Scalp eczema, also known as seborrheic dermatitis, can cause red, itchy patches to form on your skin. These patches can then cause flaking. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it is one of the most common skin conditions. The good news is that eczema on the scalp is treatable.
There is no ideal candidate for scalp eczema. It can affect people of all ages and races. In children, it is often known as cradle cap. In adults, the effects of seborrheic dermatitis can be long-lasting.
The rash occurs with a swollen and sometimes shiny or greasy appearance. It can cause a crusting and scaling on the surface. When those scales are scratched, large flakes can fall from the scalp. Unfortunately, eczema can spread to other areas of the body as well, creating unsightly and uncomfortable rashes all over.
In this article, we’ll cover the various causes of scalp eczema, and what you can do about it. This includes how to treat the symptoms, and the risks associated with not treating it properly. We will also compare eczema to other common skin conditions of the scalp, like psoriasis. You’ll find out about everything from home remedies that work naturally to the best over-the-counter treatments.
Table of Contents:
- 1 What Causes Scalp Eczema?
- 2 What Are the Symptoms of Seborrheic Dermatitis?
- 3 Can Seborrheic Eczema Cause Hair Loss?
- 4 How to Treat Scalp Eczema for Adults
- 5 What’s the Best Scalp Eczema Shampoo?
- 6 Can Scalp Lotion Help Itching, Flaking Skin?
- 7 Prescription Treatments for Seborrheic Dermatitis
- 8 How Does UV Light Therapy Work?
- 9 Natural Ways to Treat Scalp Eczema
- 10 Is Eczema on the Scalp Preventable?
- 11 Can Scalp Eczema Be Cured?
What Causes Scalp Eczema?
The exact cause of seborrheic dermatitis is unknown. It is considered a chronic form of eczema. Even though the cause isn’t fully known, most scientists agree that it likely has something to do with genetics, and possibly hormones.
It can also affect the upper back and the nose. These are areas of the body where there are a lot of sebaceous glands. These glands produce natural oils that your body needs. But, when there is too much oil production, problems can begin to occur. Too much oil (sebum) can cause a build up to occur on the scalp, forming the itchy, scaly patches of eczema.
Though we don’t know what causes the condition to begin with, people who have it often need a trigger for it to flare-up. Some of the most common triggers for scalp eczema include:
Seborrheic dermatitis is not contagious, and can’t be passed from person to person. It starts from within the body. While anyone can get the skin condition, there are those who are slightly more prone to it. It is more common in men than in women, but not by much.
Race and hair type aren’t factors. People with fine hair, thick hair, African American hair, etc. can all experience scalp eczema. Additionally, people with other health conditions may be more at risk, due to a compromised immune system. These conditions include:
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Other skin conditions such as psoriasis or acne
What Are the Symptoms of Seborrheic Dermatitis?
There is no exact test that doctors can perform to diagnose seborrheic dermatitis. Sometimes, it is even confused with other skin conditions. Before talking with your doctor, it’s important to know some of the most common symptoms associated with eczema.
These symptoms regularly include:
- Oily skin
- Flakes of skin that appear white or yellow
- Itching sensation
- Burning sensation
This condition is usually characterized by greasy scales forming on skin that has reddened from irritation. One of the most common symptoms is thick, yellowish flakes. The yellowish color comes from the buildup of oils on the scalp. It’s easy to sometimes confuse dandruff with flaking from a dry scalp. However, dandruff flakes are usually heavier, with a yellow tint. Flakes from dry scalp will be smaller, and white.
Since there is no diagnostic test, your doctor will perform an examination of the skin, and will ask questions about medical history. Most dermatologists have seen eczema of the scalp enough to be able to determine what it is after a physical examination. However, they may take a small sample of the skin for a biopsy, to rule out any other possible skin conditions or fungal infections.
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with a dermatologist to discuss treatment options.
What’s the Difference Between Seborrheic Dermatitis and Atopic Dermatitis?
