can fight Malassezia, the yeast-like fungus that some believe causes dandruff. It’s also been successfully used to treat a variety of conditions including acne and psoriasis. A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that those who used shampoo containing 5 percent tea tree oil improved scalp itchiness and greasiness.
#2. Zinc pyrithione
Researchers of a large study found that using a shampoo containing zinc pyrithione (a yeast-controlling ingredient) significantly reduced the perception of itch suffered by patients with dandruff. Their theory: the zinc pyrithione helped normalize levels of histamine, which were more than doubled in people with dandruff.
#3. Selenium sulfide
Shampoos and lotions that contain this ingredient slow the growth of yeast, a major contributor to seborrheic dermatitis. While it’s available in some over-the-counter products, you may need a doctor’s prescription to find one strong enough to make a difference.
Topical steroids such as cortisone are effective and calming itchy scalp treatments, especially for the itch caused by eczema. Over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams and ointments may be all it takes to clear a mild case. However, more extreme outbreaks may need a prescription-strength cream.
COMBAT LICE WITH COCONUT OIL
English researchers found that using a mixture of coconut oil and anise was more effective than permethrin (the most widely used lice-killer) in a study of 100 louse-infested participants.
#5. Coal tar
Also known as a keratolytic agent, this ingredient is often added to shampoos to help reduce dryness, flaking, itching, and scaling caused by eczema, psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis. Use with care as some people experience stinging, itching, redness, swelling, and burning sensations when using tar shampoos. Note: This ingredient should be avoided by pregnant and nursing women.
#6. Salicylic acid
This antibacterial shampoo additive boasts anti-inflammatory properties. That’s what makes it a successful itchy scalp treatment for those with psoriasis. It helps exfoliate the skin, making it key for treating scaly patches.
#7. Oral anti-fungal medications
When trying to treat certain fungal causes of itchy scalp, such as ringworm (learn more about this condition in our sidebar, “What Causes an Itchy Scalp”), you may need to take a stronger, oral medication to combat fungus from the inside out.
#8. Head lice shampoo
If you’re suffering from lice, this is the best way to beat them. These shampoos contain a variety of lice-busting ingredients including, insecticides, pyrethrin, and permethrin.
#9. Avoid allergens
If you’re allergic to certain ingredients, read hair product labels carefully. You could develop an itchy allergic response (a.k.a. contact dermatitis) from chemicals contained within products you’re using.
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#10. Apple cider vinegar
Touted for its healing properties, this ingredient has been said to help ward off cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. Apple cider vinegar’s anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and antibacterial properties can also alleviate itching caused by dry skin.
When stressed or anxious, our bodies go into fight or flight mode, which can negatively impact our immunity, among other consequences. Seborrheic dermatitis, an inflammatory skin condition that leads to rough, scaly skin, is worsened by stress. One itchy scalp treatment that works, according to researchers from Emory University is meditation. Not only does it help us relax, but mediating can help decrease the intensity of itch in people with eczema, they found.
#12. Peppermint oil
There’s little more soothing than peppermint’s cool touch. This fragrant oil can help soothe the scalp and calm your itch. Make your own shampoo by adding a few drops to olive oil and massaging it into your scalp.
WHAT CAUSES AN ITCHY SCALP?
“I think of itchy scalp as similar to itchy skin,” says Rajani Katta, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. “The itching is a symptom, and it can be due to many different conditions. Dandruff is one potential cause, among many. Your scalp may be itching from irritation, such as from harsh hair care products, or from allergic reactions to different chemicals in your hair care products or hair dye. Certain skin conditions that cause inflammation of the scalp can also cause itching.”
Here are a few of the leading culprits:
- Seborrheic dermatitis: An inflammatory skin condition that results in rough, scaly skin. This appears mainly on the scalp and face but can also crop up behind the ears, on the chest, and around the groin.
- Psoriasis: An autoimmune disease that causes skin cells to grow quickly. The result: extra skin cells accumulate on any part of the skin’s surface in the form of rough, scaly skin.
- Ringworm (a.k.a. tinea capitis): This fungal infection runs deep into the hair follicle. It can cause round patches where hair no longer grows and raised rashes with black dots.
- Contact dermatitis: Exposure to an allergen or irritant can cause itchy scalp.
- Eczema (a.k.a. atopic dermatitis)
- Herpes zoster (a.k.a. shingles)