A burning scalp can cause discomfort, and it can oftentimes be accompanied by itching, flaking, redness, and even small bumps. But what if I told you that a burning scalp could have another side effect? Hair loss.
This article will delve into the various causes of burning scalp. I’ll explain more about burning scalp syndrome (trichodynia), and the potential causes of the condition.
I’ll also discuss how burning scalp syndrome may cause hair loss, but more importantly what you can do to treat the condition and prevent further hair loss from occurring.
What is Burning Scalp Syndrome?
Burning scalp syndrome, also known as trichodynia, is a condition characterized by pain, tingling, and burning of the scalp (1).
In some cases, there is not an obvious physical cause as to the pain and burning. In other cases, the burning may be a result of a skin irritant or dermatological condition.
What Causes Tingling and Burning of the Scalp?
The two most common causes of scalp tingling and burning are: skin irritants, and dermatological conditions.
The scalp is exposed to many chemicals on a regular basis. These chemicals reside inside shampoos, hair conditioners, dyes, bleaches, and hair care products. Your scalp is also regularly exposed to environmental irritants, such as pollution.
What if these more common irritants aren’t the culprit? Other irritants that may cause scalp discomfort include laundry detergents, cosmetics, and hard water.
The chemicals in these products can easily be the cause of scalp tingling and burning, especially if you’re predisposed to sensitive skin.
What if your scalp condition has a medical cause?
There are various dermatological conditions that can also contribute to tingling, burning, itching, and scalp pain. These include:
- Seborrheic dermatitis
- Tinea capitis
And aside from the medical conditions above, it’s also possible for head lice and other such parasites to cause tingling, itching, and discomfort.
If neither skin irritants or dermatological conditions seem to be the cause, there are other potential triggers for scalp discomfort, too. These include hormone imbalance, poor nutrition, poor hygiene, medication side effects, and stress or anxiety.
How Does Burning Scalp Syndrome Cause Hair Loss?
As burning scalp syndrome doesn’t have a physical trigger associated with it, you may be wondering how it can cause hair loss. The answer is simple.
When a person feels tingling, burning, or irritation of the scalp, they are more likely to agitate the scalp in a bid to stop the pain. This includes scratching, rubbing, and applying pressure.
The constant agitation of the scalp can cause the hairs to dislodge from the follicles.
While it’s natural for 50 to 150 hairs per day to shed from the scalp, those with burning scalp syndrome may see an increasing number of shed hairs the more they agitate the scalp. If this continues, they will soon notice thinning.
While scratching and rubbing the scalp may provide temporary relief in some cases, it can also worsen the condition.
In a 2016 review of the scientific literature on trichodynia, it was stated that hairs are seen to shed excessively only from painful sites (2). This suggests that the severity of the condition is directly related to the amount of hair fall experienced by the affected individual.
The scientific review further went on to explain that the condition “seems to be related to the release of substance P.”
So, what is substance P?
Substance P is a neuropeptide that acts as both a neurotransmitter (chemicals that transmit signals from one neuron to another) and as a neuromodulator (chemicals that induce a signaling cascade to transmit long-lasting signals).
It is best known for its function “as a neurotransmitter and a modulator of pain perception by altering cellular signaling pathways (3).”
But pain isn’t the only function of substance P. It’s also believed to play a role in vasodilation, inflammation, cell growth, mood, and even vomiting.
Hair Loss and Phantom Limb Syndrome
Phantom limb syndrome is a condition that’s been studied in-depth throughout the years. It’s a condition in which people with an amputated limb can still feel its presence, or in some cases even perceive it to be in pain.
There has been much debate as to the cause of the condition, with many medical professionals deeming it as psychological in nature. While there is no obvious physical cause, there is reason to believe it’s a physiological condition based on the latest research.
According to a 2016 study on dysesthesia (pathological pain), it’s theorized that the pain and irritation is due to an “incongruence between proprioception and/or motor intention and visual feedback (4).”
More simply, there appears to be a disconnect between where the body perceives itself to be (or its movements) and the visual feedback provided to the brain.
This is common in people who have had a limb amputated. It can also occur in men and women with hair loss, though.
