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Itchy Scalp and Hair Loss? Dermatologists Reveal the Surprising Cause + How to Speed Regrowth

See why a shampoo swap and manicure might be in order

Your hair can be a reflection of your overall health. So when you’re dealing with an itchy scalp and hair loss, you’ll want to get to the root of the problem as quickly as possible. There’s a chance your itchy scalp and hair loss could be caused by an underlying health condition. Or, dermatologists say you may just need to make one surprisingly simple change to your hair care routine. Here’s what you need to know.

Top causes of an itchy scalp

The most common cause of an itchy scalp is a condition called seborrheic dermatitis, a type of eczema. “Seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin condition that causes the scalp to become oily, red and itchy,” says Michele Green, MD, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist in NYC. “Hormone fluctuations and environments such as low temperature and low humidity can both contribute to dermatitis.”

Dandruff is a mild form of seborrheic dermatitis that only affects the scalp. Your scalp may feel itchy, and you may notice white or yellowish flakes. However, dandruff typically doesn’t cause noticeable redness or inflammation.

At the other end of the spectrum, severe seborrheic dermatitis can cause more intense itching and flaking. You may also notice a red, scaly rash and inflammation. And unlike dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis can strike anywhere you have a lot of oil glands, including the nose, ears, eyelids and chest. (Click through to see our best scalp health treatments.)

A close up of a woman's itchy scalp with dandruff

Other causes of an itchy scalp

There are a few other possible causes for an itchy scalp, including:

  • Atopic dermatitis: the most common form of eczema
  • Contact dermatitis: an itchy reaction to a certain product, ingredient or allergen (Note: this can cause vaginal ulcers, too)
  • Scalp psoriasis: an autoimmune condition that causes an itchy, flaky rash or thick plaque on the scalp
  • Dysesthesia: a burning or tingling sensation, also known as “burning scalp syndrome,” which may be related to certain neurologic disorders or mental health conditions
  • Head lice: a wingless insect that feeds on the human scalp
  • Ringworm: a fungal infection that causes intense itching

Bottom line? “If the itch is persistent or causing scaling, bleeding or other impact on your quality of life, then it is something to worry about,” says Jennifer Gordon, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Westlake Dermatology in Austin, TX. “Also, if it is new or unexpected, those are signs to be checked by your dermatologist.”

Related: Why Does My Scalp Smell? Dermatologists Reveal What Women Over 50 Need to Know

Top causes of hair loss

The most common cause of hair loss is androgenetic alopecia, also known as female-pattern hair loss. “With this condition, hair follicle size naturally decreases and the hair becomes thinner,” Dr. Green explains. You may notice your part becoming wider and your hair thinning near the top of your scalp. Fluctuating hormones during menopause can contribute to this type of hair thinning, Dr. Green adds.

If you’ve been under a lot of stress recently, your hair loss may also be caused by a condition called telogen effluvium, Dr. Gordon says. Your hair naturally goes through growth (anagen), resting (catagen) and shedding (telogen) stages.

But after a major physical or emotional stressor, up to 70% of your hair can enter the telogen stage prematurely. If that happens, you may lose up to 300 strands of hair each day — about double or triple the normal amount. This is most common among women who are between 30 and 60 years old. The silver lining? This type of hair loss typically resolves within a few months. (See the best ways to reduce cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, plus discover how Ozempic can cause hair loss.)

A close up of a woman holding a brush and a clump of hair caused by hair loss

Some amount of hair loss is normal

While an itchy scalp and hair loss can be alarming, keep in mind that it’s normal to lose up to 150 hairs each day. So don’t panic if you see a few hairs in your brush or in the shower drain. And if you typically go a few days between hair washes, it may seem like you’re losing more hair than usual in the shower. That’s because washing your hair helps you get rid of any hairs you shed, so those “fallen” hairs can build up between washes.

How can you tell if your hair loss is normal or not? Don’t try to count them, Dr. Gordon says. Instead, just be on the lookout for visible changes. “If you notice your ponytail is thinner, or you can see your scalp more than before or you notice recession in your hairline or a wider part, these are all signs you might be losing more hair than you used to,” she says.

Related: If You Have Thinning Hair or a Flakey Scalp, This $10 Natural Oil Is The Beauty Hero You’ve Been Waiting For, Say Dermatologists

Itchy scalp and hair loss: The surprising culprit

Bothersome as they are dermatitis, dandruff, lice and other health bothers behind an itchy scalp typically don’t cause hair loss. Likewise, hair loss conditions like androgenetic alopecia and telogen effluvium typically don’t cause an itchy scalp. So if you have an itchy scalp and hair loss, what could be to blame?

