Have an itch that you just can’t scratch? Although scratching the skin or scalp to counter an itchy sensation can feel downright glorious, raking your nails over your flesh again and again to tackle chronic itchiness leads to a phenomenon called the itch-scratch-itch loop.
The Itch-Scratch Loop
Scratching an itch doesn’t relieve the itch per se, but replaces the sensation of itchiness with the sensation of pain. To our brains, pain is preferable to itch. When we scratch and experience pain, the brain responds by releasing the neurotransmitter serotonin to help alleviate the pain and provide us with some feel-good chemicals.
While this explains why scratching that itch can feel so darn pleasurable, this effect is short-lived. Just as scratching a bug bite can take away the itch temporarily, the itchy sensation soon returns and scratching it no longer feels near as good. Scientists have discovered that the brain’s serotonin response does inhibit pain and itch, but it also activates itch receptors in the brain leading to an endless itch-scratch cycle.
Itchy skin is all round uncomfortable but an itchy scalp is especially so. Scratching at your head can bring about skin infections, damaged hair, swelling, redness, and even bald patches in spots that you scour the most. Scratching at a dry scalp often leaves telltale traces of white flakes on your skin and clothing. And once you start scratching at your scalp it can be so hard to stop.
Underlying Causes of Itchy Scalp
Seborrheic dermatitis – or dandruff – is the most common cause of scalp itchiness. Though the exact origins of dandruff remain unknown, it could be caused by hormonal fluctuations, dry skin, yeast overgrowth on the scalp, stress, and the changing of the seasons.
If your scalp itches continuously and is accompanied by pain, lesions, and hair loss, even after treatment, it’s time to see your doctor.
Home Remedies to Relieve Itching
You can break the itch-scratch cycle. Here’s how:
1. Tea Tree Oil
Essential oil derived from the Melaleuca alternifolia tree has been used for centuries by the indigenous people of Australia to treat a variety of skin ailments. Modern studies have confirmed that tea tree oil possesses powerful antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Tea tree oil is an excellent catchall for itchy scalp. Combatting bacteria, viruses, and fungi, tea tree oil is an effective antidote for many of the conditions that can lead to a flakey, inflamed, and itchy scalp.
In cases where dandruff was caused by an overgrowth of yeast, a 2002 study found that people who used shampoo with 5% tea tree oil showed a marked improvement in severity of dandruff, itchiness, and greasiness after one month of use.
Inflammatory conditions like contact dermatitis can be successfully treated with tea tree oil, according to a study published in 2011. Compared against conventional eczema medications like zinc oxide and clobetasone butyrate, tea tree oil was by far the most effective, reducing allergic and irritant flare-ups by more than 40%.
Tea tree oil can also be used to fight fungal infections like ringworm. Other inflammations of the skin, such as scalp psoriasis and folliculitis, can be resolved with tea tree oil scalp treatments. It’s also a highly effective insecticide against parasitic infections like head lice and scabies.
Ready to try tea tree oil? We recommend using Plant Therapy 100% pure therapeutic grade tea tree oil, which can be purchased here. To use against itchy scalp, add 8 to 10 drops to your favorite natural shampoo. Or, make this tea tree coconut shampoo from scratch.
2. Aloe Vera
It works so well for healing skin problems because it is brimming with vitamins A, C, E, and B12. It contains several anti-inflammatory enzymes, including catalase, bradykinase, and amylase. It’s rich in the minerals calcium, copper, selenium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and chromium. It provides a dozen aromatic organic compounds that exert pain relief while killing off harmful microorganisms. It is a source of fatty acids that have anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and analgesic properties. It contains hormones that speed up wound healing. And it provides a host of amino acids that enhance the absorption of other beneficial ingredients into the skin.
When it comes to an itchy scalp, the juice from the miraculous aloe plant has been used in traditional medicine to treat bacterial and fungal skin infections, parasites in the skin, alopecia, and flare-ups of the scalp that can cause “lupus hair”.
A few scientific studies have verified that aloe is entirely deserving of its medicinal reputation. When used on seborrheic dermatitis sufferers, aloe significantly decreased scaliness and itchiness, and it reduced the size of the areas affected by flakey dandruff. In treating psoriasis, aloe vera gel proved to be a potent cure for psoriatic plaque, inflamed skin, and peeling / flakiness when used 3 times per day, 5 days a week, for 4 weeks. A sunburned scalp can also become painfully itchy but using aloe vera gel as an aftersun lotion helps reduce and soothe inflamed skin.
If you don’t already have an aloe plant, you can purchase a live houseplant here.
Harvest the gel by breaking off a large leaf from the base of the plant and slicing it lengthwise. One of the easiest ways to do this is to use a cheese slicer. Process the gel in a blender to render it into a liquid.
No green thumb? You can still get your aloe fix by purchasing organic, cold-pressed aloe vera gel by Amara Organics here.
3. Apple Cider Vinegar
Daily use of shampoos, conditioners, and styling products can leave behind residue, strip natural acids from the skin, and make scalp pH more alkaline. These things together can create a dry and itchy noggin.
