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Scalp Care

Understanding Scalp Eczema

Eczema is a common skin condition that affects many people. But what are its different types? Nioxin explores the answer to this question.

Eczema is a common skin condition that affects more people than you might think. In the US alone, over 30 million people have been diagnosed with the condition.

Eczema can appear anywhere on the body - on our hands, feet, elbows, and scalp. On the scalp, it usually causes itchy, dry skin and dandruff.

Sometimes scalp eczema is triggered by an irritant, like a shampoo or hair product you are allergic to. Other times it may be caused by environmental or genetic factors. Surprisingly, you might be more likely to experience eczema if conditions like asthma or hay fever run in your family.

Let's explore the three main types of eczema that can affect the scalp.

What Causes Eczema on the Scalp?

Eczema is a type of dermatitis, which is just another name for skin irritation. There are three common types of eczema that can appear on the scalp: seborrheic, contact, and atopic. It is important to note that none of the three types are contagious, meaning you cannot 'catch' eczema or infect anyone with the condition.

Seborrheic Dermatitis Scalp Eczema

Seborrheic dermatitis is a skin condition that affects the oily areas of our bodies. These include the face, eyelids, back, chest, and of course, the scalp. Seborrheic dermatitis is a type of scalp eczema typically caused by excessive oil or an overgrowth of yeast (called Malassezia) on the scalp. The most common symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis on the scalp are:

  • An itchy scalp. 

  • Flaky skin and dandruff.

  • Scalp inflammation.

  • A burning sensation.

  • Greasy skin coated in scales or crust.

We do not yet know the exact cause of seborrheic dermatitis, but it is typically caused by a mix of both genetic and environmental factors. Certain factors or events may trigger seborrheic dermatitis, including: 

  • A traumatic event. 

  • Stress. 

  • Fatigue.

  • Recovering from severe illness or fungal infection.

  • Hormonal changes.

  • Irritating chemicals in soap, detergent, shampoo, etc.

  • Cold and dry weather.

  • Medical conditions like HIV, eating disorders, autoimmune diseases, etc.

Once you are aware of potential triggers, you may be able to identify and avoid them more easily.

Contact Dermatitis Scalp Eczema

Another possible cause of scalp eczema is contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is a type of eczema that causes our skin to react to a particular substance. This is known as an immune reaction. Contact dermatitis is usually the result of an allergic reaction to shampoo, hair gel, hair dye, hair spray, or any product we might use on our scalp. Some of the symptoms of contact dermatitis on the scalp include:

  • Dry and cracked skin. 

  • Itchiness.

  • Hives.

  • Blisters on the skin.

  • Inflamed skin. 

  • Scaly skin and dandruff.

  • Skin turning red, brown, or gray (skin discoloration). 

  • Pain and burning.

  • An almost instant reaction to the irritant. 

Luckily, the inflammatory reaction (contact dermatitis) should go away quickly once we stop using the product or chemical that caused the irritation. Your physician or healthcare practitioner may also prescribe topical steroids to reduce inflammation. 

Atopic Dermatitis Scalp Eczema

Atopic dermatitis is the third major category of eczema, and it's usually the condition that first comes to mind when we think of eczema. Atopic dermatitis is a chronic condition, which means we might have it for the rest of our lives. Most people with atopic dermatitis get diagnosed early in their childhood, but we can develop this condition at any age. This type of eczema may appear anywhere on our bodies, including the scalp. The main symptoms of atopic dermatitis include the following:

  • Itchy skin. 

  • Dry, scaly skin patches. 

  • Redness and discoloration.

  • Rashes that form blisters. 

  • Soreness. 

  • Thickening and hardening of the skin.

You might notice atopic eczema symptoms on different parts of your body simultaneously. For example, you might see itchy and dry skin on your scalp and elbows. This is another common symptom of eczema flare-ups. Some of the common triggers of atopic eczema include:

  • Soap or hair care products like shampoo and conditioner. 

  • Dry and cold weather. 

  • Dust.

  • Smoke.

  • Mold.

  • Food allergies. 

