Ultimate guide to scalp care for itchy, sore, dry, or oily scalps

Itchy, sore scalp? Here’s how to fix problems with your scalp and boost hair health

20th December 2023 | Author: Katherine O'Shea

Whether you’ve got an itchy scalp, it’s sore and dry, or you’re suffering from dandruff and oil, our ultimate guide to scalp care can help

If you want thick, strong and soft hair then you need to start with taking care of your scalp. That’s because a healthy scalp means healthy hair.

When it comes to looking after your skin, your scalp is likely to be far down your priority list. However, that’s a big mistake.

In fact, the type of skin on your scalp isn’t much different from the skin on your face, so it needs looking after in a similar way. You’ll see that a lot of ingredients that work for your face, such as hyaluronic acid, salicylic acid, and Vitamin C all cross over into scalp care.

Blood vessels that sit across your scalp help produce the cells that are ultimately responsible for helping the hair to grow through the skin.

To increase scalp blood circulation you need to be regularly massaging your scalp, so make sure to take that bit extra time when washing your hair to give your scalp a bit of love. This can be via one of the best hair oils, or by introducing scalp treatments and scalp exfoliation products.

If until now you’ve neglected to look after your scalp, then don’t despair because simple changes to your hair care regime will make a big difference. There are lots of products that can reset your scalp health and improve the condition and appearance of your hair.

FURTHER READING: Best scalp tonics | Best scalp scrub UK | Do you have combination hair?How to protect your hair from pollution

How does your scalp work?

How to get rid of an itchy sore scalpShutterstock

The skin on your scalp, although very similar to the skin on your face, is slightly thicker and has hundreds of thousands of hair follicles.

You have an individual hair follicle for every strand of hair on your head.

The sebaceous glands in each hair follicle produce sebum, which helps to moisturise your scalp, condition your hair strands and protect your skin from infection. If you have a dry scalp then you’re producing too little sebum, and if you have an oily scalp then you’re producing too much.

The scalp itself then contains a unique composition of bacteria and yeast that’s integral to its health and function, known as its microbiome.

Your microbiome is the name given to an environment that protects the skin from germs. It’s a community of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms that live on your scalp skin. If this microbiome becomes damaged or imbalanced, it can lead to several problems which include:

Signs of an unhealthy scalp

  • Hair that breaks easily
  • Reduced shine
  • Rough hair texture
  • Dandruff
  • Itchy scalp
  • Sore scalp
  • Thinning hair
  • Premature hair loss
  • Redness and irritation
  • Oily roots (all the time, not just when your next hair wash is due)

If you have oily, greasy roots and dry ends, you may also have combination hair.

What causes an itchy scalp?

A lot of things can interfere with your scalp’s microbiome but some of the worst offenders are styling products, such as hairspray, mousse, or dry shampoo.

If you use any of these then you likely have product build up and sometimes a regular shampoo just won’t clear it well enough. In this case, you’ll be better off using a clarifying shampoo as well as a scalp scrub.

How to look after your scalp

We’ve put together some healthy scalp tips to make it easy for you to improve the condition of your hair. Whether you have an oily scalp or a dry scalp, feel that your hair is thinning, or that your hair is not growing fast enough, whatever your problem we have a scalp care solution for you to try.

Choose the right shampoo

You need to create the ideal scalp environment for your hair to grow at its best. Switching to shampoo with a pH-balanced formula will mean your scalp and hair get moisturised without being stripped of their natural oils.

Our favorite is the Aveeno Oat Milk Blend Shampoo (£8.75) because its formula is gentle enough to maintain the scalp’s natural oils, while powerful enough to cleanse away any build-up or residue.

As with the rest of the Aveeno range, its formula is enriched with oat milk, known for its soothing properties. It’s ideal if you have a sensitive or sore scalp and it leaves your hair soft and the scalp comfortable.

Physical scalp scrubs

Christophe Robin Cleansing Purifying ScrubChristophe Robin

Exfoliating your scalp will help get rid of the build-up of excess oil and dead skin cells, but it will also prime your scalp so that it absorbs the active ingredients of any scalp care products you apply.

You can either use physical scalp scrubs or chemical scalp scrubs and which you choose depends on your scalp type.

Physical scrubs, as the name suggests, use physical ingredients such as salt or similar that buff away the dead skin cells and build-up.

We recommend that Christophe Robin Cleansing Purify Scrub with Sea Salt (£18).

It’s designed to cleanse, purify, and rebalance oily scalps and the use of sea salt makes it effective without being too rough or abrasive.

The scrub’s texture helps in effectively removing impurities and excess oil and regular use can lead to a healthier scalp environment, promoting better hair growth and quality.

Chemical scalp scrubs

From a chemical scrub viewpoint, the skin on your scalp is very similar to the skin on your face. As a result, a lot of the skincare ingredients that benefit your face will also benefit your scalp.

For example, alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) can help with scalp product build-up, excess oil, dead skin, and environmental irritants (such as pollen, dirt and pollutants).

