An Itchy Scalp and Hair Loss: Are They Related?
Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Do you have an itchy scalp? You’re not alone. Scalp itching, or scalp pruritus, is a common skin issue that affects just about everyone from time to time.
An itchy scalp can develop for a range of reasons, from washing your hair with a shampoo that’s formulated using harsh chemicals to several common skin conditions.
The good news is that an itchy scalp isn’t likely to cause hair loss, at least not directly. However, some skin conditions that cause you to develop an itchy scalp may affect your hair follicles and contribute to hair shedding and patches of hair loss.
In some cases, conditions that cause itching can damage your hair follicles, potentially resulting in permanent hair loss.
Below, we’ve explained why an itchy scalp typically isn’t a sign of male pattern baldness. We’ve also listed some of the most common causes of an itchy scalp, as well as the effects that these conditions can have on your hair hair loss.
Finally, we’ve discussed what you can do to treat scalp itching, as well as your options if you’re starting to notice the signs of baldness.
Is There a Link Between Scalp Itching and Male Pattern Baldness?
If you’ve searched online for information about the early signs of hair loss, you may have seen itching listed as a signal that you’re starting to shed hair.
Before we get into the specifics of itching and hair loss, let’s quickly go over what male pattern baldness is and the effect that it can have on your hair follicles.
Male pattern baldness, or androgenetic alopecia, is by far the most common cause of hair loss in men. It occurs when the hormone dihydrotestosterone, or DHT, targets your hair follicles and stops them from producing new hairs.
Over time, DHT can miniaturize your hair follicles, preventing them from growing new hairs. This process usually begins around your hairline or the crown of your scalp, resulting in the receding hairline that many guys develop in their 20s, 30s or 40s.
We’ve discussed the relationship between hormones and hair loss in more detail in our guide to DHT and male pattern baldness.
So, is there any link between an itchy scalp and thinning hair? Not really. Unlike scalp conditions such as psoriasis or fungal infections, male pattern baldness generally doesn’t cause your scalp to itch or feel uncomfortable.
Instead, DHT-related damage happens slowly, with your hair follicles gradually miniaturizing and losing the ability to produce new hairs over the course of years and decades.
Put simply, you typically won’t feel much in the way of itching if you’re starting to lose hair due to male pattern baldness. Most men who go bald don’t feel anything at all -- instead, they gradually notice the effects of DHT when they look in the mirror.
This means that an itchy or irritated scalp isn’t a reliable sign that you’re starting to shed hair as a result of male pattern baldness.
However, there are signs that you can look for if you're concerned that you’re starting to develop a bald scalp. These include:
Thinning hair all over your head
Gradual receding around your hairline
A bald patch around the crown of your head
Hair that’s unusually slow to grow or lacking in coverage
More hairs than normal on your pillowcase or in your hairbrush
Our guide to the early signs of hair loss goes into more detail about these symptoms, as well as the key things that you should look for if you’re concerned that you might be losing your hair.
Common Causes of an Itchy Scalp and Treatment Options
So, if male pattern baldness doesn’t cause an itchy scalp, what does? A variety of different skin issues may cause you to have an itchy scalp, including diseases, temporary skin conditions and even irritation or allergic reactions caused by ingredients in skin and hair care products.
While itching and hair loss aren’t directly linked, some of these conditions may cause or worsen hair loss by damaging your hair follicles.
Dealing with an itchy scalp can be a major annoyance, especially if nothing you do seems to get the itching under control.
Once you identify the cause of your itchy scalp, treating the issue and getting rid of the itch often becomes a lot easier.
Below, we’ve listed several of the most common causes of an itchy, irritated scalp, as well as the effects that these conditions can have on your hair follicles and general hair growth.
We’ve also covered what you can do to treat each condition and prevent itching from becoming a long-term problem for you.
Scalp Ringworm (Tinea Capitis)
Fungal infections can cause serious itching, especially when they affect your scalp. Tinea capitis -- an infection that’s also known as scalp ringworm or scalp fungus -- is a type of fungal infection that develops on your scalp and inside your hair follicles.
Like other fungal infections, tinea capitis can develop when your skin comes into contact with an infectious form of fungi, such as the dermatophyte species Microsporum and Trichophyton.
These fungi are often found in wet, moist areas, such as locker rooms and showers. They often spread from person to person via combs, hats and sports clothes. Some pets, such as cats, can transmit fungal infections such as tinea capitis to humans.
