Our scalp, despite having numerous nerve endings and sensory receptors, can be pretty hardy and robust. It serves as a protective barrier, providing protection from physical trauma and the sun’s UV rays, as well as assists in temperature regulation.
However, some may experience a sensitive scalp with concerning symptoms such as itching, redness, tenderness and bumps. In more serious cases, one may even experience bleeding, dandruff or hair loss.
What can cause a sensitive scalp, and how can it be treated? Read on to find out more.
Various skin conditions can lead to inflammation and irritation, causing a sensitive scalp. Common skin conditions include:
- Seborrheic dermatitis — Seborrheic dermatitis, commonly known as dandruff, is a skin condition that presents as inflamed, scaling skin and a sensitive scalp. Although its exact cause is unknown, it is said to be caused by a yeast overgrowth called Malassezia.
- Psoriasis — Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition that involves the rapid reproduction of cells, causing sensitive and thick, discoloured patches of skin (plaque), including the scalp. It is chronic, and can come and go.
- Contact dermatitis — Contact dermatitis refers to an inflamed and sensitive scalp caused by contact with an irritant or substance that triggered an allergic reaction. Aside from a sensitive scalp, the skin can also appear blistered and discoloured.
- Folliculitis — Folliculitis is a fairly common skin condition where the hair follicles become inflamed, often due to an infection or blockage.
- Tinea capitis — Tinea capitis, also known as ringworm, is a fungal infection of the scalp. This leads to a sensitive scalp and even pus-filled nodules.
- Eczema — Eczema can have a sensitive scalp as a symptom when you experience flare-ups caused by an irritant or allergen. It is a skin condition that results from a defective skin barrier.
- Lichen planus — Lichen planus refers to a type of rash-like skin inflammation caused by an abnormal response to certain medications.
- Neurodermatitis — Neurodermatitis, also known as lichen simplex chronicus, is a skin condition that presents as thickened, scaly patches, with itchy and sensitive skin.
- Sunburn — A sunburn is caused by skin damage from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Sunburnt skin is often associated with skin barrier damage and nerve sensitivity, causing a sensitive scalp.
A sensitive scalp caused by an allergic reaction is referred to as allergic contact dermatitis (ACD). When the scalp comes into contact with a specific allergen, an immune response is triggered, causing skin irritation and inflammation. This is often identified with itching, soreness, redness, and a rash with distinct borders.
Common allergens that could trigger an allergic reaction include:
- Latex — Can be found in some hair bands or headbands.
- Fragrances — Often added to hair care products, such as shampoos, conditioners and serums.
- Nickel — Can be found in hair accessories, like headbands and clips.
- Preservatives — Preservatives like methylisothiazolinone (MI) or formaldehyde-releasing are commonly found in shampoos and other hair care productions.
- Plant allergens — Certain plant allergens or herbs are added to natural shampoos and conditioners.
- Insect bites and stings — Insect bites and stings can cause inflammation and influence skin sensitivity.
Pay attention to your scalp. Allergic contact dermatitis symptoms are a sign of your body telling you about an allergic reaction and adverse skin reaction. Allergic contact dermatitis triggers differ for each individual, and it is important to identify and avoid them.
Consult a specialist for a proper diagnosis and examination. A patch test can also be performed to determine the specific allergen causing your allergic contact dermatitis symptoms.
A sensitive scalp is not contagious, but certain skin conditions that cause scalp sensitivity can be, such as head lice or fungal infections like ringworm.
As mentioned earlier, ringworm of the scalp, medically known as tinea capitis, and other such infections, can lead to skin changes, inflammation, itching and irritation. This redness, swelling and tenderness also contributes to scalp sensitivity.
Furthermore, this puts you at risk of secondary infections because scratching can lead to open wounds on the scalp, making you susceptible to additional infections and further scalp sensitivity.
It is important to prevent such infections by avoiding sharing hair ties and hair brushes with others. If you suspect a scalp infection, please consult a medical professional for proper treatment.
Just like other areas of the skin, a dry scalp can cause sensitivity and discomfort for a variety of reasons:
- Skin barrier impairment — A dry scalp can compromise the skin’s natural barrier, making it difficult for our scalp to retain moisture and protect against external irritants. This disruption leads to microinflammation of the scalp and makes it more prone to irritation.
- Itching and flaking — A sensitive scalp could cause itching and scratching, further exacerbating the inflammation and damaging the skin further.
A dry scalp has difficulty retaining moisture and producing sebum. Try opting for moisturising and gentle hair care products, such as shampoos specially formulated for a dry and sensitive scalp. It also helps to limit how often you shampoo your hair, so as not to strip it off its natural oils.
Chemically treating your hair by dyeing, bleaching, straightening or perming it can lead to a sensitive scalp. This is because many hair treatments contain harsh chemicals that can cause irritation to the scalp and weaken the scalp’s natural skin barrier.
Scalp sensitivity can also be caused by chemical burns and overprocessing, which are more likely people do these treatments on their own:
- Chemical burns — Improper use of these chemical treatments, such as leaving them on the scalp and hair for too long, can cause chemical burns. This damages the scalp, leading to sensitivity and discomfort.
