The People's Perspective on Medicine

How Can You Ease Scalp Itchiness?

Persistent scalp itchiness can be extremely hard to treat. Readers offer possible solutions; we advise them to make sure the benefits outweigh the risks.
Women have itchy scalp fungus, Healthy concept

Itches anywhere, but particularly scalp itchiness, can be maddening. So many different problems could lead to persistent scalp itchiness. Doctors might diagnose lice, dandruff, psoriasis or a yeast overgrowth that causes seborrheic dermatitis. However, they may find it difficult to make a diagnosis and assign an appropriate treatment (BioMed Research International, Jan. 2019). Generally, we are thrilled to learn that a reader has found a way to manage an intractable condition. However, the drug this person is championing could have potentially serious side effects. We are reluctant to see it used for a disorder that is not life-threatening.

What Could Soothe Long-Lasting Scalp Itchiness?

Q. For 40 years, I have suffered with an itchy scalp. I have tried everything, including dandruff shampoos (though I didn’t have dandruff), cooling pillows, frozen gel packs and even prescription lotions. Nothing worked, though rubbing alcohol offered short-term relief when I was under intolerable stress.

Then I developed severe jaw pain that radiated to my ear. The doctor prescribed gabapentin twice a day for a week. My jaw and ear pain cleared up, and to my delight, so did the scalp itchiness. I am now taking gabapentin daily and am free of itching.

Why Gabapentin?

A. Gabapentin is an anti-seizure drug that is also prescribed for persistent nerve pain after a shingles attack. Jaw pain is not a use the FDA has approved. Neither is scalp itchiness.

We are delighted that you got relief for such a long-lasting problem. You should know, however, that gabapentin can cause some potentially serious side effects, including dizziness, depression and suicidal thoughts. Consequently, you should weigh the possible harms against the perceived benefit and make sure that the benefit is greater.

Other Approaches to Ease Scalp Itchiness:

You are certainly not the only person to be plagued with a persistently itchy scalp. If misery loves company, perhaps you will be relieved to learn that others have also struggled with this problem.

Q. I have been treating a scalp problem for many months. Prescription drugs such as clobetasol, ketoconazole shampoo and fluocinonide each help, but do not clear it up altogether. I still have itching and flaking.

I’ve tried lots of other remedies such as Head and Shoulders shampoo, organic baby shampoo, baby oil, jojoba oil, tea tree oil and Mane ‘n Tail shampoo for animals but none do the job. Do you have any ideas to clear this up?

Will Vinegar or Listerine Help?

A. Other readers have suggested remedies for itching and scaling that you may not have tried. One calls for rinsing the hair and scalp with dilute vinegar after shampooing. Another approach is to soak the scalp with amber-colored Listerine. Some people find that applying milk of magnesia to the scalp can be helpful. We don’t know if any of these would work when antifungal drugs have not, but they are all inexpensive and worth a try. 

One reader reported his experience with a standard dandruff shampoo:

“Years ago, a dermatologist told me to leave zinc pyrithione shampoo (I use a generic one) on my scalp for a while.

“Three times a week, I put it on at the beginning of my shower and don’t rinse it off until I am done, which usually will be several minutes.

“No dandruff. I do use a tar shampoo once or twice a month to alternate, and no conditioner, as that causes scalp itchiness.”

Another woman’s husband used a more alternative approach:

“My husband had dandruff and he rinsed his hair with apple cider vinegar and it went away. It also made his hair soft. The only thing was his dark hair went white.

“After the second bout with cancer in which he lost his hair again, he used the cheapest mouthwash we could find and it worked great. He rinsed with it and didn’t wash it out. His hair was soft and best of all no dandruff and no scalp itchiness.”

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In a different situation, another reader reported:

“I am a female who just turned 60 yesterday. I have been plagued with scalp itchiness, no dandruff, for at least the past 20-25 years. It drives me crazy sometimes. I tried apple cider vinegar, but the itching continues. A topical solution that gives me excellent temporary relief is Scalpicin containing 3% salicylic acid. It soothes & cools, putting the itch at bay. 

“I also find that Aveda Rosemary Mint Shampoo & Conditioner helps soothe the scalp. It leaves the scalp cool & tingling.

“Another thought might be to try Sea Breeze. When I was growing up, my aunt was a beautician. She poured Sea Breeze right out of the bottle & massaged it into the scalp after giving me a permanent. It felt so cooling & calming to the scalp & smelled wonderful. Back then, permanent waves were more harsh, so I’m sure the Sea Breeze took care of any potential irritation to the scalp. I just checked the ingredients  for Sea Breeze; it has Salicylic acid & camphor. It’s worth a try.”

