Updated: Jul 9, 2020
There is nothing more annoying than an itch that just won’t seem to go away. The more you scratch it, the itchier it gets. But never is it more annoying than when it is on your scalp. Not only are you scratching your head all day long, but skin flakes are flying everywhere too.
There are several things that can cause at itchy scalp. It could be from a strong shampoo that irritates your skin, pollutants, or maybe you have a more serious condition like psoriasis, but more likely than not it is dandruff.
Though there are many skin conditions that cause itchiness, dandruff is by far the most common. It affects 50 million Americans and is most commonly caused by a condition called seborrheic dermatitis, which affects about 5% of the population. Generally, dandruff is less serious than other conditions that cause itchiness, and it will be the focal point of this article. You should always consult with your doctor to determine the cause of your itchy scalp, you want to make sure it isn’t something more serious than dandruff before you start treatment.
What may be worse than dandruff is not knowing if it is related to hair loss or not. Lucky for you, dandruff is not a symptom of androgenic alopecia (pattern hair loss), though it can cause temporary hair loss. Excessive scratching and other underlying conditions can result in dandruff causing hair loss, and if left unmanaged it can cause permanent damage. If you have androgenic alopecia itching may accelerate the balding process.
In this article we are going to explain how itching your head may cause hair loss/damage and provide 3 natural treatments that you can use to manage dandruff.
How itching damages your hair
Before we explore exactly how itching damages your hair, it is important to note that dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis can cause hair loss in and of themselves. Studies have shown that oxidative stress and scalp inflammation can both cause hair loss, both of which are common symptoms of dandruff. But, we are focusing on how itching can compound onto the damage that dandruff may already be causing your hair.
Scalp itchiness can be a big problem not only because it is our body’s natural response to itch, but also because it gives us temporary relief that feels amazing. The problem is that the temporary relief goes away relatively quickly, but the damage stays.
When you scratch your head, you are chipping away at your hairs cuticle. The cuticle is your hairs outer layer and natural defense mechanism. It is responsible for keeping hair intact, locking in moisture, and giving hair volume.
Your cuticles are essentially structured like shingles on a house. When you itch too aggressively or frequently the “shingles” start to break off. This causes loss of moisture and a weakened structure and can result in the hair becoming dry and brittle. When your hair is in this weakened state it breaks off easily which is where the “hair loss” from itching comes from. This breakage usually occurs in the middle of the hair shaft, meaning the hair bulb (base) will still be intact. Luckily for those not suffering from pattern hair loss, this is nothing like the process of miniaturization (where the hair follicle essentially slowly dies), meaning the hair can be grown back so long as the itching stops.
Normally when you have dandruff one of the common symptoms is a dry scalp, and when your scalp is dry, the skin is weak and may not protect your hair as well as it normally would. Itching your skin can also lead to inflammation, which, as described in the study liked above, can cause hair loss as well. The combination of these two factors, as well as itching, can sometimes cause hair to fall out at a relatively quick rate, and may even lead to overall thinning.
On the plus side, this hair loss is usually not permanent and can be grown back so long as the dandruff and itching are taken care of…
Natural remedies for dandruff and scalp itchiness
If you want to stop the itching you have to stop dandruff first.
Dandruff is most commonly caused by the overgrowth of a naturally occurring scalp fungus called malassezia. While we are going to talk about 3 natural ways to alleviate dandruff, it is important to note that ketoconazole is the most well-studied and likely effective dandruff treatment. Here is a link to a ketoconazole shampoo that I swear by, it contains no harsh chemicals and is specially formulated for hair loss.
Here are the three best natural dandruff treatments:
Tea tree oil
Tea tree oil is antimicrobial. This means that it helps to kill off and suppress further growth of fungus, bacteria, and yeast. It works similarly to ketoconazole and has been studied in that regard. In this study, 126 male and female participants were randomly selected to receive either a placebo or 5% tea tree oil for the treatment of dandruff. Not only did tea tree oil show improvement in 41% of people, but results were statistically significant for many areas including reduction in itching, total area affected by dandruff, severity, and more. There have been other studies done that confirm that tea tree oil is an effective remedy for dandruff.
How do I use tea tree oil? Some shampoos contain tea tree oil, but make sure they are free of harsh chemicals (what to watch out for in shampoo here). Otherwise, you can add a couple of drops of tea tree oil to your regular shampoo. Make sure you are not applying tea tree oil directly to your scalp because it can cause inflammation, always dilute it.
Lemongrass oil is also antimicrobial and works just like tea tree oil to help kill off the fungus malassezia, which is primarily responsible for dandruff. Where it distinguishes itself from tea tree oil is with its anti-inflammatory and yeast-preventing properties.
Lemongrass has been shown to be a potent anti-inflammatory. This is great for people suffering from dandruff because inflammation is a common symptom and, as stated earlier, can cause damage to hair.
Yeast on the other hand has been known to exacerbate seborrheic dermatitis. When seborrheic dermatitis is worsened, so will be the dandruff that is caused by it. Being that it is effective against yeast, lemongrass oil can help prevent the worsening of dandruff and may even be able to help seborrheic dermatitis.
Similarly to tea tree oil, lemongrass oil can cause scalp irritation and inflammation if it is applied directly. It is best to add a couple of drops to your daily shampoo to most effectively reap the benefits without damaging your hair.
Aloe vera’s primary benefit is that it helps alleviate itching by relieving inflammation. Though studies (1,2) have shown aloe vera to be antimicrobial, it has never been tested against malassezia alone, which means it has not (yet) been proven to stop the root cause of dandruff.
I wanted to include aloe vera on this list because it can be very helpful when used with other remedies, like those listed above. It is (anecdotally) very effective at relieving itchiness caused by dandruff, and by using it alongside another treatment that kills dandruff at the source, you are not only protecting your hair from damage caused by itching, but stopping dandruff at the same time.
Aloe vera has been studied as an antioxidant as well. Oxidation can cause damage, sometimes that is permanent, to the cells in your hair. Oxidation is a common symptom of dandruff but can also be caused by UV exposure, pollution, and several other environmental factors. By helping neutralize oxidation, aloe vera may be able to go beyond alleviating just dandruff, by protecting your hair from damage as well.
Lastly, aloe vera has been shown to be able to effectively heal wounds. Sometimes, depending on how severe your dandruff is, itching can cause scrapes and cuts on your scalp. Aloe vera may be able to speed up the recovery process from those wounds. It can also be applied directly to the scalp without causing irritation making it a great compliment to either tea tree or lemongrass oil.
Not only is an itchy scalp annoying, but it can lead to temporary hair loss and further hair problems down the line, and can speed up pattern hair loss if you suffer from androgenic alopecia. Most commonly, scalp itchiness is the result of dandruff, but again you should always consult your doctor to ensure it isn’t something more serious.
By treating dandruff you can help alleviate your itchy scalp, and luckily for you, dandruff is relatively treatable. Whether you choose one of the natural remedies we talked about or decide to use ketoconazole shampoo, make sure you take action towards your dandruff and scalp itch as soon as possible so that you don’t damage your hair any more.