If you remove a ponytail or bun and your "hair hurts", you may not have much to worry about; but if you're feeling this pain all the time without pulling your hair back, then it may be cause for concern. Let's take a look at the most common reasons for scalp/hair pain:
Release the bun!
Temporary "scalp pain" from wearing tight hairstyles can be the most common reason, often described as a combination of pleasurable yet comforting pain (strange as it may seem, but this is what many tight-bun wearers describe when releasing the bun and letting hair flow freely: "uncomfortably good").
Why does your scalp hurt? This particular temporary pain is caused by a sudden "awakening" of the hair follicles (where your hair grows out from) as blood rushes back to them after being pulled back from being in the same direction all day long.
Be aware that pulling hair back tight can cause damage to these hair follicles, and even cause traction alopecia – the type of hair loss caused by pulling back on your hair too often, constricting blood vessels that help your hair to grow (ballerinas see this type of hair loss often, as do women with textured and Afro hair who pull their hair back tightly in order to protect the hair).
Fevers and headaches, incoming colds!
Even fighting a cold can cause certain parts of your skin to "hurt" to the touch. Some people will feel this type of skin pain on their arms, hands, or torso when their body is fighting a cold, while others feel it on their scalp. Fevers can also cause this temporary type of pain, as the skin becomes sensitive to the touch, however, if it persists, you must consult your healthcare practitioner as it may be an underlying problem that requires medication.
More than one-day scalp pain
If you're not wearing a tight bun and your scalp is tender, then you may have to have a closer look at what could be causing it. Some reasons may be:
Product build-up on your scalp
Conditioner use on your scalp
You're washing too often
Sleeping with damp or wet hair
Skin issues + allergic reactions
Some of these issues can also be the reason why you may be suffering from dandruff – so if you're noticing pain on your scalp, discomfort and itching, consider some of these reasons:
1. Product build-up on your scalp
If you're using a combination of cleansers that have too many conditioning ingredients (like 2-in-1 shampoos), silicone ingredients (like dimethicone or cyclomethicone), heavy butters (like shea or cocoa butter), gels, mousse and leave-ins, chances are you may have product build-up on your scalp.
Many people with wavy, curly and coily hair have a tendency to aim for the "perfect wave or curl" by loading up on often more than 5 products every wash day! This causes build-up that may not always be easy to remove by washing your hair and scalp. Many of these ingredients are heavy on the scalp and over time, can build up, causing comedogenic effects (clogging of the scalp pores and follicles).
The best advice is to look for more natural styling products and good cleansers that are multi-purpose. Less is best, and your scalp microbiome will thank you by producing healthier hair! (you can read more on the scalp microbiome [HERE]).
2. Conditioners are harsh on the scalp!
There really should be a warning label on the packaging of conditioners, because they are not meant to touch the scalp – only the hair length itself.
Some of the ingredients used in conditioners – the ones that actually act to condition your hair by closing the cuticle down are called "cationic", and they will only work at a certain pH level (power of Hydrogen) which is too low for that of skin. They can be irritating, causing "skin pain", rashes and redness/inflammation on the skin. If you're applying conditioners and leave-in conditioners directly on the scalp, you will find them irritating.
Some people even get this type of skin irritation and pain on their forehead and neck area (the 'nape') from conditioner build-up touching their skin.
To avoid this type of pain, be sure to rinse conditioners very well off your scalp, face and neck, and only apply them on the lengths of the hair. It helps to apply conditioner to your hair while you're upside down, as this will help guide you to avoid the scalp altogether.
If you want to learn more about pH read our blog post [HERE].
3. Washing your hair too often? NO NO – IT'S Not ALWAYS SO good!
It's not necessary to wash the hair and scalp daily. Washing hair daily can dry out the scalp too, and in turn, cause it to produce more oils (the scalp's natural protective action). This repeated process not only sends the signal to the scalp that it needs to do this on a regular basis, causing an overproduction of sebum (scalp oils), but it irritates the heck out of it!
An overly dry and/or greasy scalp can be one of the reasons for contact dermatitis – a fungus that results in an irritated, red, sore, itchy or flaky scalp.
Try extending your wash days to every 2 days, then every 3 days for a healthier scalp microbiome that looks after its own ecosystem. It may take you a month or so until your scalp adjusts and calms down, but it'll be well worth it!
4. YOU LIKE Nighttime showers? Make them earlier.
Going to bed with damp or wet hair creates a breeding ground for bacteria, as air will not easily circulate between your scalp and the pillow.
Many wavy/curly/coily hair types prefer to not use a hairdryer on their hair as it can be damaging to both hair and scalp, so they prefer the ease and effect they get from sleeping with their hair on a bun or a protective cover. Plus, they will sleep using a silk pillowcase, which does not allow the scalp to breathe properly (yes, the scalp needs air to 'breathe'). If this is you, then have a shower at approximately 3 to 4 hours before bedtime to allow your hair to dry well before sleeping on it.
The body goes through temperature changes during the night, and this can be irritating to the scalp when it gets too hot, as the natural oils it will produce at night can again clog pores and irritate the scalp, causing slight "skin pain" and discomfort.
5. Your products are too harsh!
Many shampoos, especially clarifying shampoos, can do quite a number on the scalp. Some shampoos are so strong (even those that may not contain SLS or paraben-free preservatives) that it can be like washing your hair with soap or dish detergents. They may give you that squeaky-clean feeling, but they can totally strip your scalp of its protective oils, irritating the hair follicle and overproducing more oils, as mentioned earlier.
The best thing you can do is use small amounts of shampoo when you wash, try to go longer between washes and leave the shampoo on your scalp for a very small amount of time. There should also not be a need to "double wash", so if your shampoo container says to "wash, rinse, repeat" then maybe you need a more effective shampoo that is gentler on the scalp.
6. Skin issues or allergic reactions = pain
Now we're getting into some more serious scalp pain. If you find that your scalp is hurting constantly and it's tender to the touch, then it may be worthwhile to pay your doctor a visit. It could very well be that the products you're using are causing an allergic reaction, resulting in painful and persistent inflammation.
It may just be that you need to switch to a more natural hair wash that cleanses gently without stripping away all of your natural scalp protective oils (like our Nourishing Greens Shampoo Bar [HERE], or our Powdered Shampoo, which will turn into a gentle liquid shampoo by just adding water [HERE]).
It could also be that there are some ingredients in your shampoo that your body reacts to. For example, many people find the ingredients "Cocamidopropyl betaine" or "Coco betaine" irritating, although they are very nice, gentle ingredients for a shampoo, but can be manufactured in a way that creates many impurities in them.
7. IS AN ILLNESS CAUSING YOU SCALP PAIN?
This is a more serious reason for scalp pain that should be looked at by a doctor. If you have sores, bumps, intense itching and a scaly/flaky scalp, it may be that you have developed a topical scalp issue such as seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema or even shingles. Switching shampoos or using dandruff shampoo is not going to fix the issue – instead, visit your doctor at once.
Bottom line, keep an eye out for a sore scalp or "painful hair" – it could be that you need to either make some simple changes to your hairstyle or switch up your hair routine.
Have you had "scalp pain" before? How would you describe it? Comment below and let us know.