- Scalp scabs can be caused by everyday factors or by medical concerns such as head lice, fungal infections or a range of inflammatory skin conditions
- Specially formulated shampoos, scalp serums and home remedies are all effective treatments
- Medical treatments for severe and treatment-resistant cases include light therapy, medicated shampoos and prescription medications
Scalp scabs are crusted raised areas that develop over open sores on the head as they are healing; they can be itchy, uncomfortable and unpleasant. These scabs can often clear up on their own but depending on their underlying cause, may require professional treatment.
A wide range of treatments are available to help remedy scalp scabs. These include home remedies, over-the-counter (OTC) shampoos and serums, light therapy and prescription medications.
Everyday Causes of Scalp Scabs
Scalp scabs can be caused by everyday factors such as severe dandruff, irritation from excessive hair washing or minor injuries to the scalp; psychological stress can also play a role in causing scalp scabs to develop.
Dandruff is a common condition characterized by a flaky, itchy, dry scalp. It is typically triggered by psychological stress or changes in temperature and humidity. It is most common among young men but can affect people of any age or sex.
While dandruff is usually mild and causes minor irritation only, in some cases it can lead to the development of scaly patches and cause the scalp to bleed and become crusted with scabs.
Washing your hair too often or using a harsh formula can strip your scalp of its natural oils and damage the protective skin barrier. This can cause your scalp to become dry, inflamed, cracked and scabby.
Some shampoo ingredients, including formaldehyde, artificial preservatives and surfactants such as lauryl polyglucoside, can also trigger an allergic reaction. This can lead to the development of contact dermatitis, a condition that causes the skin to erupt with an itchy, painful rash that can also bleed and scab over.
Injuries to the head caused by shaving, falling or other accidents can also cause the scalp to bleed and scab. The skin on the scalp is prone to tearing and bleeding from such injuries because it is thin, stretched across the skull and contains a high concentration of blood vessels.
Psychological stress can cause the development of certain inflammatory skin conditions that can in turn lead to scalp scabs. Stress is also known to disrupt wound healing, and may increase the amount of time it takes for existing scabs to resolve.
Medical Causes of Scalp Scabs
A number of medical conditions are linked to scabbing on the scalp, and include the following:
- Eczema is a chronic condition that is characterized by redness, itching, blisters and sores, and can lead to scalp scabs
- Head lice are small, parasitic insects that cling to the hair shaft and feed on blood from the scalp, causing itchiness and scabbing
- Ringworm is a fungal infection that develops on the body and scalp; it can cause a range of symptoms such as hair loss, rashes, pus-filled areas and crusts
- Seborrheic dermatitis is an inflammatory skin condition related to dandruff that can cause patches of skin on the scalp to become red, scaly, itchy and crusty
- Psoriasis is a chronic skin disorder that primarily affects the scalp and causes raised plaques of scaly skin that can crack, bleed and scab over
- Shingles is a skin condition caused by a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus—the virus responsible for chickenpox—and causes a severe rash, blisters and scabbing
Scalp Scab Home Remedies
A number of natural remedies can treat scalp scabs caused by everyday factors. Some effective options include aloe vera gel, tea tree oil and warm compresses.
Aloe vera has proven antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and wound healing properties. When applied to scalp scabs caused by dandruff, minor injuries and inflammatory skin conditions, it can help ease discomfort, stave off infection and accelerate healing.
To use aloe vera, cut open a leaf, remove a fingerful of gel and apply it to targeted areas of your scalp. Allow to rest for 1 hour, then wash it off with a mild shampoo. Repeat daily until symptoms have resolved.
Tea tree oil
Tea tree oil is an essential oil and has antimicrobial properties. It can effectively reduce inflammation and support wound healing, and has demonstrated success in treating dandruff, psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis. It can treat scalp scabs caused by any of these conditions.
Tea tree oil must be diluted before applying to your scalp. Blend 5–10 drops of the oil with 1/4 cup of almond, coconut or rosehip carrier oil for an effective and safe formula. Apply this mixture to your scalp, allow it to rest for 5 minutes, then wash it off with a mild shampoo.
Alternatively, you can purchase a tea tree oil shampoo or add 10–20 drops of the oil to a mild shampoo of your choice.
Apply a warm compress to scabby, itchy scalp skin to soothe discomfort, increase blood flow, and speed up the healing process. You can achieve this by soaking a hand towel in warm water, wringing it out, folding it and resting it on top of your head for up to 20 minutes.
Over-the-Counter Treatments for Scalp Scabs
Effective remedies for scalp scabs can be purchased OTC; these include specially formulated shampoos and scalp serums.
Shampoos are formulated with a wide variety of active ingredients to effectively treat scalp scabs. The shampoo that is best for you will depend on the underlying cause of your scabs.
If your condition is caused by dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis, choose an anti-dandruff shampoo containing selenium sulfide, coal tar or antifungal agents such as ciclopirox and bifonazole. These ingredients have all been demonstrated to provide effective relief.
