Dry, Itchy Scalp

Dry, Itchy Scalp

Dry, Itchy Scalp Causes and the Best Dry, Itchy Scalp Hair Treatment Products in SA

A dry, itchy scalp is among the most common of all hair complaints. It can range from mildly irritating to extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing.

Scalp irritation can have lots of different causes, from simple dryness through to fungal infection or allergic response to a hair care product. However, the underlying mechanism that leads to scalp itchiness – and therefore the best treatment approach – is usually similar.

Some conditions, like fungal infection, call for medicated treatment. In most cases though, a few weeks of using the right hair products is all that’s needed.

How to treat dry, itchy scalp

Irritation of the scalp triggers inflammatory immune cells, which attempt to repair any damage. This can lead to micro-inflammation, causing itchiness and sometimes redness.

Dryness and scalp irritation go together. This is because natural hair oils act as a protective barrier for the skin. When the balance of the oils is compromised, the scalp loses this natural defence and is more easily irritated.

The best products for treating dry, itchy scalp soothe inflammation and help restore the natural balance of moisturising oils to the scalp.

For in-depth information about what causes dryness and itching, see our dry, itchy scalp FAQ below.

Dry, itchy scalp FAQ

Most dry, itchy scalp causes involve a similar mechanism.

Dryness or other conditions begin to irritate the skin. Inflammatory immune cells try to repair the damage. This leads to “micro-inflammation”.

With further irritation, these skin cells can trigger a true inflammatory response and the body releases a compound called histamine. This causes itching and sometimes redness.

A wide range of different things can cause scalp irritation:

  • simple dryness, especially with aging
  • skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema (especially a type of eczema called seborrheic dermatitis)
  • fungal infection such as ringworm
  • overreaction to Malassezia, a yeast that naturally occurs on the scalp (and a common cause of dandruff)
  • contact dermatitis – for example, sensitivity to specific ingredients in hair care products
  • a range of medical conditions, from HIV to liver issues, and some medications.

Stress often plays a role in skin dryness and itching.

It can interfere with systems in the body, affecting everything from hormone regulation to sebum production and the body’s defences against naturally occurring yeasts.

It may make your immune system more prone to overreaction.

It can contribute to flare-ups of eczema or psoriasis.

It can also make you scratch more.

Excessive scratching can create an “itch cycle”. Scratching leads to more irritation, causing worse itching, causing more scratching…and so on.

Skin dryness is more common in winter. This is because of temperature extremes and the use of indoor heating, which dries out the air.

Most conditions involving itchiness tend to get worse at night.

This probably happens for a number of reasons:

  • blood flow to the skin increases slightly at night, raising body temperature
  • the body releases more cytokines, which increase inflammation, at night
  • at the same time, the body releases less corticosteroids, which reduce inflammation
  • you have fewer distractions at night than during the day, making itchiness more noticeable.

Certain nutritional deficiencies can cause (or contribute to) skin dryness and itching.

For optimal health of the scalp and hair, it’s important to have a balanced diet that includes enough:

  • zinc and selenium – two minerals that play an important role in scalp and hair health
  • B vitamins, including biotin and vitamin B2
  • omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin A – both important for sebum production
  • vitamins C and E – along with vitamin A, necessary for healthy scalp and hair
  • iron – this plays a role in supplying nutrients to the scalp
  • protein – required for overall hair health.

Some examples of foods that are rich in “scalp-friendly” nutrients are eggs, oily fish, nuts, spinach, sweet potatoes and lentils.

Also, stay properly hydrated. Simply drinking enough water is often overlooked as a way to prevent dry skin.

Both cause itch and flakes – but they’re not the same.

Dandruff is associated with seborrheic dermatitis, which is a type of eczema. It causes itching and flaking of the skin. This happens especially in parts of the body where there are lots of oil-producing glands, like the scalp.

Dandruff has also been associated with the immune system’s reaction to a naturally occurring yeast, called Malassezia globosa. This yeast feeds on natural hair oils.

Dandruff isn’t caused by dryness. It’s actually more common when there’s an excess of oil on the scalp.

In contrast, scalp dryness involves a lack of sebum (or sebum that’s the wrong consistency).

Usually, flakes due to dryness are smaller than dandruff flakes. It’s likely you’ll have dry skin elsewhere on the body, too.

“What can I use for dry itchy scalp?” “How do you stop an itchy scalp?” We often receive questions like these.

In most cases, the best approach to treating a dry, itchy scalp is to use a specialised shampoo and conditioner – supplemented with a dry/itchy scalp treatment once or twice a week.

Whether you’re treating dandruff or a dry scalp, the results are unlikely to be immediate.

Usually it takes two or three weeks for the scalp to respond and start to heal properly. Try your best not to scratch during this time. Scratching can cause further irritation.

The treatment products you choose should:

  • be free of ingredients that could cause further irritation or allergic response
  • gently remove any build-up of hair care products, excess sebum and dead skin cells
  • help stimulate blood circulation in the scalp
  • soothe inflammation
  • moisturise the scalp to help restore a healthy skin barrier function.

If you have a severely dry or itchy scalp, it’s best to invest in professionally formulated treatments.

However, certain home remedies may help. These are among the most widely recommended:

  • apple cider vinegar
    Mix one part vinegar to two parts water, and rinse the scalp. Vinegar is anti-microbial (so it may combat overgrowth of yeast or bacteria) and has anti-inflammatory properties.
  • tea tree oil
    Tea tree oil is known for its antiseptic, anti-fungal and even antibiotic effects. Mix a few drops into an essential carrier oil and massage into the scalp.
  • aloe vera
    Aloe vera gel is soothing and moisturising, and has anti-inflammatory properties.
  • coconut oil
    Massaging a small amount of melted coconut oil into the scalp can help keep it moisturised. Leave on for a few minutes and then wash the hair.

If you’re worried about any scalp issue, it makes sense to consult a doctor.

We recommend consulting a GP or dermatologist if you experience severe itching; raised red patterns on the scalp (which may suggest fungal infection); areas that crust or weep; or unusual hair loss.