Atopic dermatitis is another form of eczema. It most often occurs on the face, hands, feet, elbows, or behind the knees. These tend to be dryer locations of the body, where seborrheic dermatitis affects oilier locations. One of the biggest differences between the two is that there is almost always itchy skin involved with atopic dermatitis. While itching is a common symptom of seborrheic dermatitis, it doesn’t always occur.
You can be diagnosed with both types of dermatitis. However, it’s not likely that you will develop atopic dermatitis on your scalp.
Scalp Eczema vs. Psoriasis
A dermatologist should be able to tell which type of skin condition you have on your scalp after a physical exam. Scalp psoriasis is another common skin condition, and it shares quite a few symptom similarities with eczema of the scalp. These include redness and scaling.
However, there are several differences to note when determining if you have psoriasis or eczema. Most importantly, psoriasis can affect multiple areas of the body. So, it’s important to be able to differentiate the symptoms.
Some of the most common characteristics of scalp psoriasis include:
- Silvery scales
- Red skin covered in flakes
- A thick crust on the scalp
- Patches of scaling that can extend past the hairline
Psoriasis can often be more painful than eczema. While some of the treatment options for the two conditions overlap, psoriasis may also be more difficult to treat, and is never fully curable. The patchy scales that occur with seborrheic dermatitis are usually easier to remove, and can be washed away with the right treatment. Removing the thick, large scales of psoriasis can be painful, and even cause bleeding. That can put you at risk for infection.
If you have symptoms of either eczema or psoriasis on your scalp, getting your exact condition determined by a doctor is ideal. It will help you to determine the right treatment approach, and find relief that much faster.
Can Seborrheic Eczema Cause Hair Loss?
Scalp eczema can cause hair loss when left untreated. The follicles of your hair will find it difficult to grow in such an inflamed environment. It can also be difficult for follicles to grow through the thick, scaly patches that have formed on the scalp. If new hair can’t grow regularly, you’ll notice some hair thinning wherever you experience the condition.
Additionally, the patches of scaly skin can become very itchy. While itching can cause a variety of different problems, it can also contribute to hair loss. Continuous scratching and picking at the scalp can cause hair to be pulled out, or fall out. One of the best ways to get rid of the itching sensation is to find a treatment option that also soothes inflammation.
How Can I Prevent Bald Patches?
Hair loss associated with eczema is usually based around the severity of the condition, and how much it itches. You may not be able to completely prevent hair loss. But, you can help to slow it down with the right treatment.
Unfortunately, many people choose to just ‘live’ with their symptoms for too long, until they become almost unbearable. Scalp eczema can be mistaken for other skin conditions. But, it’s not hard to recognize the scaly, crusty patches. The sooner you recognize your symptoms for what they are, the sooner you can get started on a treatment plan.
Starting on a regular treatment regimen can help to reduce symptoms like inflammation and itching. The less you feel the urge to scratch at your scalp, the less likely it is your hair will fall out or be pulled out in clumps.
Treatment also helps to soften the scaly patches that can become extremely thick. When they soften and start to loosen up, hair can penetrate through and grow normally.
How to Treat Scalp Eczema for Adults
Keep in mind that you probably won’t be able to cure eczema completely. It is a condition that goes away with treatment, but can flare up again at any time. However, thanks to so many effective treatment options and preventative measures, most people with eczema can manage it and reduce the severity of regular flare-ups.
Treating your eczema is a matter of treating the symptoms to lessen their intensity. In most mild cases, this can be done by using a medicated shampoo. Some doctors will prescribe an antifungal cream, as well. This is because there is a certain type of yeast associated with seborrheic dermatitis, and it could lead to fungal growth.
Medicated shampoos that work well for scalp eczema usually contain one or more of the following ingredients:
- Coal tar
- Selenium sulfide
- Zinc pyrithione
If a medicated shampoo isn’t enough to keep symptoms under control, your doctor may prescribe something stronger, like a topical steroid. These mild steroids will help to control inflammation and soothe any irritation you might be feeling.
