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Here's what two experts have to say.

Jaclyn Smock
Apr 06, 2021 @ 6:02 pm
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While everyone experiences stress regularly, many people don't know that this can be the reason behind many scalp issues. Of course, there are other factors that lead to flaky, dry, and irritated scalps, such as genetics, diet, and some lifestyle choices. However, if you've made healthy choices and are still experiencing scalp issues, the real culprit could be your stress levels. To better understand how our scalp health can be affected by our heightened stress, we spoke to a dermatologist and a trichologist.

How does stress impact your scalp?

"Stress increases the cortisol levels in our bodies, and those increased levels have a direct connection to the hair follicle," explains Gretchen Friese, a BosleyMD-certified trichologist. High levels of stress result in extended periods of high cortisol, which Friese explains can directly affect the function and cycle of the hair follicles by disrupting the cell production and the normal transitions of the hair growth cycle. Therefore, issues like a flaky, inflamed, itchy scalp, and even hair loss, can occur in response to stress.

So, what exactly is happening on my scalp?

Flakes on your scalp can be your body's way of alerting you to more severe internal issues, like a weak immune system. "Everyone's scalp has a fungus called malassezia on their skin, and when there is an overgrowth of the fungus on the scalp, it will cause dandruff, itchiness, and redness," explains Friese. "While stress doesn't cause malassezia, it can thrive if your immune system is compromised, which is what stress does to your body." (This is the reason so many people experience flakes and itchiness year-round.) 

How can you treat a stressed-out scalp?

Since stress creates the environment for scalp fungus malassezia to go into an overactive mode with increased oil production, it's important to create a healthy scalp environment and treat it with products that have anti-fungal properties. "This will decrease the inflammatory response and limit the flare-ups of scalp irritation," explains Dr. Hadley King, Manhattan-based dermatologist. 

Dr. King suggests looking for hair care ingredients such as selenium sulfide, which has anti-fungal properties and can decrease malassezia, irritation, and itching. Salicylic acid is another great option because "when used in conjunction with other treatments [it] helps to reduce scaling on the scalp," she adds.

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Other ingredients to consider are "pyrithione zinc to help control dandruff, rosemary extract, and caffeine to help reduce scalp inflammation and increase circulation, and activated charcoal to help absorb excess oil from the scalp," says Friese. She notes it's crucial to use the products as recommended on the label but to remember results will vary; however, there should be a difference in the first 30 days of use.

What else can I do to calm a stressed-out scalp?

It may sound easier said than done, but the best way to soothe it is to first reduce your stress. Try meditating, sleeping better, going outside, and/or talking to a friend. As with many topical issues, if you treat it from the inside you may very well treat the outside effects, too.