Scalp Treatments

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Scalp treatments can relieve dryness, oiliness, or chronic skin conditions. See more pictures of personal hygiene practices.
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You might be someone who fusses with your hair on some level. Maybe you fret over your hair type, pick at your split ends or look for those dry flakes that cascade off when you scratch your head. Not everyone has that Hollywood hair with a perfect scalp to match. One thing's for certain, though, if you want great hair, you'll need a great scalp, too.

Before you jump into all the various scalp treatments out there today, there's one myth that you should know about right off the bat. If you enjoy sitting at the hair salon getting a good scalp massage as part of your treatment, you might be wondering whether such a luxury could help your scalp problems or make them magically disappear. The fact is that no amount of scalp massage will cure your scalp problems. You can't massage away an oily scalp or massage up some extra oil production to treat a dry scalp. However, a good one can increase the blood flow to your head and release hormones that can improve your mood [source: WebMD]. So don't ditch the scalp massage just yet; instead, think of it more as an add-on at the hair salon that can raise your spirits but not cure your dry or oily scalp by itself.


One of the best ways to help a scalp that has excessive dryness or oiliness -- or other chronic skin conditions -- is with a scalp treatment. You might need to see a doctor for help with more severe conditions, but many of these treatments are very accessible and can easily become part of your daily routine. If you have an oily scalp, for example, read on to learn about what you can do to keep your scalp -- and as a result, your hair -- from feeling greasy.

Oily Scalp Treatments

The math seems simple: An oily scalp leads to oily hair. But if you're fighting excessive oiliness on your scalp, relief might be as close as your shower. One of the most readily available treatments comes in the form of a cream or medicated shampoo. When shopping, look for shampoos containing ingredients such as coal tar, zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide or salicylic acid.

Curious as to how these medicated products can cut down the oil production on your scalp? Those with coal tar and selenium sulfide work to slow down the death and regeneration of skin cells on your scalp [source: Mayo Clinic: Dandruff]. These ingredients might also help to reduce inflammation and itching. Sometimes a fungus on your scalp can contribute to excessive oily conditions, and products with selenium sulfide or zinc pyrithione can also help to control any oiliness caused by fungi. Products containing salicylic acid, which is commonly used in treatments for acne caused by oily skin, will reduce the amount of oil on your scalp.


Once you've selected your product, make sure you work the cream or shampoo into your scalp. These treatments work only if they are on your scalp, so give some extra attention to working the medication all the way up to your skin. Once you've built up a good lather, let the product sit for three to five minutes before rinsing it out thoroughly [source: Mayo Clinic: Seborrheic]. Because some agents that reduce scalp oiliness could dry out your hair, you might want to follow up with a conditioner on the ends of your hair to add back moisture.

If your scalp problem is on the opposite end of the spectrum and a lack of oil is what's bothering you, then read on to find out how to treat dry scalp.


Dry Scalp Treatments

Just as an oily scalp leads to oily hair, a dry scalp often results in hair that looks dull and lifeless, not to mention skin that is itchy and flaky. But if you are dealing with a dry scalp, treatment might also be as close as your shampoo bottle.

When treating dry scalp, look for products containing coal tar, salicylic lactic acid or urea [source: Mayo Clinic: Dry Skin]. We've already discussed how coal tar reduces the regeneration of skin cells, which can lead to fewer flakes and less dry skin. Salicylic acid works in much the same way and can be used along with coal tar for tough scalp problems [source: National Psoriasis Foundation]. Shampoos with salicylic acid will soften scaly patches of dry skin and make them easier to shampoo away; however, because salicylic acid can dry out your skin, be sure to use a moisturizing product along with it. Also, products containing urea and lactic acid will work in much the same way to reduce any flakes or scaly patches caused by excessive dryness. Again, be sure to work product into the scalp and let it sit for three to five minutes before rinsing for maximum effectiveness.


Additionally, shampoos, creams or foams with corticosteroids, such as hydrocortisone, can provide relief [source: Mayo Clinic: Dry Skin]. But be sure to check with your doctor before using a steroid-based product.

If you find yourself still fighting chronic scalp problems, and nothing you've done so far has worked, read on to find out what you can do next.


Treatments for Chronic Scalp Problems

So you've been there, done that, and nothing has worked. But before you decide to give up, there are still a few other options to try.

First off, your dermatologist or general doctor can prescribe stronger shampoos and topical creams that might reduce the amount of oil or help counteract the itchy, dry pain of your scalp. These shampoos and topical creams might contain some of the same ingredients as over-the-counter formulas, but in a more potent strength. Prescription treatments might include hydrocortisone creams, steroid creams or coal tar shampoos. [source: Gibson].


Another option is vitamin D3 analogs, which are available as prescription strength topical treatments for conditions that cause dry, patchy skin. Vitamin D3 treatments might take longer to work than treatments containing steroids, but some versions of this treatment can be safely used for up to a year [source: Psoriasis Cure Now]. Your doctor might also prescribe topical creams and gels such as tazarotene, a Vitamin A derivative, or anthralin in order to give you more fighting power than medicated over-the-counter shampoos [source: National Psoriasis Foundation].

Another alternative, especially for scalp psoriasis, is to use phototherapy, or light therapy. With this treatment, ultraviolet light rays are applied to the scalp or skin to help clear up moderate to severe psoriasis [source: American Academy of Dermatology]. Several treatments might be necessary over the course of a few weeks before you see results.

For more information on treating scalp problems, click on the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Psoriasis Treatment." Psoriasis Net. (Accessed Sept. 27, 2009)
  • Bruno, Karen. "Women's Hair Care." WebMD. Aug. 13, 2009. (Accessed Sept. 27, 2009)
  • Doctors of USC. "Selenium Sulfide." USC Keck School of Medicine. (Accessed Nov. 4, 2009)
  • "Pyrithione Zinc Shampoo." (Accessed Nov. 4, 2009)
  • Gibson, Lawrence E. "Scalp psoriasis vs. seborrheic dermatitis." Mayo Clinic. (Accessed Sept. 27, 2009)
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  • Psoriasis Cure Now. "Scalp Psoriasis Treatments." (Accessed Nov. 4, 2009)
  • WebMD. "Hair Care Tips for Teens." Feb. 8, 2009. (Accessed Sept. 27, 2009)
  • WebMD. "What Your Hair & Scalp Say About Your Health." Dec. 18, 2008. (Accessed Sept. 27, 2009)