In extremely severe cases, your doctor may also prescribe an oral antifungal medication. However, if you recognize the symptoms of eczema early on and begin treatment, it likely won’t have to go that far. In most cases, symptoms can be managed with regular care and medicated hair care products.
How to Wash Your Hair Properly with Medicated Shampoo
Whether you have an over-the-counter treatment, or have been prescribed a medicated shampoo, there is a certain way you should be washing your hair to achieve the best treatment results. Use the following steps when washing your hair with seborrheic dermatitis.
- Rinse your hair completely with warm water. Using water that is too hot can irritate your scalp and dry out the skin.
- Apply a small portion of the shampoo to your scalp, and massage it in gently. Be sure to be thorough in massaging it all over the scalp. But, be careful not to be too rough. Scrubbing too hard or using your fingernails can irritate the scalp even more, or scratch it. This could cause the patches to open up and bleed, which puts you at risk for infection.
- Follow the directions on the bottle/package for how long you should leave the shampoo in your hair. Typically, it takes a minimum of five minutes for the medication to really seep into the skin, but every formula is different.
- Rinse your hair completely with warm water, and dry with a towel.
What’s the Best Scalp Eczema Shampoo?
Because eczema is such a common skin condition, there are multiple shampoos on the market designed to soothe the symptoms and allow you to find relief. Again, it’s important to look for a shampoo with ingredients that fight back against itching and inflammation.
The best shampoo for scalp eczema is Neutrogena T/Gel Therapeutic Shampoo. Neutrogena is a trusted brand when it comes to skin care, dating back to the 1930s. Their therapeutic shampoo is great for multiple skin conditions of the scalp, including psoriasis, dandruff, and of course, seborrheic dermatitis.
It is the number one over-the-counter brand recommended by dermatologists for different skin conditions. Its formula is designed to provide instant soothing relief, and last for hours. Feel free to read our in-depth Neutrogena T/Gel therapeutic shampoo review.
The active ingredient in this therapeutic shampoo is 0.5% coal tar. Coal tar works by slowing the growth of possible bacteria, and loosening/softening the scales that eczema forms. Once the thick and crusting scales are loosened, they can be washed away. Salicylic acid, an inactive ingredient, also helps to clear scalp buildup.
Even though this Neutrogena product is strong enough to provide relief from itching and flaking, it is designed to be gentle enough for everyday use. It is designed for all hair types, including color-treated hair. If you do use it every day and find it is drying out your hair, follow it up with a conditioning treatment.
For best results with Neutrogena T/Gel Therapeutic Shampoo, leave it in your hair for several minutes during each wash before rinsing it away. This will give it time to penetrate the skin, and loosen any thick, hard scales that may have formed due to the eczema.
Can Scalp Lotion Help Itching, Flaking Skin?
We don’t often think about putting lotion on our scalp, but some of the best treatments for scalp eczema can be a soothing, healing lotion. This is especially true if you are experiencing a lot of inflammation and itching, or if you’ve experienced hair loss because of it.
The best lotion for scalp eczema is the Puriya Mother of All Creams. As the name suggests, it works wonders on everything from psoriasis to dandruff, and even works on shingles and rashes. What’s the best part? They use a natural healing formula to achieve the best results.
Some of the benefits you can expect when using this cream include:
- Lasting itch relief
- Reduced inflammation
- Fast absorption for instant results
- Cell repair and regeneration
The natural formula of active ingredients includes:
- Organic aloe vera
- Safflower oil
- Shea nut butter
- Avocado oil
- Vitamin E, Vitamin A, Vitamin C
- Multiple essential oils
Because the ingredients are all-natural, there are very few side effects to worry about. In fact, unless you are knowingly allergic to one of the ingredients within the lotion, you should be able to use as often as needed to relieve the symptoms of eczema. This cream is designed for topical use anywhere on the scalp. It can help to relieve itching and redness almost instantly, and it’s safe enough to use multiple times a day.
