Scalp Eczema: Symptoms, Triggers And Most Effective Treatments

Andy Boysan
Andy BoysanBPharmDirector & Superintendent Pharmacist
eczema on scalp

Skin conditions like eczema can affect sufferers in a number of different ways, and in varying degrees of severity. You may suffer from eczema on eyelids, eczema in ears, scalp psoriasis or eczema on your scalp.

Scalp eczema can cause all sorts of issues like dry skin, patches, redness and flaky dandruff. This can feel embarrassing and difficult to control for sufferers — especially if they affect a very visible part of your body like your head.

Luckily, there are many different ways you can treat eczema on the scalp and help to prevent its symptoms.

In this guide by The Independent Pharmacy, we’ll be taking a closer look at scalp eczema in particular; including the signs and symptoms, as well as treatments and preventative measures. Read on to find out how best to treat and manage your scalp eczema.

You may also want to read our separate guide on how to deal with eczema on your face.

Overview - what is eczema on the scalp?

Scalp eczema is a type of eczema (a common skin condition) that mainly affects your scalp.

The most common type of scalp eczema is known as seborrhoeic eczema. In infants under one, it is known as cradle cap.

Seborrhoeic eczema causes patches of itchy, dry and inflamed skin to form on your scalp, and can sometimes develop on oily areas on the head, such as the sides of the nose, eyebrows and ears.

Atopic eczema, allergic contact dermatitis and seborrheic dermatitis are three further types of eczema that can appear on your scalp.

  • Atopic eczema causes the skin to become itchy, dry and red. It can easily get infected, particularly if the skin is broken or scratched.
  • Allergic contact dermatitis can lead skin to become cracked, scaly or dry. Blisters and bumps (sometimes with crusting and oozing) and a red rash can also develop. You might also experience burning, swelling or tenderness.
  • Seborrheic dermatitis causes your skin to become red, itchy, flakey, greasy and scaly. Along with your scalp, seborrheic dermatitis can also appear on eyebrows, moustaches or beards.

One of the most noticeable symptoms of scalp eczema is dandruff — sufferers may notice white skin flakes in their hair or on their clothes.

Scalp eczema is usually a long-term skin condition that persists for years (although it may disappear or reappear without warning).

Symptoms of eczema on the scalp

Here are some of the common signs and symptoms of eczema on the scalp:

  • Patches or areas of skin that are dry, scaly or flaky
  • Dandruff (flakes of skin) on your scalp or in hair (including eyebrows and beard)
  • The skin may also be greasy or waxy
  • Redness
  • Skin discolouration such as lightening or darkening (even after the skin has healed)
  • Itchiness
  • Swelling
  • Soreness
  • Burning
  • In more extreme circumstances, oozing or weeping lesions
  • Possible discharge from the ear if eczema has affected the ear canal

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, then you may want to confirm a diagnosis of eczema with your doctor and start looking into medication that could help with your skin problem.

Risk factors and triggers: what are the causes of eczema on the scalp?

Although the exact causes of eczema aren’t fully known, there are a number of risk factors and triggers that can increase your risk of developing scalp eczema or exacerbate the condition.

Here are the risk factors of scalp eczema:

  • Genetics (seborrheic dermatitis can run in families)
  • Neurological or psychiatric conditions (like Parkinson's disease and depression)
  • Immune system conditions or weaknesses (HIV/AIDS, organ transplants, alcoholic pancreatitis and some cancers)
  • Stressful medical conditions (such as a heart attack)
  • Other existing skin conditions (like acne, psoriasis or rosacea)

Here are the triggers of scalp eczema:

  • Illness
  • Hormonal changes
  • Stress
  • Lack of sleep
  • Cold, dry weather
  • Harsh chemicals in products like soap, shampoo and conditioner
  • Irritants in these products such as nickel or cobalt
  • Exposure to something you’re allergic to
  • Medications such as psoralen (for psoriasis), interferon, and lithium
  • Extreme sweating

Scalp eczema may also be caused by an overproduction of sebum (a natural oily substance secreted from your skin), which can encourage a natural skin fungus — called Malassezia — to multiply. This fungal overgrowth can cause the scalp to become irritated, which can lead to scalp eczema.

Main types of scalp eczema treatment

Seborrheic eczema is a chronic skin condition, which means there is no cure. However, there are many different methods for successfully treating eczema on the scalp.

The most common treatments for scalp eczema come under one of the below categories:

  • Shampoos
  • Emollients
  • Medication
  • Home or natural remedies

We explain more about each of these treatments below:

Shampoos for treating scalp eczema

Over-the-counter dandruff shampoo can help to treat dry or itchy skin on your scalp due to eczema. Ingredients like salicylic acid, zinc and coal tar can be effective.

Emollients for treating scalp eczema

Emollients are moisturising treatments that tackle dry skin on a daily basis to ease your symptoms. For more advice on this method, head over to our page on how to moisturise your scalp.

