Anything from the weather to a medical condition might be to blame.

By Jenn Sinrich
July 14, 2021
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If you're dealing with an itchy scalp, you're understandably uncomfortable and probably a little frustrated. Also known as scalp pruritus, an itchy scalp is a common condition, says Dr. Marisa Garshick, MD, a dermatologist at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in New York, that affects up to 50 percent of Americans. "For some people, itchy scalp can be a temporary situation, such as a sensitivity to something that comes into contact with the skin, an infestation, such as head lice, or it can be related to a more chronic condition such as psoriasis or seborrheic dermatitis," Dr. Garshick says. There are many causes of an itchy scalp, which is one of the reasons why it can be hard to find the culprit. Ahead, some of the most common factors that contribute to an itchy scalp.

Itching Dry Head Scalp
Credit: AndreyPopov / Getty Images

Low Humidity

Dry air can strip the hair and scalp of natural oils, resulting in more sensitive skin, warns Dr. Dendy Engelman, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist at the Shafer Clinic. "We need natural oils to create a barrier that keeps bacteria and toxins out, so it is important to take extra precautions during the colder months by supplementing with hats and products," she says. She recommends using a humidifier, like the Canopy Humidifier ($150, violetgrey.com), to prevent dryness and protect your skin barrier when you're indoors year round.

Dandruff

"Because of the abundance of sebaceous glands on your scalp, it is important to clean your scalp thoroughly," says Dr. Engelman. "If oil builds up, you can end up with clogged hair follicles and dandruff flakes." She recommends using a scalp-friendly shampoo and conditioner, such as Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Scalp Care Collection (from $15.30, jcpenny.com); its botanical blend includes clover flower extract, pea peptides, turmeric, kakadu plum, and ginseng to stimulate the scalp and protect against breakage.

Psoriasis

Psoriasis not only affects the elbows, knees, and trunk of the body—it also impacts the scalp. Shampoos that contain salicylic acid, such as Neutrogena T-sal Shampoo ($7.89, target.com) or tar-based shampoos, such as DHS Tar Gel Shampoo ($14.48, walmart.com), are beneficial treatment options for those with this condition, notes Dr. Garshick. "In patients with psoriasis, it is important to avoid manually picking off the flakes, as this can lead to irritation and potential infection," she says.

Eczema

This common skin ailment can crop up on any part of the body, including the scalp. "It develops when the skin cannot produce enough ceramides to properly lock in moisture, and the result is sensitive, dry, itchy, and flaky skin," says Dr. Engelman. "Eczema is hereditary, but there are ways to alleviate the symptoms, such as avoiding showering in very hot water."

Folliculitis

A bacterial or fungal infection can cause folliculitis, which manifests as small red or white bumps and itchy, painful skin, explains Dr. Engelman. "Eventually these may turn into sores that crust over," she says. "If the symptoms don't go away on their own after a few days, you should see a dermatologist."

Lice

This scalp infestation of the insect Pediculus humanus capitis causes itching, which is thought to be from a reaction to the saliva of lice, explains Dr. Brendan Camp, MD, a Manhattan-based dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology. "Lice infestations are treated through the use of special combs, topical treatments, and the inspection of close contacts to prevent the spread of the organism," he says. Ultimately, if you're not sure what is causing your itchy scalp, it's a good idea to consult with a board-certified dermatologist who can examine the area and determine what might be causing your symptoms.

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