Suffering from an itchy scalp can be tremendously annoying! You scratch but try not to (especially in public) and as the day progresses it gets worse. Sometimes, the only way you find relief is by washing your hair again, right?
Wrong my friend. Washing your hair again will only give you temporary relief.
One of the most common questions we have people reaching out to us for surrounds the topic of an itchy scalp.
Why is my scalp always itchy?
Should I be washing my hair more often, or less often?
Does an itchy scalp mean I have a fungus growing? Dandruff? Something worse?
Will I lose my hair over having an itchy scalp?
There are a number of causes for an itchy scalp:
Washing frequency (too often, or not often enough)
Sensitivity (to an ingredient in your hair product, medication/pruritus, illness-induced itchiness).
Fungus or bacteria (going to bed with wet or damp hair, bacteria transfer from scratching with nails or dirty hair brushes/combs)
Scalp microbiome is off-balance (from any or all of the above reasons, and can even be diet-related)
Wearing a hat or a head covering (some people get an itchy scalp after wearing a baseball cap for one day; others get an itchy scalp after 2-3 days of wearing a Hijab, for example, as this can create a dark and moist environment. Watch our video on this topic [HERE]).
Your shampoo. Let's delve a bit more into this topic specifically.
Good news: The culprit may be your shampoo. Bad news: The culprit may be your shampoo.
The good news is that if your shampoo is causing your scalp to itch, you can change the cause: The shampoo – and you'll find relief almost immediately as your scalp will no longer be irritated. It may take a bit of time for you to find the right shampoo that won't cause itchiness because many hair products use basically the same ingredients, yet the search and experimenting are worth the effort.
There are many reasons why your shampoo can be causing an itchy scalp:
Your shampoo is too drying.
Many cosmetic ingredients can result in a dry scalp. A dry scalp will flake and cause itchiness, as your scalp naturally wants to rid itself of the flakes and produce more oils to protect itself, so it'll feel itchy in order for you to relieve it by scratching.
We will often see these types of ingredients being used in shampoos that cater specifically to the "greasy hair" or "oily hair" types. Sulfates are one such example, as they have been extensively tested and have been found to cause irritation and dryness.
You will recognize sulfate-derived ingredients by their name on your shampoo bottle, such as "sulfate" (sulfo) or "sulfoacetate". Examples include Dioctyl Sodium Sulfosuccinate, Laureth Sulfate Sodium, Lauryl Sulfate. Although not always, such as with Sodium Lauroyl Taurate.
When in doubt, look for the label to clearly say "sulfate-free".
Other ingredients that can be irritating to the scalp are perfumes, often labelled as "aroma" or "parfum". These perfumes are synthetically made and highly scented perfumes that will make your hair smell nice for a limited time – since hair is porous and takes on any scent. Cosmetic manufacturers use perfumes to capture their audience without much regard for how these strong scents can irritate your scalp.
Some cosmetic manufacturers will use essential oil combinations as well, and unfortunately, even though these ingredients are natural, they can be quite irritating to the scalp. If you're in search of the ingredient that you may be sensitive to, maybe try using an unscented shampoo and see how your scalp reacts to it (or doesn't!). This is the reason why we do have an unscented option for our Powdered Shampoo – because some scalps can be more easily irritated by perfumes or even essential oils.
YOUR SHAMPOO HASN'T BEEN PROPERLY MANUFACTURED.
Another reason why your shampoo may be too drying is that it's not properly formulated; it can be that it includes too many strong surfactants (cleansers) in order to create foam for aesthetics purposes (to make it foam nice and pretty like you're used to), resulting in a product that is similar to dish or clothes detergents.
Remember: Foaming doesn't mean a shampoo will cleanse better. It is possible to create shampoos with very little foam activity.
Our shampoos, for example, will foam without making copious amounts of foam that froth everywhere – like what you see in cartoons! :)
We use surfactants (cleansing ingredients) that are balanced yet gentle, that cleanse thoroughly the scalp without the need for super huge bubbles.
It is possible, and it will result in a good cleanse that is soothing and creamy without drying your scalp.
YOUR SHAMPOO IS REALLY JUST... SOAP.
Don't get me wrong, I just love a nice soap too, but it doesn't belong on the scalp.
We see many soap-based shampoos, which are highly damaging to the scalp. They can either be the equivalent of liquid soap (what you'd wash your hands with), dish soap, laundry detergent, or soap bars.
DON'T DO IT. Soap does not belong on the scalp.
Why is this? Because soap is way too drying to the scalp. Many soapmakers try to create a liquid shampoo by suggesting it's good for the scalp because it has higher residual fat content (called "superfatting" in soapmaking) but the bottom line is that soap is too alkaline for the scalp and it will irritate it by breaking down the acid mantle barrier on the scalp.
