A sore scalp is one of the most uncomfortable feelings; move your hair one way and it hurts, move it back and it still hurts. While it might feel like our hair is hurting and our follicles are to blame, a tender spot on the crown of your head is actually all to do with the nerves around the follicles.
Stress and inflamed skin are often attributed as the most common reasons behind sore scalps and for many people, they will be. Blood vessels flood the nerves leading to the hair follicles, which causes that all-too-familiar throbbing feeling. And due to the sensitivity of the hair follicles, the pain can feel like it’s traveling through the lengths of the hair.
But there are also plenty of other reasons behind sore scalps, from using particular products to causes of hair loss. So if you’re wondering ‘why does my hair hurt’, this is what you need to know according to expert trichologists, dermatologists and pharmacists.
What causes a sore scalp?
The scalp has many free nerve endings, the function of which are to detect sensory changes such as touch, heat, cold or pain. “They then transmit this information to the brain,” explains Stephen Garfit, consultant trichologist at Leeds Trichology Clinic (opens in new tab). “A sore scalp is an indication that these nerve endings are responding to a trigger.”
He adds, “A sore or painful scalp can be a symptom of a hair loss disorder that may need urgent treatment, but it can also be a temporary symptom with no serious effects.”
Along with some of the more common reasons, it’s important to look out for scalp pimples and infected hair follicles, and avoid tension from certain hairstyles such as ponytails or braids that pull the hair too tight.
“Underlying skin conditions like eczema and cellulitis may also cause a sore scalp as well as possible trauma from a head injury,” Abbas Kanani, lead pharmacist and health advisor for Chemist Click (opens in new tab), says.
But while these are all possible, what are the most likely causes of a sore scalp?
The most common reasons behind a sore scalp
1. Skin allergies
If you’ve just recently started using a new product, your sore scalp could be the result of a skin allergy. “Skin allergies can cause allergic contact dermatitis,” says Dr Anton Alexandroff, a Doctify (opens in new tab)-reviewed dermatologist. “This can make scalps, along with the face and neck, red, sore, itchy, weeping or scaly.”
While allergies season is now here, which could cause issues for those allergic to pollen, dry shampoos are some of the worst culprits for causing allergies. If they're used too often or not washed out properly, the powder can clog up the pores on your scalp which leads to build-ups and all kinds of problems.
“The most common preservative allergens in dry shampoo are phenoxyethanol, benzyl alcohol and ethylhexylglycerin,” Dr Alexandroff says. These alcohol proponents act as drying agents, which is what you need to create the best dry shampoo, but they can leave the hair feeling brittle and the scalp itchy.
Along with spacing out when you use dry shampoo to protect your hair follicles, lightly mist the roots with the spray instead of spraying it directly onto your scalp. Then at the next opportunity, wash out the dry powder thoroughly to reduce any unnecessary discomfort.
2. Dirty brushes and combs
You may have a regimented routine for washing makeup brushes but did you know that your hairbrush also needs the same treatment? Much like makeup brushes, hair brusheshairbrushes gather dirt and dust that you then transfer onto your scalp with every use if you don’t clean them often enough.
“I advise my patients to regularly clean their brushes and combs in hot, soapy water,” says Stephen. “This is because they can harbor bacteria which could be a causative factor.”
In fact, research from Madras Medical College (opens in new tab) suggests that fungal infections on the scalp are most commonly caused by unwashed combs and brushes, along with unclean towels. It's for this reason that you should also replace your brush or comb every six months, depending on the quality of it.
Research from Icahn School of Medicine (opens in new tab) found that migraines can certainly cause scalp soreness, with their report revealing that almost 80 percent of migraine sufferers studied had painful sensitivity when they touched their hair.
“When experiencing a migraine, some sufferers often describe sensations of tenderness or prickling,” Stephen explains. “This symptom is called cutaneous allodynia, where hyper sensitization of the scalp gives sensations which would normally be painful, like touching your scalp.”
