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ECZEMA
AWARENESS CENTER

Scalp Eczema: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Posted on August 12, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Kevin Berman, M.D., Ph.D.
Article written by
Amy Isler, RN

A dry, itchy scalp can be caused by many skin conditions, such as psoriasis, head lice, and fungal infections. One common cause is atopic dermatitis — also known as eczema.

Scalp eczema affects up to 5 percent of the general population. Eczema of the scalp can show up in babies as young as 3 weeks old, when it may be referred to as “cradle cap.” Cradle cap can affect up to 70 percent of young infants. Although many infants and children outgrow scalp eczema, it can reappear during puberty and linger into adulthood.

This article will discuss different types of eczema, symptoms of scalp eczema, potential causes, and effective treatments that can help you get your scalp eczema under control.

Symptoms of Scalp Eczema

Scalp eczema can be uncomfortable, irritating, itchy, and painful. Some people also find scalp eczema embarrassing because of its hard-to-conceal symptoms, like skin flaking. The most common symptoms associated with scalp eczema include:

  • Itchiness
  • Dry skin
  • Dandruff and flaky skin
  • Discolored skin patches
  • Scaly patches that may be greasy
  • Blisters and sores

Types of Eczema That Affect the Scalp

Several types of eczema can trigger the uncomfortable symptoms of scalp eczema.

Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis appears as faintly red areas of skin. (DermNet NZ)

Seborrheic dermatitis, also known as dandruff, is the most common type of eczema in children and adults. Seborrheic dermatitis occurs in locations of the body that have many sebaceous glands (oil glands), such as the head and sides of the nose. It is caused by a reaction to yeast that lives on the skin.

Atopic Eczema

Atopic eczema is another common type of eczema that occurs in children and adults. It usually runs in families. People with atopic eczema are typically more likely to have asthma and hay fever as well. Severe itchiness with dry, irritated skin is a classic characteristic of atopic eczema.

Allergic Contact Dermatitis

Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when your skin has an allergic reaction to an applied substance or another substance you come in contact with. Everyday items that can cause allergic contact dermatitis on the scalp include:

  • Hair products, such as shampoos, conditioners, gels, and sprays
  • Hair dyes or perming solutions
  • Shower caps or hair nets that use rubber
  • Hair accessories that are made out of rubber or nickel

Irritant Contact Dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis is similar to allergic contact dermatitis, but it does not include an immune system response. This response is what causes an allergic reaction. Avoiding the irritating substance is the best way to combat irritant and allergic contact dermatitis.

Causes of Eczema on the Scalp

The exact cause of eczema is unknown, although it’s believed to be caused by genetic and environmental factors that decrease the skin’s protective barrier and cause inflammatory reactions.

Several risk factors have been found to trigger eczema flare-ups in children and adults:

  • Stress and illness
  • Hormone changes
  • Cold or hot weather
  • Dry weather
  • Hair products
  • Detergents and soaps
  • Exposure to allergens
  • Certain medications (including interferon, lithium, and psoralen)
  • Food allergies

People may also be at a higher risk for scalp eczema if they have preexisting medical conditions such as:

  • Asthma and hay fever
  • Psoriasis
  • Rosacea
  • Acne
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Epilepsy
  • History of stroke or heart attack
  • Depression
  • An eating disorder
  • HIV
  • Alcoholism

Age is another factor. Infants up to 3 months and adults ages 30 to 60 are at a higher risk of developing scalp eczema.

Treatments

Eczema can come and go over time, but there is currently no cure that guarantees eczema won’t come back. If you are having symptoms of scalp eczema, it is important to see a doctor or dermatologist to confirm that it is eczema. Seeing a doctor will help you rule out other skin conditions and get on the proper treatment plan.

Cradle cap may go away on its own. However, if the condition persists into childhood and adulthood, specific treatment is usually needed. A doctor or dermatologist may prescribe a topical medication or recommend an effective over-the-counter option.

Scalp eczema is usually treated with:

  • Dandruff shampoos and medicated shampoos containing zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide, coal tar, or ketoconazole
  • Moisturizing creams and oils
  • Topical steroids used over a short period of time
  • Avoidance of allergens or irritants

Some people with scalp eczema say overnight moisturizing helps reduce their eczema symptoms. This treatment involves applying a moisturizer or scalp oil to the head at night and covering it with a shower cap or head wrap while sleeping. In the morning, wash and rinse your hair as usual with an eczema-friendly shampoo.

A MyEczemaTeam member described what treatment routine works best for them: “I use squalane for my scalp and almost always wear an organic cotton head wrap to stop myself from gouging chunks of hair out. I also keep my nails as short as possible.”

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyEczemaTeam is the social network for people with eczema and their loved ones. Here, more than 43,000 members from around the world come together to ask questions, offer support and advice, and connect with others who understand life with eczema.

Do you get eczema on your scalp? How do you cope? Share your experience in the comments below or start a discussion on MyEczemaTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Kevin Berman, M.D., Ph.D. is a dermatologist at the Atlanta Center for Dermatologic Disease, Atlanta, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Amy Isler, RN is a registered nurse with over six years of experience as a credentialed school nurse. Learn more about her here.

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