This breakdown may take some time, but it will happen – it's inevitable. The scalp has quite an acidic mantle that protects it, and if it's combined with products that are too alkaline this natural protection will be damaged.
You will recognize a soap-derived shampoo by seeing "saponified" on the label, or by seeing the ingredients "sodium cocoate, sodium olivate and sodium castorate" somewhere on the label.
Using liquid soaps and soap-based shampoo bars is the reason why your scalp may become itchy if you go swimming in a salt-water chlorinated pool too, as some of the "superfatting" process we talked about earlier is more difficult to wash off the scalp, making it stick to the scalp's natural oils. Combine this with the pH of salt and/or chlorine, and whamo... you have itchiness! Here's more on the topic of pH:
YOUR SHAMPOO HAS THE WRONG pH
THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT, so follow through here for a quick tip on pH:
pH, or potential/possibility of Hydrogen, is a unit of measurement used to calibrate whether something is very acidic (low pH) or alkaline (high pH). This unit of measurement is used in many things we put on our skin – from lotions and creams, cleansers and even liquid makeup – to the foods we ingest, to the soil that plants will best grow in, to how safe a pool is on our skin and hair, to how irritating RAIN can be on our skin!
pH really matters, unfortunately, not all shampoos follow the golden rule:
Best pH for skin (scalp) is between 5 and 5.5 pH
Best pH for conditioner (hair) is between 4-4.5 pH.
We have a whole blog post on just this topic [HERE].
Speaking of soap, for example, the pH of soap is very high, sitting anywhere between 9 and 11 pH. This is why it's harmful to the skin on your head (the scalp). A high pH has the ability to kill bacteria, this is why the hand sanitizer you've come to know and love can kill bacteria, and why some cleansing bars are not able to kill bacteria effectively even though they foam. Since the skin is covered with different types of bacteria and fungi in order to protect itself, using a product that is high in pH can harm the friendly bacteria on your scalp: the microbiome: our next topic.
YOUR SHAMPOO IS HARMING YOUR SCALP MICROBIOME
Another topic we covered quite in depth [HERE], is the microbiome on the scalp.
Our whole skin is covered in a community of microorganisms, like fungi, bacteria, and viruses, that work together in unison to protect it. Similarly to the microbiota in your gut (the "gut flora" as we've come to know it), if it's thrown off balance by any of the reasons mentioned previously, it will result in:
itchiness (the first sign that something is not quite right)
a dry scalp
an oilier scalp
rashes and even eczema, psoriasis, and more serious issues like hair fall and thinning
Then: How do we fix an itchy scalp?
The first thing to do is to switch your shampoo. It's just not working for you.
Try different shampoos and look for more naturally derived, gentler shampoos. This is the reason why we created our very gentle shampoos – both our Nourishing Green shampoo bar and our Bi-Phase shampoo bar, as well as our Powdered Shampoo. All gentle, with the difference that the Bi-Phase shampoo bar has a conditioner attached to it, for those that have more dry, damaged hair.
NEXT: DO NOT use conditioner on your scalp. Ever.
Conditioners are made to have a lower pH than the skin on your head can handle because a conditioner is meant to be acidic enough for the hair to close its cuticle in order to protect it from water entering it too much, and to feel smoother, and to protect hair colour.
Use a shampoo to wash as close to the scalp as possible, then rinse it out.
Add a conditioner to your hair lengths only – put your head upside down if necessary, in order to make the process easier. But do not condition your scalp.
Conditioners are very irritating on the scalp. You may not feel it immediately, but they too can cause itchiness.
FINALLY: SWITCH UP YOUR ROUTINE.
The less you do to your scalp, the better. This means:
If you wash daily, wash less often and let the scalp's microbiome adjust itself.
If you wash every 4-5 days, wash more often. Washing infrequently can also have an impact on your scalp, as there can be a build-up (oils, hair products, dust, and pollen) that can irritate your scalp.
If you use conditioner for your hair, make sure it's less, it's lighter, and it doesn't touch your scalp.
Do not go to bed with wet or even damp hair.
Practice scalp massaging nightly. Just for 2 minutes every night before bedtime, to loosen up any oils and dirt that can irritate your scalp. Scalp massages improve circulation on the scalp.
Use less product on your hair: Less gels, mousse, hairspray, less stylers in general. Be gentle and simplify, as every product you put on your hair can also travel UP the hair shaft.
WHAT IF THE ITCHINESS PERSISTS?
If you've tried it all and your scalp still feels irritated, sore, and itchy, visit your healthcare practitioner who may recommend you see a Dermatologist. It could be that you have a different condition that needs to be identified and resolved by a professional.