Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition that causes a buildup of skin cells in different parts of the body. These excess skin cells form silvery-red patches that can flake, itch, crack, and bleed.
Experts estimate that 125 million people, or 2 to 3 percent of people worldwide, have psoriasis.
When psoriasis affects the scalp, it’s simply known as scalp psoriasis. Scalp psoriasis is a relatively common condition.
Psoriasis treatment varies based on its severity and location. Generally, psoriasis treatments for the neck and face are gentler than treatments used on other parts of the body, such as the head.
There’s anecdotal evidence that some home remedies may help reduce scalp psoriasis symptoms. These are best used in conjunction with medical treatments that have been proven effective.
Scalp psoriasis is a form of plaque psoriasis, which causes silvery-red or purplish scaly patches (known as plaques). Plaque psoriasis is the most common psoriasis type. It can affect any part of the body.
Scalp psoriasis may also spread to — and cause plaques to appear on — the:
- back of the neck
- back of the ears
In addition to plaques, scalp psoriasis may also cause:
- fine white or yellow skin flakes on the scalp
- an itchy sensation
- a burning sensation
Temporary hair loss is another common symptom and side effect. Hair usually grows back once scalp psoriasis is treated and clears up.
Researchers aren’t exactly sure what causes any kind of psoriasis. They think it occurs when a person’s immune system isn’t working properly. However, most people who develop psoriasis are likely to experience scalp-related symptoms.
According to two large 2016 studies, scalp psoriasis affects
Someone with psoriasis may produce more of certain types of white blood cells called T cells and neutrophils. The job of T cells is to travel through the body, fighting off viruses and bacteria.
If a person has too many T cells, they may begin to attack healthy cells by mistake and produce more skin cells and white blood cells. In the case of scalp psoriasis, these excess skin cells may lead to inflammation, redness, patches, and flaking.
Genetics and lifestyle factors may also play a role in the development of psoriasis.
Having one parent with psoriasis increases your risk for the condition. You have an even greater risk for developing psoriasis if both your parents have it.
People with obesity are also at an increased risk for psoriasis.
Your risk for psoriasis increases if you smoke. Smoking also aggravates psoriasis symptoms, making them more severe.
High stress levels are linked to psoriasis. This is because stress affects the immune system.
Viral and bacterial infections
People with recurring infections and compromised immune systems, especially young children and those with HIV, have an increased risk for psoriasis.
People with psoriasis may notice that certain things worsen or trigger their condition. Common triggers include:
- a lack of vitamin D
- infections, such as strep throat or skin infection
- skin injuries
- certain medications, including lithium, beta-blockers, antimalarial drugs, and iodides
- an addiction to alcohol
Treating scalp psoriasis can prevent severe symptoms, chronic inflammation, and hair loss. The types of treatments you need depends on the severity of your condition.
A doctor may combine or rotate several different options based on your needs. Here are some common treatments for scalp psoriasis:
The following medical treatments have been proven to help treat scalp psoriasis:
Calcipotriene is available as a cream, a foam, an ointment, and a solution. It contains vitamin D, which can change how skin cells grow on parts of the body affected by psoriasis.
It’s sold in the United States under the brand names Dovonex (cream) and Sorilux (foam).
This combination of a corticosteroid (betamethasone) and vitamin D (calcipotriene) works to relieve scalp psoriasis symptoms such as redness and itching. It also changes how skin cells grow on affected areas.
It’s available as a cream, a foam, an ointment, and a suspension.
In the United States, this medication is sold as Wynzora (cream) and Enstilar (foam). The brand-name version Taclonex is available as an ointment and a suspension.
Tazarotene comes as a foam, cream, gel, or lotion. It helps with increasing cell turnover, which helps reduce the number of plaques and keeps them under control.
It’s sold under the brand names Fabior (foam), Avage (cream), and Arazlo (lotion). The brand-name version Tazorac is available as a cream and gel.
Retinoids are medications made from vitamin A. They’re designed to reduce inflammation and cell growth. They can take anywhere from 2 to 12 weeks to work.
Acitretin (Soriatane) is one oral retinoid available for use in the United States. Learn more about oral medications for psoriasis.
Methotrexate is a medication that can stop skin cells from overgrowing. It must be taken on a fixed schedule as determined by a doctor. It’s available in many different forms, and the oral tablet is often used to treat psoriasis.
