Here's What Triggers Scalp Inflammation and How to Treat It

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There’s nothing pretty about scalp inflammation. While it may be hard to avoid, you can take some easy steps to prevent it in the future. We consulted Anabel Kingsley, trichologist at Philip Kingsley, about what causes scalp inflammation, how to fix it, and why we’ve actually been getting it wrong all along.

Scalp Inflammation Causes

With stress coming at us in all directions, it can feel impossible to keep totally calm. But keep calm we must because it turns out that stress is a key culprit in scalp inflammation. “Stress spikes cortisol (aka stress hormone) levels, which in turn can increase sebum (oil) production on your scalp. These hormones can also disrupt the skin’s barrier function, and trigger skin irritation and inflammation. This is why you may find that your scalp gets itchy, flaky, and overly sensitive and greasy when you are going through a stressful period. People who suffer from scalp conditions, such as psoriasis and dandruff, often find their condition is made worse by stress,” explains Anabel.

Aside from stress, hormonal shifts during your menstrual cycle can also impact your scalp. “Leading up to and during your period, you may find your scalp becomes oilier. This, in turn, may trigger flaking and itching if you are pre-disposed to dandruff flare-ups,” she continues.

Weather is also a culprit as it can trigger reactions on your scalp just as it can on your skin. Keep your guard up when you’re exposed to central heating, very cold weather, and prolonged sun exposure. You might also want to take a closer look at your shelf. “Hair products will not usually cause scalp dryness, but they can leave a fine, white residue on your roots. This can be mistaken for dead skin cells. The most common culprit for this is dry shampoo,” Anabel confirms.

How to Prevent Scalp Inflammation

To prevent inflammation and keep your scalp healthy, take the extra time to suds up and cleanse frequently, just like you would your face. “You wouldn’t leave days between washing your face or underarms, so why would you do this to your scalp?” asks Anabel. The hair wash debate is definitely real, though usually, you have to place yourself in the “scalp” or “hair” camp. Either way, she makes a good case for washing your hair daily.

And if you think you can replace wet with dry shampoo, think again. Though once in a while is okay, “consistently forgoing ‘real shampooing’ in favor of using dry shampoo can lead to itching and irritation,” notes Anabel. “This is because dry shampoos simply do not cleanse the scalp properly. They don’t remove dead skin cells, sweat, dirt, or oils. You need a normal shampoo, plus water, to do this. Using a dry shampoo to clean your scalp is akin to using talcum powder to cleanse your face. A day or two is fine, but I would not suggest more than this between a proper shampoo,” she continues.

How to Treat Scalp Inflammation

If you’re too far gone from stress, a cold/heat combo, or your period, and your scalp is inflamed, it needs to be treated consistently for best results. What you use is crucial.

What to Do

“Use a daily shampoo containing an anti-microbial active, such as piroctone olamine. This ingredient specifically targets the yeast responsible for dandruff and rebalances your scalp’s microflora. I recommend our Flaky Scalp Shampoo,” she explains. “You also want to look for a scalp toner containing camphor, a soothing and cooling active, as well as astringent ingredients like witch hazel, which helps to soak up excess oil. I recommend our Flaky Scalp Toner, which also contains piroctone olamine.”

Another way to prevent or keep the inflammation at bay is to use a targeted scalp mask twice a week. Again, like the skin on your face, your scalp can benefit from weekly intensive treatments. “We just launched our Flaky Scalp Mask specifically for dandruff sufferers. It contains an innovative triple acid complex of salicylic, lactic, and hyaluronic acid, which work together to exfoliate, cleanse, soothe, and moisturize. It is also formulated with piroctone olamine, an anti-fungal active which helps to rebalance the microflora of the scalp,” says Anabel.

Don’t forget that what you put in your body finds a way to express itself outwardly. For this reason, maintaining a balanced diet is key. Anabel recommends supplements containing omega 3’s and co-enzyme Q-10, which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and can be beneficial to those with a problematic scalp. “Our Root Complex Supplement contains both omega 3 and co-enzyme Q-10, alongside marine collagen, vitamin D3, and selenium,” she adds.

If your scalp is super dry, rehydration is key. “Use a daily rehydrating scalp toner containing ingredients such as sodium salicylate, an anti-inflammatory and anti-irritant active that helps to soothe the scalp,” says Anabel. She notes that you should be using a moisturizing scalp mask containing ingredients such as aloe vera, and mild exfoliants, such as betaine salicylate at least twice weekly. Above all, never underestimate the power of hydrating from within, which is yet another reason to drink more water.

What Not to Do

Contrary to popular belief, oils are not an end-all cure-all for literally everything. “If you have a dry scalp, applying pure oil to your scalp is not going to do much good. Oil-in-water emulsions (i.e. creams) are much better. Dry skin is not just due to a lack of oil, but it is also actually due to lack of moisture, water, or excessive water loss from the skin. Pure oils can also cause irritation and weigh down your roots,” she explains.

However, though flakes are typically associated with a dry scalp, when you see flakes it’s usually due to an oily, not a dry scalp. “As such, rubbing in oils will simply make the flakes appear greasier. Instead, use a targeted daily scalp toner to help clear itching and irritation,” adds Anabel. And lastly, water does make a difference. “While different water does not affect scalp health, it can make your hair feel different,” she adds.