- Overprocessing — Subjecting your hair and scalp to chemical treatments too often or for prolonged periods of time can lead to scalp irritation and increased skin sensitivity. In severe cases, scalp burns may occur, and, if repeated, damage to the skin can compound over time.
- Improper aftercare — When doing DIY hair treatments, following proper aftercare instructions (i.e. hair restoration products) are just as important as the treatment itself. As the scalp becomes more sensitive post-treatment, taking the right steps to protect it and encourage its recovery are paramount.
Avoid excessive exposure to these harsh chemicals by spacing out your chemical treatments to give your scalp time to recover. Ideally, opt for salon treatments done by professionals instead of DIY treatments at home to prevent overprocessing your hair and chemical burns.
If you’re looking to dye your hair, you might be worried about the effects of the colour treatment. That’s why at TrichoLab we offer our Organic Hair Colouring treatment.This ammonia-free and PPD-free treatment allows you to have your ideal hair colour while minimising damage to your hair and scalp. This treatment is also allergen-free, lowering your risk of contact dermatitis.
Stress and anxiety
Although they are not fully understood, psychological factors, such as stress and anxiety, have been shown to cause scalp sensitivity as well. Some reasons for this include:
- Increased blood flow — Intense stress and anxiety trigger the release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which also lead to an increase in blood flow. In certain cases, this response can cause sensitivity in the scalp.
- Weakened immune system — Chronic stress and anxiety can weaken the immune system, which makes you more prone to scalp and hair issues, and slows healing.
- Psychosomatic symptoms — Sometimes, psychological stress and anxiety can show up as physical symptoms, including skin and scalp sensitivity. Pre-existing dermatological conditions may also worsen.
Our psychological state and whole-body health are largely intertwined, making managing stress and anxiety paramount in ensuring our wellbeing. You can try practising mindfulness and stress reduction techniques to calm your mind and reduce stress levels.
Hormones can greatly influence scalp and hair health, and not only cause scalp sensitivity, but play an integral role in regulating the hair cycle and follicle structure. Women may find their scalps more sensitive during their periods, menopause, pregnancy or postpartum because of the hormonal shifts.
An influx of stress hormones, particularly cortisol, can lead to inflammation and indirectly cause scalp sensitivity as well.
Underlying medical conditions
Painful, severe or prolonged scalp sensitivity should warrant a visit to your doctor as it could be a sign of underlying medical conditions, such as:
- Psoriasis — As mentioned earlier, your scalp sensitivity may be indicative of psoriasis, which will require proper long-term management.
- Neurological disorders — Your scalp sensitivity could be caused by irritation or compression of the nerves from a neurological condition. This will require further testing from a neurologist or brain and spine surgeon.
- Tension headaches — Extreme cases of tension headaches could cause scalp sensitivity and pain when pressure is applied.
- Skin infections — Skin infections – bacterial, fungal or parasitic – can cause inflammation and irritation, which, in turn, causes scalp sensitivity and discomfort.
Although rare, a sensitive scalp can also be a sign of more serious medical conditions, such as skin cancer or melanomas. Skin cancer on the scalp may not cause any pain, but can have symptoms such as tenderness or itching. If you notice any new mole-like marks that suddenly appear or change in shape, please consult a doctor immediately.
Good hair care habits for sensitive scalp
- Identify what’s causing your sensitive scalp — It is a good habit to be mindful of any new hair care products you’ve recently introduced into your routine or allergies you may have. Identifying what’s causing your sensitive scalp is the first step to finding out how to mitigate the issue, get the right treatment, and restore your scalp health.
- Avoid over-brushing your hair — Over-brushing can irritate the scalp and cause sensitivity. It also helps to opt for larger-toothed combs to lessen hair breakage, and put less stress and tension on the scalp while brushing.
- Avoid combing your hair while it’s wet — Wet hair is more susceptible to breakage, causing damage and sensitivity to the hair shaft when combed through. Combing your hair when wet may also require more effort and, hence, puts more tension on the hair follicles.
- Sensitive scalp shampoo — Opt for gentler shampoos specially formulated for sensitive scalps. These are less likely to have allergens or irritants, and have moisturising and anti-inflammatory properties that will help soothe your scalp.
Sensitive scalp shampoo in Singapore
A sensitive scalp may require a gentle approach to prevent further irritation and the right treatments to restore balance in your scalp’s natural microbiome and to alleviate sensitivity. Because we wash our hair almost everyday, picking the right shampoo is an essential part of soothing a sensitive scalp and preventing further scalp irritation.
TrichoLab’s Sensitive Scalp Shampoo is a hypo-allergenic formulation made specially to calm and soothe the scalp, with active ingredients like niacinamide, which deeply moisturises, restores skin barrier function and has anti-inflammatory properties.Another option would be the Dry & Sensitive Scalp Reduction treatment. This 90-minute treatment is ideal for calming an inflamed scalp and protecting it from further irritation, with ingredients such as niacinamide, vitamin B5, oat protein and green tea extracts.
Schedule an appointment for a thorough consultation and scalp analysis. Get a treatment plan tailored to your needs today!