In the United States, the oral tablet is also sold under the brand name Trexall.
Cyclosporine works by calming the immune system and slowing the growth of specific types of immune cells. It’s administered orally and taken once a day at the same time each day.
It’s intended for people with severe psoriasis. However, more research is needed to better understand how effective it is over a long period of time.
Cyclosporine is also sold as Gengraf, Neoral, and Sandimmune in the United States.
Biologics are injectable medications made from natural substances. They reduce the body’s immune response, which can decrease the inflammation and redness caused by psoriasis.
Examples of biologics used to treat psoriasis include adalimumab (Humira) and etanercept (Enbrel).
Ultraviolet (UV) light therapy
In phototherapy, the affected skin is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light. Ultraviolet B (UVB) is effective in treating psoriasis. Laser treatments are especially effective for scalp psoriasis.
Regular sunlight emits broadband UVA and UVB light. The artificial light most often used in phototherapy is narrowband UVB.
Tanning beds aren’t recommended because they emit UVA light, not UVB. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, using tanning beds before you turn 35 years old also raises your risk for melanoma by 59 percent.
Most home remedies haven’t been proven to alleviate scalp psoriasis symptoms. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that they can help reduce symptoms when used along with medical treatment.
Here are some popular home remedies for scalp psoriasis:
- aloe vera cream or gel, applied three times a day to the scalp and other affected areas
- apple cider vinegar solution, to be washed over the affected areas
- a paste of baking soda and water to reduce scalp itchiness
- capsaicin cream to reduce flaking, redness, and inflammation
- coconut or avocado oil to moisturize the affected areas
- pureed garlic that’s been mixed with aloe vera cream or gel, applied daily before being rinsed off
- Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon grape) cream, an herbal treatment that can reduce the body’s immune response
- an oatmeal bath to reduce itchiness, flaking, and inflammation
- omega-3 fatty acid supplements to reduce inflammation
- a sea salt bath or an Epsom salt bath to cut down on redness and inflammation
- tea tree oil to reduce inflammation
- turmeric to reduce inflammation
- vitamin D to cut down on redness and inflammation
Psoriasis shampoos are another popular home treatment. While you can get medicated shampoos from a doctor, there are many over-the-counter products that can reduce your symptoms too.
Look for versions that contain at least one of the following ingredients:
- witch hazel
- coal tar
- salicylic acid
Should you peel your flakes?
Avoid peeling your flakes, as that may result in hair loss. Experts suggest combing your flakes out gently if you want to improve the appearance of your scalp psoriasis.
Dermatitis is a term used to describe various types of skin inflammation. This includes contact dermatitis (a reaction to a chemical product) as well as seborrheic dermatitis (a form of eczema).
Like psoriasis, dermatitis can also affect the scalp. While some of the treatments for these conditions may overlap, the conditions themselves have different causes.
Scalp psoriasis is likely caused by immune dysfunction. Dermatitis is caused by various skin irritants, such as allergens.
With scalp psoriasis, you’ll notice silvery-red scales that may extend beyond the hairline. They’ll cause itching, flaking, and redness. In dermatitis, scales are white or yellowish and accompanied by dandruff.
A doctor can usually tell the difference between scalp psoriasis and dermatitis by taking a look at the affected area. In other cases, it might be trickier to tell the difference.
They might perform a skin scrape or take a biopsy. An overgrowth of skin cells will be present in cases of scalp psoriasis. In dermatitis cases, there will be irritated skin and sometimes bacteria or fungi.
Dermatitis (and seborrheic dermatitis in particular) can cause dandruff. Scalp psoriasis and dandruff share many of the same symptoms, such as:
- white or yellow skin flakes on the scalp
- mild redness
- temporary hair loss
In addition, dandruff may also cause:
- dry skin on other parts of the face, such as the eyebrows or ears
- a greasy or oily scalp
However, dandruff won’t cause the thick plaques that are typical of psoriasis. Dandruff doesn’t usually have well-defined borders either, while psoriasis plaques tend to have a well-defined red border.
Dandruff is also a lot easier to treat than psoriasis and can typically be managed with the right shampoo or home remedy.
Speak with a doctor about any changes to your skin that don’t resolve on their own or with home treatment. A doctor will be able to design a treatment plan appropriate for you.
Home treatments may be most helpful in reducing symptoms when used in combination with doctor-recommended medical treatments.