Tinea capitis can cause a range of symptoms, including small patches of inflamed, scaly skin on your scalp, broken strands of hair and severe itching. When severe, it can even cause pus-filled, inflammatory nodules called kerions to develop across your scalp.
It’s common to experience patchy hair loss with this type of infection. When severe, tinea capitis can even cause scarring that might damage your hair follicles and lead to permanent loss of hair in certain areas of your scalp.
If you think you may have tinea capitis, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider as soon as you can.
This type of skin infection can usually be treated with oral antifungal medication. Your healthcare provider may also suggest a shampoo or topical medication to control fungal growth and reduce itching.
Our full guide to scalp fungus goes into more detail about tinea capitis, from its common causes to symptoms, long-term effects and the steps that you can take if you think you may be affected by this type of fungal infection.
Folliculitis is a skin condition in which your hair follicles become infected and inflamed, causing small bumps or pimple-like lesions to develop on your scalp.
Most cases of folliculitis are caused by bacteria, which can make its way into the surface layers of your hair follicles. However, some cases may be caused by fungal species, viruses and even mites that inhabit your skin.
You may be more likely to develop folliculitis if you shave your head, wear clothing that rubs or brushes against your hair, touch your scalp often or
A variety of different things can cause folliculitis. You might develop this type of infection if you shave your head, wear tight clothing that rubs against your hair, or touch your scalp frequently throughout the day.
Some medications, such as lithium and cyclosporine, can also increase your risk of developing folliculitis.
Folliculitis typically clears up on its own, provided your immune system is healthy and you stop the behavior that caused it to develop in the first place.
If you’re looking for faster relief, applying a hot compress to the area may help to drain affected follicles and prevent itching. Some antibiotics and antifungal medication may also help to clear this type of infection and improve recovery.
Seborrheic dermatitis is an inflammatory skin disease that can affect your scalp and other areas of your skin with large numbers of sebaceous (oil-producing) glands.
This type of skin issue is most common in infants and middle-aged adults. It can cause itching, inflammation, swelling, dandruff and the development of greasy white scales on your scalp and other areas of your body.
You may be more likely to develop seborrheic dermatitis if you’re male, have an immune system disorder, use immunosuppressant medication, live in a region with low humidity or have a health condition such as Parkinson’s disease, depression or dementia.
While there’s no direct link between seborrheic dermatitis and hair loss, scratching your scalp often or overly aggressively may damage your hair follicles and cause you to shed hair.
Like most scalp conditions, seborrheic dermatitis is treatable. If you have seborrheic dermatitis, your healthcare provider may suggest washing your hair with a shampoo that contains coal tar, pyrithione zinc, ketoconazole or selenium sulfide to control itching and relieve your symptoms.
If you have recurrent seborrheic dermatitis, they may also recommend using medication to stop breakouts from returning.
Lichen planopilaris, or LPP, is an inflammatory condition that can affect your scalp and hair. It’s a form of lichen planus -- a common disease that can cause swelling and inflammation in your mucous membranes. If you have lichen planopilaris, you may start to spot small bumps that develop around clusters of your hair. As lichen planopilaris becomes more severe, it can cause pain, burning and itching to develop on your scalp.
Lichen planopilaris can also cause scaly skin and red patches on your scalp, as well as patches with little to no hair growth.
When untreated, lichen planopilaris can lead to cicatricial alopecia -- a form of scarring hair loss that involves permanent damage to your hair follicles.
Treating lichen planopilaris usually involves limiting damage to your hair by avoiding colors and other artificial substances, all while controlling symptoms with topical and systemic medications such as corticosteroids, tacrolimus and hydroxychloroquine.
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Overly Harsh Shampoo
Some shampoos contain harsh ingredients that can irritate your scalp and cause you to develop an itch.
One common shampoo ingredient that’s often linked to itching is propylene glycol, a solvent that can cause eczematous dermatitis.
Some fragrances used to give certain shampoos a distinctive scent can also cause scalp itching and/or irritation. As such, it’s important to pay attention to what you see on the label if you’ve got sensitive skin.
If you often get an itchy scalp after washing your hair, you may benefit from switching to a milder shampoo that doesn’t contain irritating ingredients.
These shampoos are often labeled as “hypoallergenic” or “for sensitive skin” and can usually be found in your local supermarket or drugstore.