These groups of acids maintain oil production in your hair and help your scalp to breathe easily by opening up your pores. They also stimulate blood circulation, which helps to improve your hair growth because more nutrients and oxygen are driven to your hair strands. The result should be silkier, denser, and softer hair.

Lactic acid for skin benefitsGetty Images/iStockphoto

The alpha-hydroxy acids you should look out for include:

  • Glycolic acid (extracted from sugarcane)
  • Lactic acid (present in dairy and fermented vegetables)
  • Citric acid (from citrus fruits)
  • Malic acid (found in apples)
  • Tartaric acid (present in grapes)

We particularly like the Scalp Care Purifying AHA 5% Booster and Prebiotic (£25) from Grow Gorgeous.

This is a concentrated solution that has been scientifically proven to give your scalp a purifying boost. It contains glycolic acid (one of the AHAs) which helps to remove dead skin cells.

This scalp treatment is also formulated with a rebalancing prebiotic, which will help boost the health of your scalp. If you have a particularly dry scalp you can use this scalp treatment daily.

Alternatively, a beta-hydroxy acid to look for is salicylic acid. Products, such as The Inkey List Salicylic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Treatment (£14) will help balance any excess oil, whilst keeping a healthy shine to your hair.

It’s a lightweight serum and is used as a pre-shampoo treatment on dry or wet hair. As well as the 2% salicylic acid to exfoliate it’s also got 2.5% FluidPure 8G which soothes redness and calms any irritation, plus there’s 1% panthenol to help maintain the moisture in your hair. So, it covers all angles of your scalp care TLC.

Why does my scalp itch a day after washing?

Your scalp and hair have a slightly acidic pH level and if you use products that are too acidic or too alkaline, you may get an itchy scalp or your hair structure may get worse.

In particular, if your scalp is fine most of the time but starts to itch a day or two after washing, it’s likely the products you’re using interfering with your skin’s natural microbiome.

To improve your scalp health you’re going to want to find products that don’t contain sulphates, alcohol, or fragrances. Using harsh shampoos and other products can strip your scalp and hair of the natural oils that it needs to stay healthy.

How to fix dry scalp

How to get rid of dandruff for goodShutterstock

A dry scalp can cause you to itch more than normal and this can cause hair loss because scratching causes inflammation and can damage your hair follicles.

When it comes to dandruff vs. dry scalp, both symptoms can lead to shedding flakes, but there are different causes.

Dandruff is the result of excess oil on your scalp and an overgrowth of Malassezia yeast. Dandruff flakes are bigger, so more noticeable, and may have a yellow tinge or look oily

By comparison, a dry scalp is caused by a lack of moisture. Flakes created from a dry scalp tend to be smaller and whiter. Although there’s a difference between dandruff and dry scalp, it is possible to have both.

A good ingredient for dry scalps is hyaluronic acid. You’ve likely seen it in facial skincare products because it preserves moisture levels and improves the skin’s hydration. It works the same way to fix your dry scalp.

The Ordinary’s Hair Care Natural Moisturising Factors and HA leave-in treatment is a milky emulsion that, along with hyaluronic acid, has natural moisturising factors (NMF) which help to protect the outer layer of your skin.

FURTHER READING: The best The Ordinary products for all your skincare concerns

Oily scalp treatment

What causes greasy hair and why does my hair get so greasy so fast?Getty Images/iStockphoto

If your hair gets oily quickly after washing, you have a dead skin cell build-up, or you have dandruff it could be a sign you have an oily scalp.

The most common causes of an oily scalp include seborrheic dermatitis (a skin condition that irritates and inflames your skin), eczema and psoriasis (causes red, scaly patches), forehead acne, overwashing your hair, or using hair products that contain a lot of artificial chemicals.

When looking for oily scalp haircare you’ll want to look for ingredients that are natural and gentle with antifungal properties, such as coconut oil, neem oil, and tea tree oil. These ingredients help your oily scalp by maintaining a healthy balance of bacteria and yeast.

A particularly good coconut oil scalp scrub is the Coco & Eve Deep Clean Scalp Scrub (£24). It’s ideal for deep cleansing oily scalps and removing dandruff.

At the same time, it nourishes the scalp with essential fatty acids and vitamins which strengthen the hair follicles and promote a healthier environment for hair growth. The caffeine then adds an extra boost.

Hair loss treatment

If you’ve found your hair is thinning, or you’re losing hair prematurely, then you’re going to want to look at scalp treatments for hair growth.

We love The Inkey List Caffeine Stimulating Scalp Treatment (£14.99) because it’s packed full of ingredients to stimulate hair growth and is clinically proven to prevent hair loss.

The caffeine in it encourages stem cells to optimise hair growth and there’s also Betain which helps to nourish your hair and make it look thicker and healthier.

Natural scalp care

Natural scalp remedies for dandruff include taking fish oil, which can help with dandruff flare-ups.

A natural scalp remedy for hair loss is aloe vera. It helps to soothe your scalp and condition your hair. It can also reduce dandruff and unblock your hair follicles.

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