Itchy Flaky Scalps
IMPORTANT: The purpose of this page is to provide information on skin conditions, not to provide medical advice. Content was sourced from The Eczema Association of Australasia Inc. Links on this page to other sites on the Internet are provided for the benefit of site users and do not constitute medical advice, an endorsement of any other organisation /company or of their products or treatments.
What causes an itchy scalp?
An itching sensation on the scalp occurs because of excessive scalp flaking. A common misconception is that an itchy scalp is too dry; this is not always the case. Itching can occur when there is excessive oily build-up on the scalp. It also happens when your scalp is sensitive to shampoos or conditioners with harsh cleansers or synthetic fragrances.
How can I care for an itchy scalp?
- Clean your scalp thoroughly, but avoid drying it out by using soap-free pH-balanced natural products. To get results, you really need to use a formula that targets and nourishes itchy flaky scalps while still cleansing your hair.
- Avoid exposure to any suspected irritants and allergens.
- Use warm, never hot, water.
- Keep stress levels under control.
- Shampoo your hair after you’ve been sweating heavily, as sweat can be a trigger
Eczema and dermatitis of the scalp
One of the most common places for the inflamed, itchy, dry skin of eczema to develop is on the scalp. The most common type of scalp eczema is known as seborrheic dermatitis, and its most unwelcome symptom is dandruff. Scalp eczema is characterised by skin patches that may be:
- Red and scaly
- Greasy or waxy
- Very itchy
- Oozing or have weeping lesions
- Producing blisters
What is dandruff?
Dandruff is characterised by excessive flakes of dead skin cells, with a bit of itching. When the scalp environment has an imbalance of sweat and oil secretions, dandruff occurs. Often there are also micro-organisms—bacteria or fungus—involved with these imbalances, causing even more rapid shedding of skin flakes.
What are the symptoms of dandruff?
The hallmark sign of dandruff, or seborrheic dermatitis of the scalp, is white flakes on the scalp and in the hair.
- Scalp may feel itchy, tight and/or sore.
- Red, flaky, greasy patches of skin (adults, seborrheic dermatitis of the scalp in adults)
- Crusting and scaling rash on scalp (babies with Seborrheic dermatitis, or cradle cap)
How does dry skin create dandruff?
Healthy scalp structure is similar to the rest of body skin, with epidermal, dermal and subcutis layers. Normal scalp skin is slightly tougher than body skin; which is why it is able to tolerate certain chemicals. On dry scalps, however, the structure of the skin cells is not tough enough to tolerate chemicals.
- The sebaceous glands in the dermal layer are responsible for the oiliness or dryness of scalps. If too much sebum is being produced, then it has the oily effect. If too little sebum is produced, then it leads to scalp dryness. A normal level of sebum is intended to lubricate the hair and scalp to provide a protective, nourished barrier from external infections. Chemicals in shampoos and conditioners tend to wash away too much sebum and causes scalp dryness.
- The epidermis functions the same as the rest of body skin. There is inevitably a layer of dead skin cells, however in normal rate of cell turnover, it appears smooth to the naked eye and does not cause any itching. When there is excessive cell turnover, the dead skin cells accumulate and cause large flakes of tightly packed dead cells, often with itching sensation. Also, when the scalp is not nourished or moisturised, excessive ‘dying off’ of skin cells can occur due to dehydration.
Psoriasis of the scalp
Scalp psoriasis is when the skin cells on the scalp are being produced faster than normal.
- As new cells rise through the layers of dermis and epidermis, raised red patches are formed, known as plaques. The excessive rapid development of skin cells causes silvery, dead scales to cluster together on top of the plaques.
- This condition can affect anyone at any age.
- The hairline, back of the neck and behind the ears are the areas most commonly affected by scalp psoriasis.
- Causes for may vary between an inflammatory response, genetic predisposition, or oftentimes, due to fungal or yeast infections such as Malassezia.
Fungus and the scalp
- Malassezia is a type of fungus most commonly associated with seborrhoeic dermatitis of the scalp.
- Malassezia likes to feed off the oily sebum produced by sebaceous glands in the dermal layer of the scalp.
- This causes further irritation, inflammation and red, itchy patches of flaking skin. It is a vicious cycle as the sebaceous glands then attempt to produce more sebum to protect itself, which the Malassezia continues to feed off.
- Itching and redness occurs as the blood capillaries in the dermal layer are trying so hard to increase the immune response and create more cells in the epidermal layer for protection; resulting in the rapid rate of cell-turnover and large flakes of dead skin cells accumulating on the outermost layer of the scalp.
Further reading for people living with itchy flaky scalp
The Australasian College of Dermatologists
The Australasian College of Dermatologists was established in 1966 as the medical college responsible for the training and professional development of medical practitioners in the speciality of dermatology. Visit www.dermcoll.edu.au
The purpose of this page is to provide information on skin conditions, not to provide medical advice. Content was sourced from The Eczema Association of Australasia Inc. Links on this page to other sites on the Internet are provided for the benefit of site users and do not constitute medical advice, an endorsement of any other organisation /company or of their products or treatments.