The surprisingly common culprit: Your fingernails. When you have both symptoms happening at once, there’s a good chance the hair loss is caused by the act of repeatedly scratching an itchy scalp — not by the condition that caused the itchy scalp in the first place.

“Constantly scratching the scalp can lead to damage to the hair follicles,” Dr. Green explains. “Once the hair follicles are damaged, they are unable to produce healthy hair strands.”

Fortunately, this damage typically isn’t permanent. “Once the scratching stops and the hair follicles have time to repair themselves, the hair will grow back,” Dr. Green says. “The amount of time that it takes for a follicle to heal and regrow hair will depend on the severity of the damage. It can take anywhere from a few months to a year or more to see new hair growth.”

“However, picking or excessively scratching at the scalp can create open wounds that increase the risk of infection and folliculitis, or inflammation of hair follicles,” she adds. “Over time, folliculitis can permanently damage hair follicles and cause permanent hair loss from that follicle.”

A woman scratching her itchy scalp

Related: This Sneaky Vitamin Deficiency May Be the Cause of Your Thinning Hair — Here’s How to Really Fix It

How to treat an itchy scalp and hair loss

In addition to considering a stylishly short manicure to help thwart hair loss while your scalp heals, our experts say these simple tips can relieve the itch, boost hair growth and get your scalp back in balance.

1. Switch your shampoo

Soothing an itchy scalp may be as simple as swapping your shampoo. “Patients should take a close look at their scalp and hair type and make sure that the products they use are well suited for their scalp condition and hair,” Dr. Green says. Here’s what she suggests:

If you have dry hair: Choose a moisturizing shampoo and wash your hair less frequently.

If you have oily hair: Choose a clarifying shampoo and make sure you’re thoroughly washing your scalp to remove any buildup of product, debris, excess oil and dead skin cells. “Clarifying shampoos contain stronger cleansing or exfoliating ingredients compared to regular shampoos to allow for a deep cleanse of the scalp and hair,” Dr. Green explains. “Salicylic acid is a common ingredient found in clarifying shampoos that works to loosen and remove any impurities on the skin that can lead to dandruff, itching and irritation.”

If you have dandruff: Look for any of these ingredients, which can heal an itchy, irritated scalp.

  • Pyrithione zinc (the active ingredient in Head and Shoulders shampoo) is the most common ingredient for treating dandruff, thanks to its antimicrobial properties.
  • Salicylic acid works to exfoliate the scalp, sloughing off dead skin cells, oil and buildup.
  • Tea tree oil contains natural antibacterial and antifungal properties to control yeast overgrowth, limiting dandruff production.
White shampoo and conditioner bottles against a pink background

Related: Dermatologist-Recommended Shampoos for Hair Loss — Discover What’s Right for You

2. Massage your scalp

Research suggests scalp massage can work wonders for hair growth. And even a four-minute daily massage is enough to see a difference in hair thickness.

“A scalp massage is thought to stimulate circulation, widening the blood vessels and allowing for more nutrients and oxygen to reach the hair follicles to encourage hair growth,” Dr. Green says. “Scalp massages also aim to remove dead skin cells and product buildup on the scalp to allow for decreased scalp irritation and better absorption of hair growth serums and other products.”

She suggests dividing your hair into sections, then using the pads of your fingertips — not your nails! — to gently massage the scalp in a circular motion, one section at a time. Tip: Considering adding an essential oil like rosemary, which studies suggest boosts hair growth, to your scalp massage. (See how spironolactone for hair loss can help, too.)

Check out the short video below to get started:

3. Try this supplement

Consider adding a hair growth supplement to your daily wellness routine. Dr. Gordon personally swears by Nutrafol, a supplement designed for women over 45 that targets the main causes of hair loss, including hormonal changes, stress and aging. The formula includes adaptogens to balance stress hormones, antioxidants to minimize environmental stress and peptides for stronger hair.

If you still don’t see an improvement in hair loss after giving your itchy scalp some TLC, schedule a visit to the dermatologist to rule out any underlying conditions and discuss stronger treatment options.

For more ways to keep your hair thick, heathy and shiny:

This Sneaky Vitamin Deficiency May Be the Cause of Your Thinning Hair — Here’s How to Really Fix It

Dermatologist-Recommended Shampoos for Hair Loss — Discover What’s Right for You

Why Does My Scalp Smell? Dermatologists Reveal What Women Over 50 Need to Know

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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