Skin inflammation is relatively easy to spot on your face—whether it’s breakouts and blemishes, redness from rosacea, or flakiness from eczema, you can usually notice the signs with a simple glance in the mirror. But inflammation on the scalp becomes a little trickier to identify, even though it’s just as important to treat. Your scalp is your skin, after all, and it requires the same amount of love during your routine as those hormonal breakouts on your jawline.
But people often overlook some of the glaring signs of scalp inflammation—they might brush off the symptoms entirely, regarding them as “normal” dryness from the changing of the seasons. When really, these signs could be tell-alls for a much larger issue going on underneath the surface.
Here are four ways you can tell if your scalp is inflamed. Before diving into the complex world that is scalp care, navigating these signs of inflammation can be crucial:
Buildup isn’t so much of a sign, per se, but it’s more of a precursor to inflammation. You can think of buildup as product, oil, and flakiness suffocating your hair follicles and causing the inflammation. Prolonged buildup can cause your scalp to become inflamed (leading to the other signs below), and while it’s pretty easy to clear up, it might take a while to control.
According to board-certified dermatologist and founder of Mudgil Dermatology, Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D., even a significant amount of dandruff and scaling can build up and suffocate the hair follicles. That’s why it’s all the more important to notice these signs and take action before it becomes more difficult to manage.
“If buildup is really extreme, it can even pull the hair down because there’s so much inflammation around the hair follicle,” Mudgil adds.
That’s why, first and foremost, you should evaluate any buildup you do have and take necessary action to lift up any unwanted remnants—and why you shouldn’t skip out on a double-cleanse in the shower.
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While it’s true that we hold much of our stress in our scalps (scalp tension is real, people), those feelings of discomfort can also reveal some follicle inflammation. If you have any inflammation at all, chances are your scalp is experiencing some pain.
“There’s very limited space between the skull and the outer surface of the skin, so any swelling at all can cause tightness in the scalp,” Mudgil says.
Even if it’s not a significant amount of swelling, this tightness can affect the nerves in your skull, causing pain, itchiness, and overall discomfort. That said, if you are experiencing some discomfort, it may be in your best interest to get your scalp checked out by a dermatologist, as there could be some inflammation going on below the surface.
A red scalp can stem from a number of things: overwashing, harsh chemicals in hair products, and conditions like eczema or psoriasis.
“If you’re overwashing your hair with something that has harsh sulfates, you’re going to be irritating the scalp, which can lead to inflammation,” trained trichologist and hairstylist Shab Reslan says.
There are two classes of inflammation associated with scalp redness. The first is the more deep-rooted redness around the follicle, called perifollicular erythema. This condition is pretty rare, but leaving it untreated can lead to hair loss and scarring on the scalp.
The second is a little more surface-level and way more common. Superficial redness and scaling will most likely diagnose as psoriasis or seborrheic dermatitis (commonly known as “sebo”), which create a more angry, “rashy”-looking appearance on the scalp.
“There’s no cure for these conditions,” Mudgil notes. “But they can be very well controlled with topical regimens.”
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There are flakes or patches.
Even if you’re experiencing no pain or scalp redness, flaking itself is its own kind of inflammation. Oftentimes, these flakes are communicating that the level might not be enough to cause any redness or discomfort but that there’s inflammation going on underneath the surface.
“Even if you’re wearing a black sweater and there’s some flaking on your sweater, that’s generally seborrheic dermatitis,” Mudgil says. “And you should treat it with anti-inflammatory topicals to get rid of the inflammation and scaling.”
A lot of people notice flakes and associate them with scalp dryness (which is frequently attributed to over-shampooing), so they might skip some washes or opt for dry shampoo as a result. However, Mudgil notes that this intuitive response isn’t the right one at all—in fact, you should do quite the opposite and wash your hair more frequently.
“You should be shampooing your scalp and lifting up as much of the scaling as possible, so topical medications can get to the source of the inflammation and solve the problem,” he says.
So your scalp is inflamed. What can you do?
If you’re experiencing one or more of these signs, the first thing you should do (aside from consulting your dermatologist) is try to lift up as much of the scaling as possible, even before applying any topical medications.
“When there’s a lot of scale, it interferes with the medication and treatments from getting to where the action is,” Mudgil says.
To remove scale, there are a number of routes you can take. Editorial hairstylist Helen Reavey suggests you massage the scalp with oil before shampooing. “This helps provide proper blood circulation to the hair follicles, as well as ensuring deep nourishment and removal of dirt and buildup,” she says.
She also says you should always, always double-cleanse, especially if you’re partial to a more gentle sulfate-free shampoo. That second cleanse will result in a much deeper clean, plus shinier, salon-grade hair. Seems like the best of both worlds, if you ask us.
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