- Read our in-depth Puriya Mother of All Creams Review
To allow for deeper penetration into the scalp, make sure you aren’t just using the cream at the ends of your hair. It may require some practice and patience to move your hair enough to get to the scalp itself. However, it shouldn’t be difficult to discover where the patches of affected skin are. Apply Puriya Mother of All Creams directly to those patches for even faster results, and quick relief.
Prescription Treatments for Seborrheic Dermatitis
Most of the time, over-the-counter treatments work very well for eczema of any kind. However, in more severe cases, your doctor may need to prescribe something stronger to help deal with symptoms. These prescriptions can come in the form of lotion or creams, oral medications, antifungal shampoos, or even UV light treatments.
The most common type of prescription shampoo associated with scalp eczema is an antifungal shampoo. These shampoos are designed to combat the overgrowth of yeast from the seborrheic dermatitis.
Topical steroids are another common prescription solution. However, many people can experience side effects from them, and they can be expensive. Doctors will typically use steroidal solutions as a last resort.
How Does UV Light Therapy Work?
UV light therapy should only be used in extreme cases of scalp eczema, when other options have been exhausted. Even when done, it is usually combined with another type of prescription. The risk of UV light therapy comes from the fact that exposure to ultraviolet rays can increase chances of skin cancer.
This therapy works by penetrating the skin. It helps to slow the growth of affected skin cells. This can make the scaly patches of skin caused by dermatitis softer, and easier to flake away. While it doesn’t come without risks, it is a viable option for people who have tried everything else to get rid of their skin condition.
If you’re not happy with the way your over-the-counter treatments are working, talk to your doctor or dermatologist about prescription options. They may be more expensive and have more potential side effects. However, they can provide relief when nothing else has worked. It also gives your dermatologist a chance to take a closer look at your specific skin condition, and make sure there isn’t anything more serious going on, such as infection.
Natural Ways to Treat Scalp Eczema
It’s not uncommon to seek out natural solutions for skin conditions. Prescriptions come with side effects, and sometimes even over-the-counter products contain ingredients some people aren’t comfortable with. Others simply like to use ingredients they are familiar with, and try solutions that are as natural as possible. For that reason, there are plenty of at-home solutions for treating scalp eczema.
Let’s take a look at a few of these home remedies for seborrheic dermatitis. If you’re looking for quick relief without having to pick up a medicated solution, you might be able to find what you need in your own home.
Using Honey & Water on the Scalp
Most people have honey in their pantry. By mixing a bit of it with water, you can create a completely safe, natural, and effective solution to scalp inflammation. To effectively try this treatment, follow these steps:
- Mix four parts honey with one part warm water.
- Apply the honey water to the affected areas on the scalp.
- Allow the solution to sit on the scalp for as long as possible – at least three hours.
- Rinse away the solution with warm water.
Honey helps to heal this condition in a few different ways. First, it contains natural antifungal and antibacterial properties. It also helps to draw moisture to the skin, keeping it soft and hydrated. This can help to soften the thick scales formed by dermatitis. If you have a bit of time to spare and can allow yourself to be ‘treated’ for several hours, this can be a great soothing solution.
How to Use Coconut Oil as an Eczema Treatment for the Scalp
Coconut oil is used for a variety of different skin conditions. Many people even use it on their hair and scalp as a moisturizing agent. When it comes to eczema, applying it directly to the skin can provide soothing relief, and help to ease the skin condition. It only takes a little bit of coconut oil at a time to help ease symptoms.
To use coconut oil as a treatment option, simply rub a small amount in your hands until it melts. Carefully massage the oil directly into the scalp, so it has a chance to penetrate the pores. The longer you can leave the oil in, the better. Some people even see better results by using a cap to ‘seal’ it in place for several hours, or overnight.