Medication for treating scalp eczema

There are both over-the-counter and prescription medications that can be taken for scalp eczema. These can come in a variety of forms, such as topical creams, lotions, ointments, or sprays. We’ll cover these in more detail in the next section.

Home or natural remedies for treating scalp eczema

Natural or home remedies include things like tea tree oil, olive oil, aloe vera (which can all be applied topically to the scalp). Some scalp eczema sufferers also say that dietary supplements like vitamins A, D & B, omega-3 and zinc can help control their condition.

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Buy Capasal Therapeutic Shampoo
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Best scalp eczema treatments you can buy in the UK

We’ve highlighted the main methods of treating eczema on head outbreaks. In this section, we list the specific medical and shampoo products you can buy to treat your scalp eczema.

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Buy Dry Scalp Treatments Online
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Best scalp eczema shampoos you can buy in the UK

Medicated, over-the-counter shampoos can help to treat milder cases of scalp eczema. Here at The Independent Pharmacy, we offer a range of shampoos that are designed to treat scalp dryness and eczema, including:

These shampoos contain a variety of ingredients that work in different ways to treat eczema symptoms (such as anti-fungal action), so it may take a few attempts to find the right solution for you. Some may also not be suitable for you (for example, if you are fair-haired or pregnant). If in doubt, speak to your doctor or a pharmacist to see which is best for you.

How to treat eczema on scalp using steroid creams

Steroid creams — also called topical corticosteroids — are used to treat moderate and severe cases of scalp eczema, along with an eczema rash caused by a fungal infection. Effective steroid creams for this condition include:

Steroid creams work by reducing swelling, redness and itching during eczema flare-ups.

They do this by blocking the release of inflammatory chemicals that cause the symptoms of severe eczema.

Steroid creams for scalp eczema should only be prescribed by a doctor or registered pharmacist prescriber.

If your scalp eczema is particularly severe or if regular treatment is ineffective, your GP may refer you to a dermatologist.

How to prevent eczema on the scalp

As well as using medication to treat scalp eczema, there are certain changes you can make to your lifestyle to prevent eczema outbreaks from getting worse or happening in the first place.

Here are some ways to prevent eczema on the scalp:

  • Reducing stress: in some cases, eczema flare-ups can be triggered by stressful situations and feelings of anxiety. Exercise, meditation, eating healthily and maintaining good sleep hygiene are all good ways to reduce stress levels.
  • Keeping your scalp clean: washing your hair and head regularly with warm water and a gentle shampoo can keep eczema at bay and wash away sweat and buildups on the skin which can trigger eczema.
  • Avoiding suspected irritants: limit exposure to certain chemicals or products such as harsh soaps and shampoos, hair dye, and extremely hot water. Certain medications may also make eczema flare-up too.

Other types of eczema

The eczema you find on your scalp is a type called seborrheic dermatitis or seborrhoeic eczema. In infants, this is known as infantile seborrhoeic dermatitis but is also called seborrhoeic eczema or, more commonly, cradle cap.

Eczema is the collective name for a group of skin conditions that give the sufferer patches of itchy and dry rashes. Other types of eczema include:

  • Atopic dermatitis: the most common form of eczema, it usually starts in childhood and tends to get milder or go away completely by adulthood.
  • Contact dermatitis: occurs when your skin comes into contact with a particular substance or chemical which irritates it or causes an allergic reaction.
  • Discoid eczema: a type of eczema that appears in disc-shaped or oval patches on the skin.
  • Varicose eczema: this type of eczema is more common later in life, and most often affects the lower legs. It is caused by problems with blood flow through the veins.
  • Dyshidrotic eczema (pompholyx): a type of eczema that causes small blisters to form across the feet and palms of the hands. More common in women.

There are other main types of eczema; however, there are many different forms. If you think you may have eczema but you are unsure which form, you can always speak to your doctor.

When you need to call a doctor for scalp eczema

If you have tried a number of different treatments (like the ones we’ve listed above) and they’re not proving to be effective, or you suspect that your skin is infected, then you should speak to your doctor. They may provide stronger prescription medication for you, or refer you to a dermatologist for expert advice on skin conditions.

You should also see your doctor if your condition is causing you anxiety, embarrassment, trouble sleeping or stopping you from continuing with everyday life.

Summary

Scalp eczema — also known as seborrhoeic eczema – is a type of eczema where dry, red, scaly patches develop on the scalp, as well as parts of the face including the nose, eyebrows and ears. This can result in dandruff, as well as patches of itchy dry skin, inflammation and discolouration.

There is no cure for eczema on the scalp, however, it can be treated quickly and easily using a range of effective scalp medications. The most common is Betnovate Scalp Application or Elocon Scalp Lotion, both of which you can buy from The Independent Pharmacy.

Finding the right treatment and taking preventative measures can make living with the condition much more manageable.

If you’re struggling with scalp eczema, you can contact The Independent Pharmacy for a free, online consultation. Our whole process is quick and easy, and you can even receive your eczema medication the very next day.

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