Similar to the loss of a limb (though, obviously less detrimental to physical function), the nerves within a hair follicle may perceive the presence of a hair strand. The individual can, of course, see that’s not the case. This disconnect may trigger physical pain without an otherwise obvious cause.
How to Treat a Tingling or Burning Scalp
If you suffer from a tingling or burning scalp, then you’re likely on a mission to stop the discomfort once and for all. I’ve outlined a few common treatments below that will give you an excellent start in your at-home treatment plan.
But before we dive in, you’ll first need to determine the cause…
Discover the Underlying Cause
It seems as if there are so many things that can cause a tingling or burning scalp. This is why you must work through the list of possible causes and narrow down the potential culprits.
The first step is to consider the potential for dermatological conditions as these can be the easiest to rule out.
If you don’t otherwise show symptoms of scalp psoriasis or seborrheic dermatitis, for example, then these conditions are unlikely to be the cause of your burning scalp.
Now how about chemical irritants?
If you’ve been using a shampoo or hair product for years with no issues, then you may think to rule it out immediately. It’s possible to develop sensitivities to ingredients over time, however. It’s also not uncommon for brands to change their formulations. As such, you should take a look at the ingredients list.
Do you notice any new or troublesome ingredients (e.g. sodium lauryl ether sulfate)? If so, then you may want to try a product without those ingredients to attempt to rule them out.
Avoid Harsh Chemicals
Speaking of new ingredients in your hair care products, it’s important to avoid harsh chemicals at all times. These aren’t just found in your shampoo and conditioner, but also in hair dyes, bleaches, perms, and heat-protectant products.
Any chemicals that are meant to change your hair, whether it’s the color or the texture, are harsh by their very nature. Aside from damaging the hair, they can also cause irritation, itching, and burning of the scalp.
It’s best that anyone avoid using harsh chemicals on their hair whenever possible, but this is especially true for those with a sensitive scalp.
Avoid Hot Showers
Hot showers strip the scalp of its natural protective oil known as sebum. Without sebum, the scalp’s skin can become dehydrated and unmoisturized, both of which lend themselves to itching, flaking, and general irritation.
Sebum also protects against damage such as that caused by hair products, pollution, and even the sun’s UV rays.
You may be thinking, “my scalp produces too much oil, so hot showers can help.” Think again.
While hot showers initially strip your scalp of sebum, the sebaceous glands will then work to overproduce sebum as a way to compensate. In a day or two, your scalp will have an excess of oil which itself leads to itching and irritation.
So hot showers just create one extreme (no oil) to the next (excess oil), which is not beneficial to anyone, but especially those with burning scalp syndrome.
Protect Against Sun Exposure
The sun’s rays can provide the body with much needed vitamin D. If your scalp is already sensitive, though, then avoiding direct sun exposure is important to preventing further irritation.
As your body does need vitamin D to thrive, it’s not recommended that you avoid sun exposure altogether. There are steps you can take to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays, however.
Sunscreen is perhaps the most obvious solution, and it’s especially important if you suffer from hair thinning and loss as your scalp is more exposed than the typical person. You should rely on mineral-based sunscreens, as these are better for the environment and your skin.
If you’d prefer not to apply sunscreen to your scalp, then hats and other head coverings are another great way to protect your scalp from direct sunlight.
When to See a Doctor
If you’re struggling to find the cause, or if you can’t seem to get the condition under control, then it’s time to speak with your doctor.
While burning scalp syndrome isn’t detrimental to your health, the symptoms can be distracting at best and maddening at worst. It’s important that you work with your doctor to get the pain under control, just as you would for any other chronic pain condition.
I’d suggest that you first start with your primary care physician. Your doctor can perform their own medical tests to rule out the most common causes, though a referral to a dermatologist is a likely outcome.
If you’ve experienced a burning scalp sensation for any period of time, you know how uncomfortable and distracting the condition is. The good news is there is usually a cause, even if it takes some trial and error to figure out.
By treating the cause, you’ll not only put an end to the annoying burning sensation, but you could also save yourself from further hair shedding and loss.