Scalp pruritus, known as itchy scalp, is a common condition. There’s a wide range of causes. Dandruff and an inflammatory skin condition called seborrheic dermatitis are the most common causes of itchy scalp.
Seborrheic dermatitis can be the result of stress, seasonal changes, fluctuating hormones, or an overgrowth of yeast on the skin. Dandruff can be caused by scalp that’s too dry, oily hair, and a variety of skin conditions.
Other causes of itchy scalp include:
- autoimmune disorders, such as psoriasis
- fungal infections, such as tinea capitis, or ringworm
- allergic reaction to a product such as hair dye
- atopic dermatitis
- head lice
- stress or anxiety
- herpes zoster, or shingles
Some causes of itchy scalp require medical treatment. See your doctor if your symptoms:
- last longer than a week
- include pain, sores, or swelling
- include itching so intense it interferes with your ability to sleep or function
There are multiple home remedies which may be effective for an itchy scalp that doesn’t require medical treatment.
Apple cider vinegar has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antifungal properties. It can help reduce itching caused by dry skin. Try diluting apple cider vinegar in warm water and using it as a rinse after shampooing to alleviate dandruff and an itchy scalp.
Organic coconut oil is naturally extracted from mature coconuts. It contains lauric acid, a saturated fat that has antimicrobial properties. Lauric acid helps the skin absorb coconut oil efficiently. This makes it a soothing treatment for itchy scalp.
Coconut oil may be helpful for itchy scalps caused by eczema. It may also be helpful for combating head lice. One 2010 study analyzed the healing power of coconut oil mixed with anise. Researchers found this combination to be more successful at delousing and eliminating scalp itch than permethrin, a medication used to treat lice.
Peppermint oil may be effective at reducing dandruff and soothing the scalp, calming down itch. Try diluting it with another oil, such as olive oil, and massaging it into the scalp before shampooing. You can also use peppermint tea as a rinse after shampooing.
It may not surprise you that activities which reduce stress, such as meditation, may be effective at eliminating itchy scalps caused by anxiety. It may also help with itching due to eczema.
A study on meditation and its effect on eczema at Emory University indicated that the perception of itching may be improved by this age-old practice by providing a coping mechanism and sense of control. Meditation can be tried alone or in conjunction with other itchy-scalp remedies. If you’re new to meditation, try taking a class or listening to a meditation tape, app, or podcast.
An essential oil available at health food stores, tea tree oil has antimicrobial, antifungal, and antiseptic properties. It also has anti-inflammatory effects. Tea tree oil can be irritating to the skin, so it’s important to use it sparingly or dilute it prior to use.
Try adding 10 to 20 drops of tea tree oil to a gentle shampoo or mix it with olive oil and massage it directly into your scalp. Tea tree oil can help reduce or eliminate itching associated with dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, and head lice. Tea tree oil should never be ingested.
A large study found that people with dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis have more than double the amount of histamine on their head skin than those without itchy scalps. The study analyzed the effect of shampoos containing zinc pyrithione on histamine levels. Participants with scalp itch who used zinc pyrithione shampoo had a significant reduction in histamine levels and in itch intensity.
These types of shampoos are readily available in drugstores and in other retail outlets. The amount of zinc pyrithione in each shampoo varies by brand, so you may need to experiment with several to find the one which works best for you.
Some people may find that daily shampooing provides the most itch relief. Others may find that this is too drying for the scalp. They may find greater alleviation of scalp itch from shampooing their hair every two or three days instead of daily.
This type of shampoo may be beneficial to people who have an itchy scalp due to allergies, which produce an increase in histamine levels. In addition to its positive effect on histamine, zinc pyrithione also reduces yeast growth. This is a cause of seborrheic dermatitis.
Shampoos containing salicylic acid are effective at treating itchy scalp caused by psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis. Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid found in evergreen leaves and white willow tree bark. It has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. It’s also able to generate exfoliation of the skin, which may make it particularly effective for the scaly, itchy patches associated with psoriasis.
Shampoos containing this ingredient may vary by strength, so make sure to read labels and follow the usage instructions given. Some salicylic acid shampoos require light massage into the scalp during use, repeated daily or almost daily. Shampoos with this ingredient can be found in health food stores, online, and in drugstores.
Salicylic acid shouldn’t be used by anyone with an aspirin allergy.
Ketoconazole is a broad-spectrum, antifungal agent. It’s effective at reducing malassezia yeast. This is a fungus which may become overabundant on the scalp and cause malassezia folliculitis, or scalp psoriasis. It’s available by prescription and also as an ingredient in certain shampoos.
Ketoconazole shampoos may reduce dandruff, scaly patches, and the itch caused by seborrheic dermatitis. Shampoos may have 1 or 2 percent of ketoconazole as an active ingredient. They may require different use techniques, such as daily shampooing or shampooing every other day.
Don’t use ketoconazole on open sores or on swollen skin.
Selenium sulfide is an anti-infective medication used to treat seborrheic dermatitis. It works by slowing down the growth of yeast on the scalp. It’s available as a shampoo and lotion. It may be prescribed by your doctor or found in commercially prepared products.
The recommended dosage for prescription-strength selenium sulfide is twice weekly for the first two weeks, followed by once a week use for up to one month. If you’re using a store-bought product containing selenium sulfide, make sure to follow the label instructions. Stop using it if irritation occurs or if your symptoms worsen.
If your symptoms don’t subside or if they get worse, talk to your doctor about medical treatments. These may be more effective.
Essential oils and the active ingredients in shampoos may irritate swollen or broken skin. Don’t use any ingredients you have a known allergy to. Don’t treat children with any product until you have their pediatrician’s go-ahead.
Scalp itch is a common complaint with multiple causes. It can often be treated at home, but sometimes requires medical treatment. If your symptoms don’t dissipate easily or within a few weeks, talk to your doctor about the underlying cause of itchy scalp and how best to treat it.