How to treat an itchy scalp – plus, the surprising causes

Suffering from a dry, flaky, fussy scalp? Ditch the itch with Stylist’s expert guide from leading trichologists and hairdressers.

There was a time when an itchy scalp could only mean one thing. Now? We’d bet our entire haircare arsenal that pesky nits aren’t to blame for your irritable head.

In fact, there are a whole host of reasons why you could be plagued by a fussy scalp with matters only made worse by the fact some of the very products we’re wielding might actually be exacerbating the problem. 

We grilled some of the industry’s best hairdressers and trichologists (they’re the experts in the science of hair and scalp health) for their tips, tricks and favourite products to combat the dreaded itch.

What causes an itchy scalp? 

“Your scalp is skin so it can become itchy for similar reasons to the skin on the rest of your body. For instance, a change in season, central heating, and cold dry winter air all commonly make the scalp itch. Long haul flights can also cause your scalp to become itchy for a few days. It may even correlate with your mood, anxiety levels, menstrual cycle (itching might occur before or during your period) and state of health. Sometimes, your scalp can be sensitive for no apparent reason,” explains Anabel Kingsley, trichologist at Philip Kingsley.

There are also certain conditions that might be behind that persistent ‘gah’ feeling. “These include contact dermatitis (caused by an allergen or irritant), psoriasis (although this tends to leave more of a ‘tight’ feeling) and folliculitis (an inflammation of hair follicles.) However the main culprits are dandruff and seborrhoeic dermatitis (dandruff’s big and often oilier brother).”

Hairdresser Michael Van Clarke reckons the styling products we use and even how we wear our locks could also be to blame.

“The build-up of pollutants, sebum, dead skin cells and styling products – particularly those with silicones and other plasticisers – can suffocate follicles leading to inflammation. Also, if hair is pulled into a high ponytail, against the natural lay of the root direction, for long periods it can lead to an itching and aching as the individual tiny muscles at the base of each hair re-align themselves. Think how your shoulder would feel if your arm was held up behind your back for four hours then released,” Van Clarke comments.

What is dandruff? 

“This is where the confusion often lies – dandruff is not dry, it is in fact an oily scalp condition,” reveals Kingsley.

“Dandruff and seborrhoeic dermatitis occur when the micro-flora of your scalp becomes unbalanced and certain yeasts (called the Malassezia species of yeasts) overgrow. This causes skin cells to re-produce more rapidly than usual, resulting in the development of tell-tale flakes and irritation.

“Why these yeasts overgrow can be the result of a number of factors including stress, a dairy-heavy diet or infrequent shampooing since yeasts thrive in an oily environment.”

How can I relieve or treat an itchy scalp? 

Kingsley advises treating scalp conditions with consistent daily use of topical products – in the same way you’d address a skin condition like acne.

“Use a targeted shampoo and scalp toner daily. Then twice a week, apply an intensive scalp mask until your symptoms clear. Dandruff and seborrhoeic dermatitis tend to reoccur and are not ‘curable’ – so keep these products handy in your shower to use as needed.

“Make sure you are shampooing at least every other day – or daily, if you can. It is particularly important to remove dead skin cells and excess oils when you have a scalp condition. Other topical products you use are also better able to penetrate a clean scalp.

“Taking a holistic approach is also key – it is not simply the products you use, but how you are looking after yourself internally. If you frequently suffer from an itchy, flaky scalp, you should take a look at your diet. I recommend my clients increase their intake of foods rich in anti-inflammatory Omega 3 such as salmon, sardines, seaweed, chia seeds and flax seeds. Taking an Omega 3 supplement can help, too.

“You should try to deduce if certain foods or drinks make your scalp flare up and then adjust your diet accordingly,” suggests Kingsley. 

Why is my scalp itchier in winter? 

“Scalp crankiness often peaks in the winter due to central heating and cold weather – both of which can dry out your scalp.

“Stress levels can also skyrocket around the festive season, which can disrupt the skin’s barrier function and spark flaking and itching in those who are pre-disposed to dandruff. That said – you can get stress-related itching without tell-tale flakes as stress can trigger itch receptors in your skin.

“Diet also plays a role. Winter is the season of cheese plates and celebratory glasses of champagne which can aggravate your scalp. Other foods which can trigger itching are very sugary and spicy foods and tomatoes or red peppers. Psoriasis can also worsen in winter due to decreased sun exposure,” says Kingsley.

What ingredients are best for treating an itchy scalp? 

According to Kingsley, power ingredients to look for are: camphor (soothing and cooling), witch hazel (anti-inflammatory and oil-absorbing), zinc PCA (anti-itching and oil-regulating), salicylic acid (exfoliating) and piroctone olamine (an anti-microbial that specifically targets the Malassezia yeasts).

