It started out as a simple itch on the lower back of my head and ended with a scratch that kept me up at night. Thinking the annoying red patch that had formed in that area was dry skin, I started treating it with dabs of petroleum jelly. But the itch didn’t stop until months later when I went to see a dermatologist who prescribed an anti-inflammatory cream for what turned out to be seborrheic dermatitis, an extremely common skin irritation that can be caused by anything from an allergic reaction to a change in season. She shared I could have found earlier relief with some over-the-counter (OTC) medications and remedies.
LEARN MORE Best Products for Itchy Scalps | What active ingredients can help with an itchy scalp?
Seborrheic dermatitis isn’t the only skin condition that can cause an itchy scalp. Other things that may cause irritation include psoriasis, folliculitis or contact dermatitis, which occurs when your scalp comes in direct contact with something you’re allergic to. Whatever is causing the urge to scratch, chances are you’re dealing with skin that’s red and irritated. The first thing you should do? “Stop scratching, which can lead to an increase in itching and flaking,” said Dr. Jeanine Downie, a board-certified dermatologist. From there, you can try out an OTC treatment.
Best Products for Itchy Scalps
To help you navigate your search for OTC products, we asked experts for insight on products that can help with an itchy scalp. We also used our editors’ own experience with these products.
Nizoral A-D Anti-Dandruff Shampoo
“This is an over-the-counter version of a prescription medicated anti-fungal shampoo and an effective treatment for many types of scalp irritations,” said Dr. Alexis Young, a board-certified dermatologist. “It contains ketoconazole, which controls flaking and itchy scaling by preventing the growth of fungus.” You should use this shampoo twice a week in place of your normal shampoo, according to the brand. “I usually recommend leaving medicated shampoos like this one on the scalp for five to ten minutes to allow them enough time to work.” This shampoo has a 4.6-average star review from 77,503 reviews on Amazon.
Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo for Scalp Build-Up Control
This shampoo is another favorite of Young. It contains 3% salicylic acid, which can help ease itchiness caused by psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff, according to the brand. It is also free of fragrance, added color and preservatives, making it a nice option for sensitive skin. Select’s editorial director, Lauren Swanson, has used this shampoo previously to help with a dry, itchy scalp. It has a 4.6-average star review from 1,093 reviews on Amazon.
Kerastase Symbiose Exfoliating Anti-Dandruff Scalp Scrub
This gentle micro-exfoliating scalp scrub dissolves dead cells and flakes using a 2% salicylic acid solution along with tiny argan and apricot seeds to help remove buildup, according to the brand. “This scrub will also exfoliate to help any additional dandruff products you may be using sink in better,” adds Downie. This product should be used twice a week before you shampoo your hair, according to the brand.
Nutrafol Stress Reliever Scalp Microbiome Essence
Young told us she sees a lot of folliculitis in the warmer months because it can cause a rise in sebum, an oil-like substance that can clog pores and cause bacteria to proliferate. “This fluid includes both probiotics to maximize the growth of good bacteria and prebiotics to feed that good bacteria,” she said. “They work together to minimize scalp itch and flaking while optimizing the environment on your scalp.” This liquid should be applied directly to the scalp daily and not rinsed out, according to the brand.
CLn Healthy Scalp Shampoo
This fragrance-free shampoo, designed by a physician suffering from scalp issues, contains sodium hypochlorite and salicylic acid to soothe a scalp that’s prone to itching, dandruff or excessive oils, according to the brand. “Sodium hypochlorite is the technical name for bleach,” said Young. “Although it sounds like it would be irritating to the skin, it’s very gentle and an excellent antimicrobial topical for the skin.”
Kiehl’s Amino Acid Scalp Scrub Detox Treatment
Young said that a scalp that is flaking, scaling or redness should be washed daily. This scrub gently exfoliates excess oil and sebum on the scalp with a blend of salicylic acid (an ingredient Young likes for itchy scalps) and sea salt. “If you’re going to use a salt scrub on the scalp, make sure the granules are small or risk further irritation,” said Young.
DHS Tar Shampoo
According to our experts, shampoo made with coal tar may help with scalp conditions like psoriasis, which causes an itchy, scaly rash. “Coal tar smells terrible but is an anti-inflammatory that works well to relieve the itch and scaly patches associated with conditions like psoriasis,” says Young. “Let this fragrance, PABA and dye-free product sit on your scalp for five minutes before rinsing.”
Olaplex No4D Clean Volume Detox Dry Shampoo
If you need to sop up some excess oil and sweat post exercising, this dry shampoo will do that without clogging the pores and causing itchiness. It works by using an ultra-fine micro starch sourced from rice and rambutan seed extract, according to the brand. Apply, then wait thirty seconds before massaging it into the scalp. “I exercise every day and this is one of the best dry shampoos on the market when it comes to maintaining a healthy scalp,” said Downie.
