You know that tender feeling you sometimes get on the crown of your head that comes on out of nowhere and even makes your hair hurt?
The chances are your scalp’s inflamed. Blood vessels flood the nerves leading to our hair follicles, which causes that all-too-familiar throb. And due to the sensitivity of hair follicles the pain can feel as though it’s travelling the whole length of the hair.
“The scalp has many free nerve endings,” says Stephen Garfit, Consultant Trichologist at The Leeds Trichologist Clinic. “Their function is to detect sensory changes such as touch, heat, cold or pain. They then transmit this information to the brain. A sore scalp is an indication that these nerve endings are responding to a trigger. “
What’s more, it can be a red flag that some of your beloved strands may soon be leaving your head. “Pay attention to pain,” says Lars Skjoth, founder of Harklinikken, a Danish brand that specialises in preventing hair thinning. “It can be a warning about hair loss.”
Stephen agrees: “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.”
So, what can cause a sore scalp? Read on to find out.
1. Dry shampoo
As well as extending the time between washes, dry shampoo can deliver instant root lift for last-minute volume. This makes it a go-to for busy women. “Dry shampoo is a fantastic tool every woman should have,” says Stephen. “It’s great for increasing the volume and freshening hair up to get another day out of the style, before shampooing again.”
However, it also has some drawbacks. If it’s used too often or not washed out properly it can clog the scalp. This leads to build-up and potential problems. “Dry shampoo often includes alcohol as a drying agent, which can leave the hair brittle and the scalp itchy,” explains Stephen. “They should not be used as an alternative to shampooing.”
To protect precious hair follicles, lightly mist along the roots as opposed to spraying directly onto the scalp. Always wash out thoroughly to reduce the risk of premature hair loss or unnecessary pain.
2. Updo hairstyles
According to experts, tight hairstyles are the worst perpetrator. Tugging from ponytails, braids, buns and a whole variety of other updos can permanently damage follicles and lead to traction alopecia – premature balding caused by excessive tension.
If you are prone to pain, hair loss specialists advise tying hair up no more than two or three times a week and refraining from sleeping with your hair up or ‘setting’ it overnight. Another simple tip is to use cloth hair ties rather than tighter elastics. Or, be bold and opt for a modern, timeless short hairstyle so tying your hair back becomes a thing of the past.
3. Not washing your hair properly
Washing hair too vigorously or not enough isn’t doing your hair any favours. “If the scalp isn’t kept clean, then yeasts and fungal conditions can thrive, so shampooing properly is important,” says Stephen.
One good way to gauge your hair washing habits is to consider the number of products you use. If you load your tresses with dry shampoo, hair spray, heat protectors and frizz relaxers on a regular basis you’ll benefit from two rounds of shampooing or a nourishing clarifying treatment.
If you favour a low-maintenance hairstyle and tend to use a good quality shampoo and conditioner followed by little to no product you can get away with a quick wash and go.
4. Strong hair dye and relaxers
Another factor that could be giving you a sore scalp is stringent hair dye. This discomfort is usually caused by a reaction to chemicals in the dye, specifically PPD (para-phenylenediamine) which, although considered safe, can cause irritation – namely, dermatitis.
“Although the manufacturers recommend that a patch test is performed 48hrs prior to the colorant being applied, many women omit this important part of the process. This may put their lives at risk,” says Stephen. “It’s important to patch test even if no irritant symptoms were previously seen.”
He adds: “Relaxing or straightening of afro hair can also be a cause of dermatitis. The strong alkaline chemical used in many preparations can – if not correctly applied – leave the scalp sore and cause hair loss.”
Avoid potential problems by always doing a patch test before dyeing your hair, by choosing a low-PPD or PPD-free dye and by using a qualified hairdresser to apply hair relaxer. If you’re using hair relaxer at home “ensure that you have taken adequate precautions and followed the manufacturers guidelines,” advises Stephen.
Research shows that migraines can make people’s scalp and hair hurt. A report published in the journal Annals of Neurology found that almost 80% of migraine sufferers that were studied had painful sensitivity when they touched their hair.
“When a experiencing a migraine, some sufferers often describe sensations of tenderness or prickling. This symptom is called cutaneous allodynia, where hypersensitisation of the scalp gives sensations which would not normally be painful, like touching your scalp,” explains Stephen.
Migraine is the most common neurological disorder in the UK, affecting 1 in 7 people – more than asthma, diabetes and epilepsy combined. Numerous triggers cause these debilitating headaches, including certain types of food, changes in the weather, hormones, stress and hunger.
A migraine can also be brought on by wearing tight or complex hairstyles. A long fringe or hair that obstructs your eyes and causes eye strain can also be a cause. And if you use lots of products be aware that some may contain chemicals that encourage an attack.
6. Dirty brushes and combs
Never wash your hairbrushes and comb? You’re not alone. But it can help in the fight against a sore scalp.
“I advise my patients to regularly clean their brushes and combs in hot soapy water,” says Stephen. “This is because they can harbour bacteria which could be a causative factor.”
Try these tips and hopefully any pain you’re currently feeling will soon disappear. However, if your hair pain is accompanied by an excruciating headache it could be a sign of something more serious, so discuss this with your doctor.
If you’ve noticed hair loss, don’t panic. “If you feel that your hair is getting thinner as a result of the soreness, itching or burning sensations, then I recommend a visit to a trichologist or dermatologist to investigate this,” advises Stephen.
But for now let your hair down and give your sore scalp a rest.