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Does Your Scalp Ever Feel Itchy?

Don’t ignore it. What to know about surprising causes — and when to seek medical attention

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But I don't think I can...itchy scalp
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Beyoncé once sang to “pat your weave,” which was in good fun. But if you’ve been patting your hair, or your weave — whatevs — because it’s itchy, that’s something to pay attention to.

An occasional prickle isn’t necessarily noteworthy. But if you scratch your scalp more often, it may be time to seek help. “Itchy scalp can be due to medical conditions that can be treated,” confirms Angela Kyei, staff dermatologist and founder of the Multicultural Skin & Hair Center at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “One of the most common reasons for an itchy scalp is a condition called seborrheic dermatitis (sometimes termed dry scalp). This is characterized by flaking and itching of the scalp. We believe it is caused by a yeast, so we prescribe shampoos that attack the yeast as well as give you an ointment to relieve the itching.”

For mild cases of dry scalp, over-the-counter shampoos with selenium or zinc pyrithione may help, Cleveland Clinic confirms. Tea tree oil, which has anti-inflammatory properties, can too. But if the itch doesn’t respond to over-the-counter remedies, talk to your health care provider, who may prescribe prescription shampoos (like the ones Kyei mentioned).

That said, dry scalp isn’t the only possible reason for prickliness. See these additional tips on fighting an itch and the serious conditions to watch out for.

Wash your hair once a week. Yes, the effort required for wash day, or going to salon appointments, can sometimes seem worthy of its own holiday. But, your scalp and your hair need love, and you may want to give this love more frequently.

“Most of my curly/coiled hair patients regularly wash their hair every other week, but when they have seborrheic dermatitis, more frequent washing is required,” Kyei confirms.

Also plan to add even more time to your routine. “I often tell my patients to shampoo once weekly and leave the prescription shampoo on the scalp for 10 to 15 minutes before washing [it] out,” Kyei adds.

Pro tip: Since medicated shampoos can dry our hair, especially curly or coily hair, Kyei advises her patients to “use a good moisturizing conditioner after washing.”

Take care with wigs, extensions, braids and weaves. These styles can be “one of the many ways we as African Americans express our creativity and change our looks,” Kyei notes. “With that said, these styles can cause hair loss and worsen seborrheic dermatitis if they don’t allow for regular washing.”

That means, even if you intend for these styles to be protective, they can make some hair and scalp issues worse. “I advise that if these styles are worn, they shouldn’t be tight to avoid traction alopecia [a form of gradual hair loss caused by pulling on the hair] and the scalp should be cleaned regularly,” Kyei explains.

Understand the possibility of another medical issue. Sometimes, dry scalp isn’t what causes itchiness, according to Cleveland Clinic.

Psoriasis, a chronic autoimmune disease that causes raised, reddish, scaly patches on the skin or scalp, is another possibility. It can be treated with medicated shampoos or other medication.

Ringworm, a fungal infection, can cause hair loss if it infects the scalp. And it can be more common in people with tightly coiled hair, Kyei notes. Signs include “round patches of hair loss that increase in size over time,” Cleveland Clinic reports, noting that a doctor would prescribe oral, antifungal medications to treat the issue.

Head lice, though seemingly more likely in people with straight hair, also can be a culprit, Kyei confirms.

Allergic reactions can cause itchiness and can result from things like hair dyes or laundry detergent, with issues including eczema or atopic dermatitis (a form of eczema that can appear as a red, itchy rash). Even often wearing hats can figure in. In general, if you can find the cause of an allergic reaction, you can avoid the issue. But if you can’t find the cause, you may want to talk to your health care provider about allergy testing and next steps.

Certain alopecias, while less common, also can cause itching.

Talk to your health care provider. Consult with your provider if you’ve tried over-the-counter products but still feel itchy. Also talk with your provider if you suspect any medical conditions named in this story or if you have hair loss, sores on your scalp, a tender scalp or other bothersome conditions.

There’s no shame in asking for help. After all, we can do lots to care for our hair; it makes sense to also care for what’s underneath it.