How to manage irritating scalp conditions

We tend not to pay a huge amount of attention to our scalps. That is, until things start to go wrong.

By Donna Fleming
Most conditions affecting your scalp tend to be annoying and embarrassing rather than painful or harmful.
But it’s a good idea to sort out any problems before they get worse and also to recognise when you should seek medical help.
Here are six common scalp conditions, and how you can sort them out.


This common problem, which causes white, oily-looking flakes of dead skin, can be due to a number of conditions, like dermatitis, or simply not washing your hair enough. As a result, oils and skin cells can build up on your scalp, and then flake off onto your shoulders.
Dandruff is associated with excess amounts of a scalp fungus called Pityrosporum ovale. It’s not known what causes it to go into overdrive, but it’s thought that a poor diet and hormonal imbalance may play a part.
Excessive amounts of this fungus cause greater production of scalp cells and when they die, they can clump together and fall out as dandruff.
Sort it out:
• There are lots of shampoos and commercial products specially designed to treat dandruff. You may need to use them frequently over a long period of time to see results.
• Eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains may help, and make sure you are getting plenty of vitamins A, E and B6.

Seborrhoeic dermatitis

This is a common form of dermatitis that causes cradle cap in babies, and red, itchy patches with severe dandruff in adults. It can also appear on oily areas of the body, such as the face, upper chest and back.
This tends to come and go and different things may trigger it, such as stress and even a change in weather. It may be worse in winter and early spring.
It’s thought that a fungus secreted by the skin, called malassezia, may be responsible. Having depression, diabetes, a weakened immune system or being obese can increase your chances of getting it. People with Parkinson’s disease may also be more susceptible. More men than women tend to get it.
Sort it out:
• A range of medicated shampoos can be successful in treating this type of dermatitis, while some people swear by a coal tar shampoo.

Contact dermatitis

The skin on your scalp can become inflamed and swollen, with itchy, scaly red patches, as a result of contact with a chemical irritant such as hair dye, bleach or perming lotion. Excessive hairdrying with a hot dryer can also cause dermatitis.
Sort it out:
• Usually the best course of action is to work out what is causing the reaction and avoid the irritant that triggers dermatitis. In severe cases, a topical steroid may help to control the inflammation.


This is the inflammation of the hair follicle and can be due to excessive sweating, using very strong hair dyes or shaving. It can also be due to an infection caused by the staphylococcus bacteria.
A staph infection can arise from an injury such as a cut or even a scratch. It can lead to serious complications if it gets into the blood stream, so you need to get it treated. Don’t ignore it!
Look out for unusual itchiness, pain, lumps, tenderness or lesions that are scabby or ooze pus.
Sort it out:
• If a bacterial infection is responsible, your doctor will give you a topical or oral antibiotic. Staph infections are contagious so be careful to wash your hands frequently and don’t let other people use your combs, brushes or hair towels.


This autoimmune condition can affect the skin all over your body, but is very common on the scalp. Cells in the top layer of skin become overproductive, forming pink or white scaly plaques which can itch, bleed, become crusty or hurt. It is not known what causes psoriasis but it can run in families.
Sort it out:
• There is no cure but a range of treatments is available to ease symptoms and control flare-ups. Topical treatments that can be applied to the skin include medicated shampoos, creams, gels and ointments. Coal tar can also help.
• For more severe psoriasis, oral or IV medications may be offered, as can drugs called biologics, which keep your skin from making too many cells.
• Phototherapy using UV rays or a laser can also be an option.

Moles or lesions

If you can feel a small raised area or a sore on your head, get it checked out – it could be a skin cancer. Often, you won’t be able to feel anything and it can be impossible to see a mole or lesion on your own head, so cancers can develop unnoticed. It’s a good idea to have regular scalp checks, especially if you have fair skin and got sunburnt a lot as a child.
Sort it out:
• Regularly run your fingertips over your head, checking for anything that feels unusual. Get someone else to have a look at your scalp – especially at partings in your hair or where you have previously had a parting.
• Ask your hairdresser to let you know if they spot anything out of the ordinary.
• Have a head-to-toe skin check at least once a year.

3 top tips for a healthy scalp

1 Be gentle on your scalp. Avoid harsh chemicals and don’t have the water too hot when you wash your hair. Don’t overdo it with the hairdryer and use a lower heat setting.
2 Like your skin, your scalp can benefit from exfoliation. Add a few spoonfuls of sugar to your shampoo and work it into your skin using the pads of your fingers to help get rid of dead skin cells. But don’t use your fingernails – you can cause scabbing.
3 If you suffer from a dry scalp, try to get more omega-3 fatty acids in your diet – salmon is an excellent source.

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