Coconut oil is a well known antifungal agent. As stated above, one of the most popular solutions prescribed by doctors for seborrheic dermatitis is antifungal shampoo. Using a natural antifungal solution can offer peace of mind, and is far less expensive with no negative side effects to worry about. You can leave coconut oil on without having to rinse it, and it will not only help to soothe your scalp, but can make your hair softer and shiny.
Plus, coconut oil is a natural moisturizer. Like honey, it can help to soften the crusty scales caused by eczema.
Apple Cider Vinegar for Seborrheic Dermatitis
Apple cider vinegar has been used as a skin care treatment for a very long time. This is due to the natural acidity it contains. This acidity helps to break down the fungus associated with seborrheic dermatitis. It also helps to restore the natural pH balance of your skin. Remember, scalp eczema is caused by a buildup of oils. Restoring the pH balance can help to reduce the production of oil by the sebaceous glands.
To use apple cider vinegar to treat scalp eczema, follow these steps:
- Mix equal parts apple cider vinegar and water.
- For easy cleanup, apply the solution all over your scalp in the shower/tub.
- Let it absorb into the skin of your scalp for 10-15 minutes.
- Rinse normally, and towel-dry your hair.
If you start to experience a burning or stinging sensation after applying the solution, you may need to dilute it with more water. This can occur if you have sensitive skin, or a very severe case of eczema.
One reason people are somewhat hesitant to try this solution is because they don’t like the vinegar smell. While it can be potent to start out, the smell of vinegar will naturally fade away within about 30 minutes of drying off your hair.
Home Remedies for Dry Scalp Conditions
As you can see, there are natural solutions that can help with eczema. Some other popular home remedies include:
Because these treatments are completely natural, most of them are entirely safe to try again and again until you find one that works for you. You probably already have most of the ingredients on hand for many of these treatment solutions, so you can start trying them right away to find relief.
Is Eczema on the Scalp Preventable?
If you have the genetic makeup that makes you more prone to scalp eczema, it can never be 100% preventable. It is also not a curable condition. Managing eczema is the best option people who experience it have in order to live comfortable lives.
Even though there is no way to completely prevent flare-ups of eczema, there are a few things you can do to lessen the likelihood of having one, and to possibly lessen the severity of your specific condition. Try some of the following tips to manage your symptoms, and potentially reduce the intensity of your outbreaks:
- Avoid over-showering. Don’t shower every single day unless necessary. When you do shower, avoid using extremely hot water.
- Limit contact with known irritants or allergens. This could include certain detergents, soaps, shampoos, perfumes, etc.
- Try stress-management techniques. Exercise, meditation, or breathing exercises can help to reduce stress and flare-ups.
- Avoid abrupt temperature changes if possible.
- If sweat tends to cause you to have an outbreak, limit activities that cause you to perspire heavily, and shower with warm water afterward. Exercise can help to relieve stress, but if you know sweat causes your skin to act up, you may need to change your fitness routine.
- Use a moisturizer on your scalp, especially after taking a shower.
- Practice overall healthy skin hygiene habits.
As you can see, most of the suggestions listed that can help to reduce the severity of outbreaks are direct responses to what can trigger them in the first place. After awhile, you’ll become more aware of what causes flare-ups for you. It’s not always the same for everyone with the condition. Once you are able to limit the factors that trigger an outbreak, you may have them less frequently, and they will likely be less severe in nature.
Can Scalp Eczema Be Cured?
Unfortunately, no matter what treatment solutions you use, eczema anywhere on the body cannot be cured. If you are prone to it, you will be for the rest of your life, unless a cure is eventually developed.
Some people experience outbreaks more regularly than others. But for most, it’s a matter of managing symptoms as much as possible. With self-care and regular treatment, this skin condition doesn’t have to hinder your life in any way.
If you’re struggling with scalp eczema, try one of the soothing treatment solutions Neutrogena T/Gel Therapeutic Shampoo or Puriya Mother of All Creams. From the best over the counter shampoo, to prescription treatments from your dermatologist, it is possible to manage your symptoms and experience relief.