Sun Bum Original SPF 30 Scalp and Hair Mist
It’s important to protect an irritated scalp from ultraviolet rays by using sunscreen in that often overlooked area. “In general, I’m not a fan of spray sunscreens but they do play a huge role when it comes to scalp protection because it’s difficult to apply a cream to that area,” says Young. “Just make sure to apply a thick enough coating and reapply every two hours in the sun or after going in the water.”
Paul Mitchell Clarifying Shampoo Too
Overuse of styling products or leave-in formulas that don’t get fully washed out can lead to buildup that blocks the pores on the scalp, causing itching. “A clarifying shampoo can help, just but be sure to follow the directions or you risk drying out your skin and hair,” said hair stylist Justin Block. This option from Paul Mitchell should be used once to twice a week. It has a 4.6-average star rating out of 8,535 reviews on Amazon.
SEEN Fragrance-Free Blow-Out Creme
Developed by a dermatologist, this non-irritating, fragrance-free styling cream is considered to be a good option for those with sensitive skin. It contains hemisqualane, a plant-based, sugar-derived alternative to silicone along with bisabolol, a natural skin soother. “It’s non-comedogenic, which means it won’t clog the pores on your head,” said Young. Swanson has also used this product and loved how it treated her scalp while making her hair look fabulous.
Garnier Hair Color Olia Oil Powered Permanent Hair Color
“Some of the chemicals used in hair dye can result in an itchy rash called allergic or irritant contact dermatitis - either from a product allergy or from being left on the scalp too long, causing a breakdown of the skin’s barrier,” said Young. “In order to prevent irritation, you or your colorist should avoid contact with the skin, applying the dye to the hair shaft only.” This permanent hair dye formula is free of ammonia, silicones, parabens and phthalates—all of which may irritate some people, according to our experts. It has a 4.5-average star rating from 12,271 reviews on Amazon.
Dyson Supersonic Hair Dryer
“High heat can mess with your scalp’s health, increasing skin swelling and tenderness, which can lead to itching, flaking, red patches and hair loss,” said Downie. “Try to keep your dryer set to low heat and avoid keeping it on one spot too long.” This dryer controls heat using a thermal sensor to regulate the air temperature, preventing damage to the skin and hair, according to the brand. Dyson also says that it has an attachment that’s engineered to diffuse airflow and lower the temperature by up to 20°.
What causes an itchy scalp?
An itchy scalp can be caused by a number of things. But our experts pointed to four conditions that are most commonly associated with an itchy scalp. They are:
- Seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin condition caused by the overgrowth of yeast, says Downie.
- Psoriasis is an inflammatory skin condition. The exact cause is unknown, but it is thought to be an immune system issue triggered by things like stress, infections and more.
- Folliculitis is a condition that occurs when hair follicles get infected.
- Contact dermatitis occurs when your scalp comes in direct contact with something you’re allergic to.
Post-pandemic, skin specialists started seeing more patients with itchy scalp conditions, particularly seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis. “Much of it is the result of increased stress levels and a change in hair-care routines – for example, people are reducing the frequency of shampooing as they work from home,” said Jane Martin, a trichologist (which is someone who studies the hair and scalp).
What active ingredients can help with an itchy scalp?
If you’ve decided to use an OTC treatment or product to try and help with scalp itch, there are a few different ingredients to look for. Downie said that these tend to be the most effective OTC ingredients to alleviate an itchy scalp:
- Ketoconazole is an anti-fungal medication often used to treat seborrheic dermatitis, says Downie.
- Selenium sulfide can remove dry, scaly patches on the scalp and help ease the urge to itch. Many dandruff products utilize this ingredient.
- Pyrithione zinc is another commonly used ingredient in dandruff products, but it can also help with psoriasis. It has anti-fungal properties.
- Coal tar is used to treat both psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis. It is derived from coal and is a thick, dark liquid that can be applied topically as a treatment.
- Sulfur has antibacterial benefits which can keep your scalp clean and fresh. You will often find this ingredient in dandruff treatments.
- Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that targets excessive oil production and removes dead skin cells. This ingredient can be particularly helpful if you have scalp buildup causing you to itch, said Downie.
If you are using an OTC product for scalp itch and things don’t get better within a few weeks, you should see a dermatologist who may prescribe a topical anti-inflammatory steroid, said Downie.
Beyond OTC products, it is helpful to know that a diet rich in protein and soy is important to promoting a healthy scalp and hair, said Young.
Finally, your hair-washing routine can also impact an itchy scalp. “Patients will proudly share they’re only washing their hair once a week to prevent their scalp from getting drier but the truth is there are many scalp conditions that fare better with more frequent washing, like seborrheic dermatitis, where the culprit is a yeast thriving in oil and sebum on the scalp,” said Young, who also noted that if you find that your itchiness is worsening when you go longer between washes, it could be a sign you need to shampoo more often.
Meet our experts
At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Dr. Alexis Young is a board-certified dermatologist and an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City
- Dr. Jeanine Downie is a board-certified dermatologist and director of Image Dermatology PC in Montclair, New Jersey
- Justin Block is a stylist at Salon YOSHIKO at Bergdorf Goodman in New York City
- Jane Martin is a senior consultant trichologist at Philip Kingsley in London, England
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