Eczema can affect the skin anywhere on your body, including the scalp. You may have seborrheic, atopic, or contact dermatitis if you’re experiencing the symptom of an itchy scalp.

Irritation on your scalp may be a sign of eczema. Eczema, also called dermatitis, is the name for a group of conditions that cause the skin to become itchy, inflamed, or have a rash-like appearance.

This condition affects your skin, and there are several types that may affect your scalp. Symptoms vary based on the type you have. Some will disappear with treatment, while others are chronic and require long-term observation and management.

Speak with a doctor to confirm the cause of your eczema as well as to rule out other conditions that may be causing the symptoms.

Keep reading to learn more about what may be causing your eczema and how to find relief.

There are different types of dermatitis that may appear on your scalp. These are seborrheic, atopic, and contact.

Seborrheic dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is a chronic dermatitis that occurs in oily areas of your skin, including the scalp, face, and back. It is one of the most common skin conditions on the scalp, along with psoriasis. Seborrheic dermatitis requires continual care and can flare at times.

Cradle cap

Cradle cap is a type of seborrheic dermatitis in infants. Your infant may develop scaly or greasy patches on their head during their first months of life.

It generally clears up on its own within 6 months to 1 year, but you should speak with their pediatrician if you’re concerned. There are treatments for cradle cap that could help clear up the condition.

Atopic dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis is a chronic form of dermatitis that can appear on the scalp but also affects other parts of the body. This can be a lifelong condition and is often diagnosed in young children. It is the most common form of eczema.

Contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis occurs when your skin reacts from contact with something around you. You may need to treat the active rash, but you should be able to manage the reaction once you identify the trigger causing the symptoms and avoid further contact with it.

Symptoms will depend on the type of dermatitis you have. You may need to speak with a doctor to diagnose the dermatitis, as some symptoms overlap.

Symptoms of each type of scalp eczema include:

Seborrheic DermatitisAtopic DermatitisContact Dermatitis
Scaly patches that cause yellow or white flakes (dandruff)Dry skinRedness
InflammationRednessBlisters or sores
Greasy appearanceSorenessPain and burning
Burning sensationThick skinItchiness
Stiff, thick, or leathery skin

Dermatitis on the scalp can occur for a variety of reasons:

  • In seborrheic dermatitis, your immune system can overreact to a yeast that grows on your skin.
  • In atopic dermatitis, you may develop the condition based on your family history and environmental factors.
  • In contact dermatitis, the symptoms on your skin occur because of a reaction to an allergen or irritant.

Risk factors and triggers for your scalp eczema will depend on the type of dermatitis causing your symptoms. Risk factors increase your likelihood of developing a certain type of dermatitis. Triggers cause symptoms to flare.

Risk factors based on type of scalp dermatitis

Seborrheic DermatitisAtopic DermatitisContact Dermatitis
Age (peaks in infancy, puberty, and adulthood)Age (often diagnosed in young children but occurs in all ages)Regular exposure to irritants
Gender (males are more likely to have it)Gender (females are more likely to have it)
Preexisting medical conditions that affect the immune or nervous systemHay fever or asthma
DepressionEnvironmental factors
Medications that contain interferon, lithium, or psoralenGenetics

Triggers based on type of scalp dermatitis

Seborrheic DermatitisAtopic DermatitisContact Dermatitis
StressDry or cold weatherHarsh chemicals
IllnessHot waterFragrances
Hormonal changesChemicals in soap, cleansers, and hair productsJewelry or hair accessories
Harsh chemicalsSweatHair and skin care products
Dry or cold weatherAllergensHairbrushes and combs

One study found that the most common irritants for contact eczema on the scalp were:

  • nickel
  • cobalt
  • balsam of Peru
  • fragrance

Treatments for scalp eczema will vary based on the type you have. You may be able to treat it at home with different hygiene practices and by changing hair products, or you may need to see a doctor to clear up and manage your symptoms.

Keep in mind that seborrheic dermatitis and atopic dermatitis can be lifelong conditions. Contact dermatitis should go away once you remove the element causing your symptoms.

Lifestyle changes

How you treat your hair and scalp at home can reduce dermatitis symptoms. These techniques may be useful for your scalp dermatitis:

  • Wash your hair regularly.
  • Stop using any products that may irritate your skin.
  • Use gentle shampoos and conditioners without fragrance or irritating chemicals.
  • Avoid too-hot baths and showers.
  • Moisturize your scalp with over-the-counter creams, coconut oil, or baby oil overnight.
  • Avoid the hot setting of a hair dryer.

You should also make sure to get enough sleep and reduce stress to avoid triggering seborrheic and atopic dermatitis.

Shampoos and hair products

There are several over-the-counter or prescription hair products that may help seborrheic dermatitis:

Be careful when selecting shampoos for your hair if you have atopic or contact dermatitis. Atopic dermatitis causes sensitive skin. A certain ingredient might cause contact dermatitis or further irritate your skin.

Consider any additional hair products when managing your scalp dermatitis. Conditioners, gels, hair sprays, and hair accessories may all trigger symptoms. Be mindful about what products you use and eliminate any that may trigger dermatitis symptoms.


Your scalp dermatitis may require medication to relieve symptoms.

Seborrheic dermatitis can be treated with:

  • over-the-counter or prescription corticosteroid creams or other topical steroids
  • combination topical steroid/salicylic acid product
  • medicated shampoos
  • oral antifungal medications

Contact dermatitis can be treated with:

Atopic dermatitis can be treated with:

If your scalp is infected, a doctor will prescribe an antibiotic in topical or oral form.

Reach out to a doctor if your condition worsens or appears infected.

Symptoms of infection include:

  • severe itchiness
  • painful, tender, or very warm skin
  • skin swelling
  • new burning sensations
  • blistered skin
  • fluid drainage
  • white or yellow pus

Your doctor will examine your skin, discuss your medical history, and ask about any other symptoms and possible causes. The visit may include tests, too.

There are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk of flare-ups.

If you aren’t sure what type of scalp condition you’re experiencing, contact a doctor. They can work with you to identify the type and establish a set of preventive methods tailored to your needs.

Tips for preventing flare-ups

  • Learn what factors may contribute to your scalp symptoms, and limit your contact or avoid them entirely.
  • Wash your hair with warm — not hot or cold — water. Both hot and cold water can dry out your scalp and cause irritation.
  • Use gentle shampoos, conditioners, styling creams, gels, and even hair dye. If you can, choose fragrance-free versions.
  • If stress is a trigger, speak with a doctor about using stress-reduction techniques. This may mean breathing exercises, meditation, or journaling.
  • Avoid scratching if you’re having a flare-up. This can make your symptoms worse.
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Although atopic dermatitis and seborrheic dermatitis can be chronic conditions, there are many options available to successfully manage your symptoms and get relief.

After your initial flare-up is under control, you may go weeks, months, or even years without experiencing any symptoms.