  • Hormonal changes. 

  • Skin infections.

Atopic Scalp Eczema Causes

There are a few different factors that might cause atopic dermatitis. Although we don't exactly know what causes the condition, we know that it has to do with our skin's protective layer losing moisture. Particularly, changes to this protective layer can cause our skin to become dry, which then leads to damage and inflammation. There are three main risk factors that can contribute to changes in the protective layer of our skin. They include: 

  1. Genetics. We have a higher chance of developing atopic dermatitis if the condition runs in our family.

  2. The immune system. It is possible for our immune system to get confused and overreact. This phenomenon can cause our skin cells to become overactive, leading to inflammation.

  3. The environment. Environmental triggers may also contribute to atopic dermatitis. These may include:

    • Long-term exposure to dry air. 

    • Exposure to tobacco smoke or air pollutants.

    • Certain fragrances or chemicals found in hair products. 

Baby Scalp Eczema

Baby scalp eczema, or cradle cap, is a common form of dermatitis in infants. If you notice an accumulation of brown or yellow, greasy scales on your baby's scalp or forehead, it could indicate cradle cap. You might also see crusty and flaky skin around your child's face. The scales typically feel fragile, flaky, and waxy. This condition usually goes away on its own in a few months, but moisturizing, gently brushing the scalp with a soft brush, and using mild baby shampoo can help manage pain and loosen scales.

Scalp Eczema vs Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a condition that looks and feels similar to eczema. Psoriasis can start at any age, but its first symptoms usually appear between the ages of 20 and 30. The condition affects men and women equally. Psoriasis usually appears on the knees, elbows, neck, back, and scalp45-56% of people who have psoriasis have scalp psoriasis. In fact, it can affect the hairline, forehead, skin around the ears, back of the neck, and scalp. Some of the symptoms of psoriasis are similar to those of eczema and include:

  • A dry scalp and scaly patches of skin. 

  • Flaky scalp skin that looks like dandruff. 

  • Itchy or sore plaques of skin. 

  • Temporary hair loss. 

The main difference between eczema and psoriasis is the appearance of the skin patches. While eczema causes red or yellowish-looking greasy patches on the scalp, psoriasis causes the skin to appear powdery. Psoriasis also leaves the skin looking gray or silvery. A doctor will normally be able to diagnose you with psoriasis based on your skin's appearance. It is important to contact your physician or healthcare provider if you are unsure which condition is causing your scalp symptoms.

Scalp Eczema Treatment

There are a few treatment options available for scalp eczema. Usually, your doctor will prescribe a special medicated shampoo for you to use, which contains antibacterial and antifungal agents. There are also general lifestyle and scalp care tips that you may find to help alleviate your symptoms and minimize flare-ups of scalp dermatitis. Some of these options might include:

  • Keep your scalp clean.

  • Moisturize your scalp with mineral oil and


    wash your hair regularly


  • Avoid using harsh chemicals on your scalp, and replace them with a gentle shampoo and conditioner. 

  • Avoid using hair products that trigger a reaction.

  • Try to reduce exposure to heat (hot baths, hot rollers, high heat setting on hair dryers, etc.).

  • Eat a balanced diet

  • Reduce stress.

  • Make sure you get at least seven hours of rest every night. 

  • Avoid smoking or long-term exposure to smoke. 

  • Taking hair and scalp vitamins, like Nioxin's Recharging Complex, with biotin and zinc supplements.

Scalp Eczema Shampoo

Using medicated shampoo is an effective option for treating your scalp eczema. Look for over-the-counter shampoos that contain antifungal and antibacterial agents like tea tree oil, salicylic acid, coal tar, and zinc pyrithione. These are all effective treatment options. Hair care products like Nioxin's Scalp Recovery System Kit can help restore your scalp's natural balance and combat problems like itchiness caused by different forms of eczema. The Scalp Recovery System Kit also provides smoothness and manageability for full and nourished hair. Learn more about hair loss treatments and remedies for scalp and hair concerns. Our range of haircare products and treatments is created to achieve fuller-looking hair and a healthier scalp.


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