A healthy scalp should have a slightly acidic pH between 4.5 and 5.5, but the majority of hair care products on the market today have pH values well over 5.5. An alkaline scalp is more prone to fungal and bacterial infections. Apple cider vinegar can help restore the scalp’s natural pH levels, bringing them back down to a healthy range.
For full effect, only choose apple cider vinegar that is raw, organic, and ‘with the mother’. We love Bragg ACV in particular, which can be purchased here.
To make an apple cider vinegar hair rinse, dilute 2 to 4 tablespoons of ACV with one cup of warm water. Shampoo and rinse as normal. Slowly pour the ACV over your scalp and massage into your roots. Leave it on for a couple minutes and rinse clean. Repeat 1 to 2 times per week to cleanse and clarify your scalp.
4. Raw Honey
Naturally antimicrobial, pure honey has been used for at least 2,000 years to treat skin infections. Raw honey has a pH value between 3.2 and 4.5, ensuring it is acidic enough to combat many kinds of pathogens. It has been found to be effective against at least 60 strains of bacteria as well as several fungi and yeast species.
Composed mostly of sugars, honey also contains enzymes, minerals, as well as antioxidants like vitamin C, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid which can help repair and regenerate skin cells. Riboflavin (vitamin B2) and pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) may also help calm inflamed skin.
In a small study published in 2001, patients suffering from itchy scalps, scaling, and hair loss applied raw honey to their heads once a week for four weeks, each time allowing the honey to penetrate deeply into the scalp for 3 hours before rinsing away. The result: all patients showed significant improvements with the honey treatment; itching disappeared, there was no scaling after one week, and skin lesions were completely healed after two weeks. Even after treatment ended, the patients’ scalps were entirely dandruff-free for a period of six months.
To make a honey hair mask, use only organic, raw, and unprocessed honey – like this jar from YS Organic. Mix 9 parts honey with 1 part warm water. While your hair is damp, massage the honey into your scalp for 2 to 3 minutes. Wrap your head in a towel and allow it to sit in your hair for 3 hours before rinsing away.
5. Eat Foods Rich in B Vitamins, Vitamin D, and Zinc
Nutrient deficiencies can compromise the immune system and leave you vulnerable to infection. When it comes to scalp health, you’ll want to make sure you are eating foods plentiful in B vitamins, vitamin D, and zinc.
Vitamin B12 plays an important role in brain function, DNA synthesis, and the formation of red blood cells. While severe cases of vitamin B12 deficiency involve depression, osteoporosis, and stomach inflammation, a case study published in 2008 observed that low levels of vitamin B12 in the body can cause skin lesions and dryness. The top food sources of vitamin B12 are fish, beef, skim milk, and eggs.
Vitamin B6 helps the body convert food into energy. It is also involved in the synthesis of histamine – a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in itching. Lack of vitamin B6 in the body can lead to inflammation of the skin, including eczema and seborrheic dermatitis. Get your vitamin B6 fix by eating more avocados, spinach, bananas, and hazelnuts.
Not only is vitamin D essential to the maintenance of strong and healthy bones, it protects the skin against UV light, reduces DNA damage and inflammation, promotes wound healing, and it bolsters the regeneration of skin cells. Taken as a supplement or in food, it is an effective treatment for psoriatic skin lesions. A vitamin D deficiency can be easily reversed by spending more time in the sun, or by eating fish and egg yolks and drinking orange juice and low-fat milk.
Zinc is vital to many functions in human biology, including growth and development, immune system response, and healthy skin. In the field of dermatology, it has proven effective against rosacea, folliculitis, psoriasis, eczema, alopecia, and seborrheic dermatitis. Prevent a zinc deficiency by eating red meat, beans, chickpeas, non-fat yogurt, and cashews.
6. A Change of Lifestyle
Sometimes, curbing an itchy scalp for good comes down to making a few lifestyle changes…
Stop Using Chemicals on Your Head
As any regular reader of this website probably already knows, a dizzying array of everyday products are rife with toxic ingredients. Shampoos, conditioners, and styling products are no exception. Made with chemicals like phthalates, artificial fragrance, coal tar dyes, and sodium laureth sulfate (to name a few), hair care products are massaged into the scalp and enter the body totally unfiltered. Not only do these products put your health at risk, they could also be the true culprit behind that irritated, dry, and itchy scalp.
For peace of mind, try one of these DIYs:
- The World’s Simplest Homemade Shampoo
- All Natural “Wet” Dry Shampoo Spray
- Nourishing Hot Oil Hair Treatment
- DIY Thyme Spray for Hair Growth, Dandruff & Itchy Scalp
Go Easy on the Heat
Blow drying, curling, straightening, and otherwise heat treating your hair can cause the moisture in your scalp to evaporate. Compounding the problem, an already dry scalp loses water much faster than a healthy one so the more you use heat, the drier and itchier it will get.
Massage Your Scalp
Spend a few minutes each day massaging your scalp. This benefits your melon by increasing blood flow, promoting good circulation, strengthening hair roots, and conditioning the scalp. Plus, it feels awesome!
Let Your Hair Down
Putting your hair up into a tight bun or ponytail on the regular stresses the scalp. Tight hairstyles worn all day long can cause a sore scalp, headaches, hair thinning, and even traction alopecia. If you must wear your hair up, keep it loose and switch up your updos every day.