Unfortunately, a solution that works for one person does not always work for another:

“I’ve tried Sea Breeze (the blue one) on my itchy scalp with hair loss but no dandruff. The S/B does give me temporary relief from the itch but my hair is not growing back in.

“I have zero, fine, baby hairs and fear I’ll be a 58 y/o bald female at some point in time. I think it must be hormonal… but since I’ve had estrogen positive breast cancer in the past – I’m afraid to see a doctor for hormone treatment.

“The scalp itchiness is absolutely miserable and it seems to be worse at night. My dermatologist ran all kinds of tests and every one of them came back as normal. I did ask my MD for a short run of steroid tablets as I think my scalp is inflamed, but she refused. Sometimes I just want to scratch my hair out of my head! I’ll try just about anything to get rid of this itch!”

As with gabapentin, steroid pills such as prednisone is a very big cannon. Consequently, we are not surprised that the doctor balked. 

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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Citations
  • Rattanakaemakorn P & Suchonwanit P, "Scalp pruritis: Review of the pathogenesis, diagnosis, and management." BioMed Research International, Jan. 2019. DOI: 10.1155/2019/1268430
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I have to make sure to rinse my hair thoroughly–and then do it again. Helps stop itching.

After many unsuccessful attempts to remedy itchy scalp for my husband, I mixed a few drops of tea tree oil with baby shampoo. He has not had an episode of itchy scalp while using this safe and inexpensive remedy. Good Luck 👍

I am already taking gabapentin for other reasons, and my scalp is not itching as it was. None of the side effects mentioned have effected it. So will continue taking it for one more reason.

Hello, did anyone try using all fragrance-free hair products?

Just adding/rubbing moisture (water) to the scalp a several times after the itchiness begins has helped me a great deal.

I have found that using Derma Smoothe scalp oil is beneficial. It contains peanut oil and fluocinolone acetonide. It can be messy to use, but it seems to provide longer lasting relief for me than other steroid topicals.

I had an itchy scalp for years until I switched to sulfate-free shampoos and conditioners. I found one with tea tree oil that banished the itching for good. I also started using sulfate-free toothpaste and finally stopped getting canker sores in my mouth. I must be very sensitive to sodium lauryl sulfate, so I read labels and avoid it.

I also have or (had) itchy scalp. Itchy ears, back and anywhere I can’t reach. Since I couldn’t reach my back and was miserable, trying to use the back of a chair to scratch. I looked a lot like my poor pooch who has skin allergies. I’ve read all kinds of home remedies but one worked. I am anemic so I’m also always cold. A hot shower always makes me feel better EXCEPT that is what was causing my itchies. I miss my too hot showers but I love not waking in the middle of the night scratching my head.

Try a shampoo with argan oil. Solved the problem for me.

The only thing that helps mine is brushing with a very stiff hair brush every night. It also seems to help rid my scalp of those small “pimples” too.

I too had scalp itchiness and switched to paraben free shampoo. I no longer have itchiness. I did this on the advice of a cancer survivor friend. I just chose the brand she recommended and chose a product on the shelf labeled paraben free.

I use apple cider vinegar. Wash my hair, rinse, apply AC vinegar. I rub it into scalp lightly, leave on while showering, then rinse out. The smell does dissipate. Sometimes I just rub it right into my scalp if the itch is driving me nuts.

Sometimes the culprit can be the water coming out of your shower head. I found that I’m sensitive to chloramine, a disinfectant in my city water. A simple solution is to use filtered or distilled water for my last rinse. I found this also helps alleviate my dry eyes.

I was told by a doctor that itchiness was probably a fungus. I started brushing my head first thing every morning, and that controls it for me.

When I first had itchy scalp, about 5 years ago, I finally went to a dermatologist, then another, and both of them diagnosed Lichen planopilaris as the problem. It’s thought to be an autoimmune disease, and about the only thing it does is destroy hair follicles. Apparently, I’ve had it for over 40 years, because that’s how long it’s been since I’ve shaved my legs. I thought it was great that I didn’t have to shave, but now I realize it was the disease. Now it’s taken almost all my hair from the hairline up to the crown, and although I’m treating it with oils and essential herbs, I’m afraid I will be completely bald before I die. At least it’s only my hair that’s affected. I could have developed another autoimmune disease that’s much worse. Although, as a woman, I’m constantly reminded that part of our identity rests in our hair.

Used Amber colored Dollar store brand “Listerine” & it worked after applying 4 times! Nothing else helped.

The cause of my scalp itchiness turned out to be any and all versions of SLS – sodium lauryl sulfate – and fragrance, including essential oils. Since I’ve switched to products without those ingredients my scalp is 100% improved. I also had to change my face moisturizer because simply touching those products on my skin and then touching my scalp was enough to cause itching.

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