“For more stubborn and scaly scalp conditions, prescription masks containing sulphur and coal tar derivatives can be very beneficial. Just avoid rubbing oils onto your scalp – dandruff and seborrheoic dermatitis are oily scalp conditions so these will only make them worse,” she adds.

9 of the best products for dandruff or an itchy scalp

  • Best toner for an itchy scalp: Philip Kingsley Flaky/Itchy Scalp Toner

    Anabel Kingsley recommends using this scalp toner everyday – just as you would a toner for your skin.

    It contains two of her top ingredients for an itchy scalp including camphor to instantly cool the zone down and pirotone olamine that specifically targets the yeasts – an excess growth of which causes those tell-tale dandruff flakes and irritation.

    Simply apply the no-rinse water-based formula to freshly washed, damp hair in sections and distribute with your fingertips. It can also be used on dry hair.

    The Philip Kingsley Flaky/Itchy Scalp range also offers a mask and shampoo. 

    Shop Philip Kingsley Flaky/Itchy Scalp Toner at Cult Beauty, £10


  • Best natural shampoo for an itchy scalp: Tony Maleedy Juniper Scalp Therapy Shampoo

    Jane Mayhead, trichologist at The Private Clinic of Harley Street, recommends this shampoo that’s been specifically designed for a range of problematic scalp conditions including dandruff, dryness, irritation and inflammation. 

    It uses an assortment of different oils from juniper to tea tree, rosemary and eucalyptus so it doesn’t just feel divine, it smells it too. 

    Another trick of hers? Be sure to wash your dry shampoo from your hair thoroughly. 

    Shop Juniper Scalp Therapy Shampoo at Tony Maleedy, £17.50


  • Best exfoliating treatment for an itchy scalp: Michael Van Clarke Scalp Exfoliating Treatment

    “High-grade natural alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) gently lift dead skin cells, dried sebum and pollutants,” says hairdresser Michael Van Clarke who recommends avoiding those containing plastic microbeads as these can damage the delicate skin. 

    His own exfoliating treatment can be used weekly. Just massage into the scalp in sections then leave for 20 minutes before following with your shampoo and conditioner. 

    Shop Michael Van Clarke Scalp Exfoliating Treatment at Van Clarke, £19


  • Best exfoliating shampoo for an itchy scalp: Aveda Invati Advanced Exfoliating Shampoo

    This clever cell-sloughing shampoo has achieved cult status in the beauty world. The hair equivalent of an exfoliating cleanser, it uses salicylic acid to eat away at pore-clogging dead skin cells and build-up. 

    Locks are left renewed and feeling infinitely thicker. It also promises not to interfere with your colour. 

    Shop Aveda Invati Advanced Exfoliating Shampoo at John Lewis, £26


  • Best treatment for a dry scalp: Living Proof Restore Dry Scalp Treatment

    This leave-in fix has been crafted specifically for dry scalps in need of intensive hydration. 

    It uses ingredients often found in hydrating skincare including hyaluronic acid and vitamin B3. 

    Pop it on three times a week when hair’s clean, damp and detangled then work into your scalp with your fingertips. 

    Shop Living Proof Restore Dry Scalp Treatment at Lookfantastic, £25


  • Best scalp oil for afro hair: Cantu Shea Butter Tea Tree and Jojoba Hair and Scalp Oil

    This works a treat at soothing and moisturising sensitive scalps in afro hair. It’s ultra-nourishing and the precise nozzle is particularly handy if you have braids.

    Jojoba oil is similar to the sebum we naturally produce meaning it absorbs seamlessly and isn’t likely to cause a reaction. Apply it as often as required. 

    Shop Cantu Shea Butter Tea Tree and Jojoba Hair and Scalp Oil, £6.35


  • Best anti-dandruff shampoo with coal tar: Neutrogena T/Gel Therapeutic Shampoo

    Coal tar is one of Anabel Kingsley’s top ingredients for tackling dandruff or seborrhoeic dermatitis and this high street shampoo is loaded with it. 

    It has a strong medicinal smell but it gets the job done. Used up to three times a week, it’s designed to be left on the scalp for a few minutes before rinsing and repeating. 

    Shop Neutrogena T/Gel Therapeutic Shampoo at Boots, £6.99


  • Best anti-dandruff shampoo for smoothing: Head & Shoulders Supreme Smooth Anti-Dandruff Shampoo

    Who said anti-dandruff shampoos can’t still feel dreamy? Head & Shoulders’ range now includes versions for all different hair types although we’re particularly taken with this pick for de-frizzing. 

    Containing Piroctone Olamine, it banishes fuzz while leaving tresses soft and silky. 

    Shop Head & Shoulders Supreme Smooth Anti-Dandruff Shampoo at Boots, £5


Images: Getty and courtesy of brands

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