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Why does my scalp hurt when my hair is dirty?

Why does my scalp hurt when my hair is dirty?
Posted at 10:40 AM, Mar 26, 2024

We’ve all tried to extend a blowout past its natural lifespan or relied a little too heavily on dry shampoo during an exceptionally busy week. But if you’ve ever found yourself asking why your scalp hurts on dirty hair days, that dry shampoo and extended time between washes are likely to blame.

We spoke to experts on hair and scalp health to find answers on that scalp pain and how you an fix it

Why does my scalp hurt when my hair is dirty?

young woman with hair loss

If you haven’t washed your hair in a few days, you might notice increased scalp sensitivity, pain and itching. UK board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ahmad Chaudhry, M.B.B.S., of Scandinavian Biolabs, explains just what’s causing your painful scalp.

“From a scientific standpoint, when hair goes unwashed for too long it allows buildup of sebum, sweat, dead skin cells and environmental pollutants on the scalp,” Dr. Chaudhry says. Sebum is an oily substance that your body produces to help moisturize the skin, but too much of it can cause issues. “This creates an ideal breeding ground for bacteria, fungi and other microbes.”

According to Chaudhry, your scalp responds to this overgrowth with inflammation, and it produces more sebum and blood flow, resulting in increased sensitivity.

Tiffany Young, Trichologist and CEO at Thin Hair Thick, explains that all of that buildup, the effects of oil glands and the addition of hairstyling products creates a barrier on your scalp. But your scalp needs to be able to breathe resulting in more issues.

This inflammation and pain happens across all hair types according to Young and Chaudhry, but Young says thinner hair types are more prone to it as there’s less hair to absorb oil and product. Chaudhry meanwhile says those with textured hair might notice build-up faster because of the hair’s structure, and it’s important to focus on scalp hair to prevent the pain.

How to stop scalp pain

Since scalp pain is caused by buildup that results when you don’t wash your hair often enough, you might think that washing your hair lots would solve the problem. But over washing your hair can cause all sorts of other issues.

Instead, a deliberate approach can help to relieve your scalp pain.

Choose a shampoo to gently remove buildup

Neutrogena Exfoliating Healthy Scalp

$10 (was $13) at Amazon

Stopping scalp pain starts with focusing on removing the buildup to relieve the irritation and inflammation.

“Debride the scalp with a mild astringent shampoo to lift off sebum and product buildup, and your scalp should return to normal,” Young advises.

Choosing a shampoo like Neutrogena Exfoliating Healthy Scalp Clarify & Shine Shampoo can help to remove oily buildup and promote a healthy scalp.

Wash your hair more often

Chaudhry recommends that anyone experiencing scalp pain wash their hair at least every three to four days to remove buildup and prevent inflammation from occurring. Use that gentle shampoo to remove oil, and make washing your hair a part of your schedule.

Choose a hairstyle that breathes

Another thing to note: When your hair is oily, you’re more likely to pull it back in a tight ponytail or bun. Chaudhry notes that buns can trap sweat and oil, making the issue worse. Instead, choose a loose or open style like a French braid to let your scalp breathe.

Exfoliate with massage and a brush

 BLACK EGG Boar Bristle Hair Brush for Women

$10 (was $15) at Amazon

“For textured or coily hair types prone to buildup, regular scalp massage and exfoliation using a boar bristle brush or scalp scrub can slough off flakes and soothe an itchy, painful scalp,” says Chaudhry.

Say no to dry shampoo

If you don’t have time to wash your hair, you might be tempted to reach for the dry shampoo, but but resist that temptation! Young says to avoid dry shampoo once your scalp starts to hurt as it’ll only make things worse. Once the inflammation has kicked in, it’s time to wash.

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