Dirt, Dust or Pollutants
Dirt, dust and other irritants found in the environment can become stuck in your hair and cause your scalp to become irritated, itchy and uncomfortable.
If your scalp is dirty, you may find that it starts to itch. Make sure to wash your hair frequently to remove dirt, dust and other pollutants that can become trapped against your skin, as well as the natural oils that can build up on your scalp over time.
Certain skin diseases, such as psoriasis, can cause you to develop a rash that affects your skin and causes itching.
Psoriasis is a type of autoimmune disease in which your skin produces new cells at a faster rate than normal. It can cause thick, red patches of skin with flaky scales to appear on your face and other areas of your body, including your scalp.
Although psoriasis doesn’t directly cause hair loss, scratching your head frequently or pulling at areas of skin that are affected by psoriasis may cause hair shedding.
If you have psoriasis, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider. They may suggest using a medicated shampoo, topical treatment or a light therapy to control your symptoms and make your psoriasis more manageable.
A variety of different skin conditions can cause dandruff -- small flakes of skin that can break off from your scalp and land on your shoulders and clothing.
Although dandruff doesn’t cause itching directly, it’s a common symptom of skin conditions that cause dryness, irritation and itchiness.
Most of the time, dandruff can be treated using an anti-dandruff shampoo. Our guide to getting rid of dandruff provides several techniques that you can use to wash away dandruff and stop it from making a return.
As well as shampoos, certain chemicals that are used in other skin and hair care products may cause you to develop an allergic reaction on your scalp that produces irritation and itching.
One chemical that’s often linked to allergic reactions is para-phenylenediamine (PPD), which is commonly used in black hair dyes.
Other products, such as conditioner and some skin care treatments, may also contain irritating ingredients that can cause allergic reactions.
Finally, some types of skin cancer may make your scalp itchy, causing you to scratch at certain areas.
Skin cancer often develops on your scalp, as this part of your body is frequently exposed to the sun. Research suggests that as many as 13 percent of malignant cutaneous neoplasms, or skin tumors that are cancerous, develop on the scalp.
While skin cancer won’t affect your hair, it’s important that you talk to your healthcare provider if you notice any flash-colored, red or brown spots or bumps on your scalp, especially if they don’t go away over time.
When to See a Doctor About Your Itchy Scalp
If you have an itchy scalp that doesn’t improve on its own over the course of a few days, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider as soon as you can.
Almost all conditions that cause an itchy scalp are treatable, either with medication, changes to your scalp and hair care habits or a mix of approaches.
It’s especially important to talk to your healthcare provider if you feel your scalp becoming more inflamed and itchy, develop sudden hair loss or have a family history of skin problems that affect the scalp and/or hair.
What to Do if You’re Starting to Lose Hair
If you’re starting to develop a receding hairline, bald patch at your crown or diffuse hair thinning, there’s a good chance you’re affected by male pattern baldness.
Male pattern baldness is treatable, but it’s important to take action as quickly as possible to stop your hair loss from becoming more severe.
Currently, the most effective treatments for male pattern hair loss are the medications finasteride and minoxidil.
Finasteride is a prescription medication that works by blocking the conversion of testosterone to DHT. Used daily, finasteride can reduce DHT levels by 70 percent and either slow down, stop or reverse the effects of male pattern baldness.
Minoxidil is a topical medication that’s applied directly to your scalp. Although it doesn’t reduce DHT levels, minoxidil helps to improve hair growth by moving your hair follicles into the growth phase of the hair growth cycle and stimulating local blood flow.
Research shows that finasteride and minoxidil are particularly effective when used together. In one study published in the journal Dermatologic Therapy, more than 94 percent of balding men showed improvements after using finasteride and minoxidil for 12 months.
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The Final Word on Itchy Scalp and Hair Loss
An itchy scalp can indicate many things, from oily, dirty hair that needs to be washed thoroughly to skin irritation that may need to be treated using a topical medication.
Although male pattern baldness usually doesn’t cause an itchy scalp, several medical conditions that can affect your hair follicles may involve itching, rash and discomfort.
If you’re concerned about hair loss, it’s important to take action as quickly as possible to prevent it from getting worse. The earlier you act, the better your chances of preventing further hair loss and stimulating new hair growth.
You can get started by talking with your primary care provider, scheduling an appointment with a dermatologist or accessing our range of hair loss medications online.