Migraines are one of the most common neurological disorders in the UK, according to Brain Research (opens in new tab), and they affect around one in seven people. While there are few migraine cures as such, you can avoid triggers that may bring them on such as certain types of food, stress and hunger. You can also stay indoors during dramatic weather changes and monitor your hormone levels, although if you find that headaches are disrupting your day-to-day life, always speak to your doctor first.
4. Environmental factors
With warmer weather approaching, our scalps are set to bear the brunt of the heat—and for those with little, thin or no hair at all, this could lead to a sore scalp when going out with uncovered or untreated hair.
“Sunlight consists of UVA and UVB rays,” says Dr Anita Takwale, consultant dermatologist at Stratum Clinics (opens in new tab). “UVA rays lighten hair and UVB rays can cause a sore scalp when there is little, thin or no hair as it results in sunburn.”
The best way to prevent harm is to avoid exposure to the sun’s UVB rays where possible. “These are most dangerous at peak hours of 12 to 3 pm,” she says. “In addition, wear hats and use facial sun cream that contains UVA and UVB protection in spray form, as these are particularly effective.”
5. Bleach and intense hair dyes
If you’ve ever dyed your own hair at home, you’ve probably read the big bold writing on a box-dye kit about not leaving the bleach solution on for too long. That’s because, as Dr Takwale says, “bleaching or other chemical methods of lightening the hair risks chemical burns.”
She explains, “This can have symptoms of redness, swelling, pain, blistering and weeping. It can result in weaker, thinner hair that is more prone to damage from the sun too.”
The chemicals in bleach and hair dyes also have the added risk of allergens, which is why you should always complete a strand test 48-hours before going in for the full treatment. “They can cause itchiness, flaking, redness and, if severe, blisters. The safest approach is to consider natural, home alternatives.”
Should your skin react to any products you’ve used on your hair, rinse it off immediately and seek medical advice.
6. Not washing your hair properly
As well as not washing your hair often enough, missing the chance to wash away excess oils on the scalp, washing your hair too vigorously or softly isn't doing your hair any favors.
"If the scalp isn't kept clean, then yeasts and fungal conditions can thrive, so shampooing properly is important," trichologist Stephen says.
For those who use plenty of products on their hair, from hair spray to heat protection, you'll need two rounds of shampooing to truly benefit from the treatment. However, if you need to do this, it's important to use the best shampoo and conditioner for your hair type to prevent frizz and dryness. If you leave your hair as is after stepping out of the shower, you should be fine with just one rinse through.
Studies from University Hospital Centre Zagreb (opens in new tab) show that when we feel stressed, the flood of cortisol through the body causes an increase in oil production in the skin glands. This increase, the study explains, causes clogged pores on the scalp which can become irritated, itchy, dry and flaky.
But stress doesn't just cause sore scalps directly. Spiking stress levels may also lead to a heightened awareness of pre-existing conditions which are the root of the pain, explains Dr Takwale.
“It could be a psycho-symptomatic response to past conditions or a result of taking actions which damage the scalp and cause pain. For example, pulling your hair can cause loss of pockets of hair and painful excoriations on the scalp.”
Hair pulling is just one of the physical manifestations of stress, she explains, and itching your scalp in response to the discomfort can also trigger flare-ups.
Products to avoid if you have a sore scalp
The two ingredients to avoid if you're suffering from a sore scalp are perfumes and preservatives, warns Dr Alexandroff. Often under the disguise of other names, these include:
- Benzyl alcohol
- Cocamidopropyl betaine.
A digital health journalist with over five years experience writing and editing for UK publications, Grace has covered the world of health and wellbeing extensively for Cosmopolitan, The i Paper and more.
She started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness. Everything from the best protein powder to sleep technology, the latest health trend to nutrition essentials, Grace has a huge spectrum of interests in the wellness sphere. Having reported on the coronavirus pandemic since the very first swab, she now also counts public health among them.
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