Reasons why your scalp is itchy – and how to fix it

What's making your head itch?
What's making your head itch?

An itchy scalp is admittedly gross: Is it dandruff? Eww! There are other reasons your scalp is itchy. Here, the myriad of reasons and how to nix it.

The usual suspects

Flaky, itchy dandruff, the bane of half the population, has three main causes: an oily scalp (not a dry one), a build-up of dead skin or styling products or a yeast-like fungus called malassezia.

Vigorously massaging shampoo into your scalp (not just into your hair) may lift product build-up, but if flaking persists, use shampoo containing zinc or salicylic acid, which treat fungus, build-up and oil. Still itching after a few weeks? You may need to visit your dermatologist to see if something else is going on.

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Ingredients in some hair products can prompt an allergic reaction, says Dr Maria Hordinsky. “The allergen is often fragrance or a moisturising agent called propylene glycol.”

If your whole head feels itchy, stop using these suspects for a week; if the irritation goes away, replace your old products with fragrance- or PG-free options. Scorching temps from styling tools like blow-dryers, flat-irons and curling irons can also dry out the scalp and cause itchiness, so keep heat settings on medium.


When your itch is in just one spot, it could be a skin condition like psoriasis, an autoimmune disease that causes raised, scaly patches, says dermatologist Dr Joshua Zeichner. If your dermatologist determines this is the case, use a shampoo with coal tar – sounds weird, but it works. Your doctor can prescribe stronger remedies if needed.

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One itch that’s rare but not to be ignored: A crusty spot about a quarter-inch in diameter could be a precancerous lesion called actinic keratosis, the result of sun exposure over many years, says Dr Hordinsky. About 10% of these become cancerous, so see your dermatologist as soon as possible to have it checked and, if needed, removed. Ward off future damage by using a sunscreen specially formulated for the scalp – even in winter.

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Image credit: iStock

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