Does Your Scalp Change as You Age?
Scalp health isn't something we usually think about unless we're dealing with a pesky issue, like dandruff, itchiness, or excessive hair loss. But the top of your head plays an important role in the grand scheme of bodily wellness, so it's important to pay attention to it, especially over time. "The scalp has various functions, including being the source of hair growth and serving as a protective barrier to prevent infection and trauma," explains Marisa Garshick, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery (MDCS) in New York City.
Like the rest of your skin, your scalp changes with age; its natural oils fluctuate during different stages of life. During puberty, for example, which often comes with increased sebum production, our scalps are oily, notes Dr. Garshick. Later in life, however, we experience a decrease in our scalps' natural oil production, which can lead to increased dryness and a slew of conditions. "Additionally, as we age, we are exposed to increased levels of oxidative stress which may also impact the scalp as well, leading to dryness, flaking, and itching," adds Dr. Garshick.
If you experience any unusual symptoms of the scalp, including redness, flaking, itching, bumps, or sensitivity, Dr. Garshick recommends seeking help from a board-certified dermatologist. "Because the scalp is difficult to see, you may not realize the extent of what is happening, so it is important to have someone take a closer look," she says. "Additionally, there are some prescription options that may be helpful." Here, some of the key scalp changes to track as the years pass.
This common condition of the scalp can affect those of any age (when it occurs during the newborn stage, it is often referred to as cradle cap, notes Dr. Garshick). If you suffer from itchy seborrheic dermatitis—which results in red, white, or yellow scales and flaky dandruff—she recommends using medicated shampoos that contain yeast-fighting ingredients like pyrithione zinc, such as Dove DermaCare Relief Dandruff Shampoo ($4.68, walmart.com).
This ailment, which results in dry, red, raised scaly patches, can affect the skin overlying joints such as the elbows, knees, and scalp—though Dr. Garshick points out that some individuals may experience psoriasis here exclusively. If so, she recommends using salicylic acid-containing shampoos or topical treatments, such as Neutrogena's T-Sal Shampoo ($10.49, target.com).
If your skin is prone to dryness, your scalp may also experience it. The most common symptom? Itchiness. If you feel a more consistent need to scratch, Dr. Garshick recommends switching over to gentle shampoos, such as Briogeo's "Be Gentle, Be Kind" Aloe and Oat Milk Ultra Soothing Fragrance-free Hypoallergenic Shampoo ($26, sephora.com) or SheaMoisture's Raw Shea Butter Moisture Retention Shampoo ($9.97, amazon.com), that won't strip the scalp of its natural oils, but will still effectively remove any build up.
"Some people may experience red, flaky skin on the scalp as a result of contact dermatitis, or sensitivity to something that came into contact with the scalp, such as hair dye." says Dr. Garshick. "For these individuals, using a wash free of many common allergens, such as Vanicream's Free and Clear Shampoo ($9.99, amazon.com), may be helpful."
Although your scalp is covered with hair, it can still experience cellular trauma from excess sun exposure. This can lead to skin cancers, precancerous dark spots, and other signs of sun damage. "For this reason, it is important to always remember regular sun protection, including sunscreen and hats. Get evaluated by a dermatologist who can take a closer look and determine if there are any concerning spots," says Dr. Garshick. "And while it may seem like a tough area to apply sunscreen, there are some formulations that make application easier, such as Colorescience Sunforgettable Brush-On Sunscreen ($69, dermstore.com) or Supergoop Poof Part Powder ($34, sephora.com)."