If your condition is caused by over washing or eczema, you will benefit from mild shampoos that contain hydrating ingredients such as aloe vera and coconut oil. Avoid artificial fragrances, as these may worsen irritation and inflammation.
If a head lice infestation is the source of your scalp scabs, you will find effective relief from OTC shampoos containing insecticidal ingredients such as pyrethrins. Look for formulas that contain these ingredients in combination with piperonyl butoxide, a chemical that increases the efficacy of insecticidal compounds.
For scalp scabs that develop due to psoriasis, opt for shampoos that contain potent anti-inflammatory ingredients such as tea tree oil and iralfaris. Lastly, for scabs caused by ringworm, choose shampoos containing antifungal compounds such as ketoconazole. Formulations containing selenium sulfide can help to treat both psoriasis and ringworm.
Scalp serums differ from shampoos in that they are applied to the scalp while it is dry and left to absorb into the skin. They provide a rich concentration of ingredients that work to moisturize the scalp. Scalp serums are an effective solution for scalp scabs that develop due to dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis or a dry scalp.
Scalp serums are typically formulated with hydrating ingredients such as aloe vera, hyaluronic acid, green tea and glycerin. They can also contain salicylic acid or other exfoliating ingredients that can eliminate dry, flaky skin.
When to See a Doctor
Speak to a dermatologist or health care professional about your scalp scabs if they persist despite treatment with OTC and home remedies, or if they cause you severe irritation. You should also seek professional care if you notice signs of infection, such as swelling, bleeding, a hot stinging sensation or the presence of pus.
Your care provider will be able to diagnose the underlying cause of your scalp scabs, provide daily care tips and offer you medical treatment.
Light therapy (also known as phototherapy) involves the use of specific frequencies of light to treat a wide range of health concerns. A number of skin conditions that cause scalp scabs have been successfully treated using this technology.
Ultraviolet light therapy has been shown to effectively treat eczema and seborrheic dermatitis. Ultraviolet, near-infrared and red light therapy have also all demonstrated success in treating psoriasis. Although there is no conclusive evidence that light therapy can eliminate ringworm, one study found it had potential as a treatment method for fungal infections.
During a typical light therapy session, you will be seated or lying down in a dark room in front of a light source that will emit one or more frequencies of light. You will wear protective goggles to prevent the light from harming your eyes. The session will last 20–30 minutes on average. There is no downtime after a light therapy treatment.
If OTC shampoos prove ineffective, prescription-strength medicated shampoos may offer better results. They can be used to treat persistent scalp scabs caused by head lice and psoriasis.
Shampoos containing lindane, an antiparasitic compound, are an effective treatment for head lice. Shampoos containing clobetasol, a medication with powerful anti-inflammatory effects, can effectively treat scalp scabs caused by psoriasis.
Oral prescription medications are a suitable option for treating scalp scabs caused by eczema, ringworm or shingles. They are typically available in tablet form, and are taken once daily for a 2–4 week period.
Ciclosporin, an immunosuppressant, is reserved for severe cases of eczema and for those who fail conventional treatments. Ciclosporin subdues the immune system response to ease uncomfortable symptoms.
For scalp scabs caused by ringworm, a range of oral antifungal medications can provide relief, including griseofulvin and terbinafine. Shingles are treated with oral antiviral medications such as acyclovir and valacyclovir.
Topical medications can help treat scalp scabs that develop due to head lice, ringworm or psoriasis.
Malathion, available in lotion form, is a fast-acting insecticide that kills lice by attacking their nervous systems. It is applied to hair and washed off after 8–12 hours.
Topical prescription medications for ringworm include clotrimazole, terbinafine plus a range of other potent antifungal agents. These are available in cream, ointment, gel and spray formats, and typically applied to affected areas twice daily.
Psoriasis can be treated with topical corticosteroids, medications with potent anti-inflammatory properties. Research shows combining topical vitamin D derivatives with corticosteroids may possibly enhance results.
Scalp Scab Prevention
The following tips will help reduce your risk of developing scalp scabs and prevent existing scabs from worsening:
- Avoid hair dyes and bleach
- Avoid psychological stress
- Do not pick at any existing scabs
- Do not scratch your scalp
- Do not over wash your hair
- Use gentle hair products with no artificial fragrances or preservatives
Scalp scabs can be caused by a range of everyday factors, including dandruff, over washing, minor injuries and stress. They are also a possible symptom of head lice, ringworm and inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis and shingles.
Home remedies such as aloe vera, tea tree oil and warm compresses can treat scalp scabs that develop due to everyday causes. Depending on their ingredients, specially formulated shampoos can help treat a wide variety of conditions that cause scalp scabs to develop. Scalp serums containing hydrating and exfoliating ingredients can also provide relief.
If OTC and home remedies prove ineffective in treating scalp scabs, speak to your health care provider. They can offer medical treatments such as light therapy, and prescribe professional-strength medicated shampoos, topicals or oral medications.
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