What is Scalp Eczema? Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and More

The most common type of scalp eczema is known as seborrheic dermatitis, and its most unwelcome symptom is dandruff.

When a baby's scalp gets this scaly, flaky skin, it's often called cradle cap. (1)

Scalp Eczema (Seborrheic Dermatitis) Symptoms

The symptom of scalp eczema is skin patches that occur on your head. They may be:

  • Red and scaly
  • Flaky
  • Greasy or waxy
  • Very itchy or feel like it's burning
  • Oozing or have "weeping" lesions
  • Causing a discharge from the ear if eczema continues from the scalp into the ear canal
  • Causing changes in skin color after healing (2,3)

Other skin conditions — such as psoriasis, 552/' target='_blank' rel='noopener noreferrer' >4' target='_blank' rel='noopener noreferrer' >allergic contact dermatitis (inflammation caused by an allergic reaction to a certain substance), atopic dermatitis (which often occurs in those with asthma or seasonal allergies), and folliculitis — may cause symptoms similar to those of scalp eczema. (4) People commonly confuse psoriasis and scalp eczema — but know that psoriasis usually has a whiter scale compared with scalp eczema, and psoriasis leads to sensitive skin patches that easily bleed when scratched. In some cases, scalp eczema and psoriasis can happen together. (5)

What Causes Scalp Eczema?

Seborrheic dermatitis is a chronic inflammatory condition caused by the overproduction of sebum, the natural oils secreted by sebaceous glands in the scalp. It is not contagious.

Because seborrheic dermatitis is a condition related to the sebaceous glands, it can also appear in other oily areas of the skin, including the face (eyebrows, eyelids, and center of the face), ears, upper chest, upper back, armpits, and genitals. (3)

There is a strong association between seborrheic dermatitis and yeast of the genus Malassezia, which are normally present in the skin but often overgrown in people with the skin condition.

Scientists don’t fully understand the exact connection between the yeast and eczema symptoms, but research suggests that a nonspecific immune reaction may be to blame. That is, some interaction between Malassezia, their metabolites (substances produced during metabolism), and skin and immune cells results in an inflammatory reaction. (4,6)

Importantly, once someone becomes sensitized to Malassezia, the yeast will always cause an immune reaction. (7)

Is That Rash Psoriasis, or Is It Something Else?

Psoriasis — which leads to scaly patches of dry, red, thick skin — affects millions of people in the United States. Don’t confuse it with these other skin conditions.

What Are the Triggers and Risk Factors of Scalp Eczema?

There are numerous triggers that worsen scalp eczema symptoms. Those triggers include extreme weather (particularly cold, dry weather) and stress.

Some other potential triggers for scalp eczema:

  • Hormonal changes
  • Illness
  • Stress
  • Harsh chemicals from detergents and soaps
  • Heavy alcohol use or alcohol-based lotions
  • Medications such as psoralen (for psoriasis), interferon, and lithium
  • Heavy sweating
  • Exposure to an allergen

You have an increased risk of developing scalp eczema if you have these conditions:

  • Nervous system disorders, including Parkinson's disease, traumatic brain injury, stroke, and epilepsy
  • Other skin conditions, like psoriasis, rosacea, or acne
  • Allergies or a family history of allergies, like hay fever, asthma, and atopic dermatitis
  • Obesity
  • Depression or eating disorders (2,8,9)

The Top Medications for Treating Eczema on Your Scalp

There is no cure for scalp eczema or seborrheic dermatitis, but medications can help reduce and prevent symptoms.

For example, you can usually treat irritation and an itchy scalp with a medicated, over-the-counter dandruff shampoo.

The chemical ingredients in these shampoos can help ease the inflammation and get rid of flaky, scaly skin when used two or three times a week. Look for these items:

  • Salicylic acid
  • Coal tar
  • Zinc
  • Resorcinol
  • Ketoconazole
  • Selenium sulfide

Topical creams, ointments, or sprays made from these ingredients can also be applied to help calm the irritation and stop the flaking.

If you have severe scalp eczema, your doctor may prescribe products containing stronger doses of the aforementioned medicines or medicines containing other ingredients, such as corticosteroids, ciclopirox, sulfacetamide sodium, Protopic (tacrolimus), or Elidel (pimecrolimus). (2,9)

How to Help Prevent Scalp Eczema Flare-Ups

The severity of seborrheic dermatitis may be lessened by controlling risk factors and triggers, and taking care of the skin.

To manage scalp eczema and help prevent flare-ups, do your best to follow these recommendations:

  • Avoid exposure to any suspected irritants and allergens.
  • Clean your scalp thoroughly, but avoid drying it out by using only a quarter-sized dollop of a gentle shampoo and warm, never hot, water.
  • Manage stress well.
  • Shampoo your hair after sweating heavily, such as after a workout, since perspiration can be a trigger.
Why Eczema Isn’t a Contagious Skin Disease

Scalp eczema often responds to treatment, but it also often returns. For some people, exposure to the sun may improve symptoms.

Be on the lookout for signs of a flare-up and start treatment right away. (2,8,9)

One Last Thing About Scalp Eczema Treatment

Scalp eczema can be uncomfortable, but there are several over-the-counter solutions that can help relieve your symptoms.

But as always, consulting a professional can help you manage this skin condition. In particular, you may want to see a dermatologist to help identify the triggers for scalp eczema and get a prescription treatment if the remedies you’ve tried aren’t effective.

Importantly, see your dermatologist as soon as possible if your eczema-related skin patches drain fluid or pus, form crusts, or become very red or painful. (9)

Additional reporting by Diana Rodriguez.

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