Caring for Scalp Psoriasis

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition characterized by thickened patches of skin called plaques. When it affects the head, it is called scalp psoriasis. As with psoriasis on other parts of the body, it can worsen during the winter months due to cold dry air outside and warm dry air indoors.

Pulling back hair to show scalp psoriasis.

Major symptoms

The major symptoms of scalp psoriasis are thick and scaly patches of skin, redness, inflammation, itching, burning, and dandruff. It can range from mild (small, red bumps) to severe (thick plaques.) Psoriasis of the scalp can extend below the hairline, causing red, itchy plaques on the forehead and the back of the neck.

Woman reading ingredients on shampoo bottle.

Specialized shampoo treatment

There are specialized shampoos to help treat scalp psoriasis. The most common ingredients in over-the-counter shampoos for scalp psoriasis are coal tar and salicylic acid. These shampoos can relieve itching and slow skin cell growth and often work well for mild cases of scalp psoriasis. Readily available over-the-counter shampoos for scalp psoriasis include Denorex, Zetar, Neutrogena T/Gel, and D-Psoria.

Man getting prescription filled at pharmacy.

Prescription-strength treatment

If over-the-counter shampoos aren’t working, there are prescription strength shampoos and topical treatments. The most common ingredients in these include calcitriol, tazarotene and calcipotriol.

Box of cotton balls.

How they work best

Shampoos and other topical treatments work best if the plaques are removed before treatment to better allow the medication to penetrate the skin. You should protect your ears when applying shampoos and topical treatments. Put a small amount of petroleum jelly on a cotton ball and insert in your ears to protect your ear canal.

Man washing hair in shower.

How to apply

When applying shampoos and topical treatments, gently part your hair and apply inside the part. Try not to rub the shampoo onto your head as this can irritate your scalp and cause the psoriasis to worsen. Always apply a moisturizing conditioner after shampooing.

Woman in phototherapy.

Additional treatments

For some people, additional treatments, such as oral or injected medications and phototherapy are needed to help control symptoms.

Itchy head, woman scratching head while looking in mirror.

Tips for lifestyle changes

There are also lifestyle changes you can make to help relieve the major symptoms.

Person getting their hair stlted and cut.

Tip #1

Keep hair short and well groomed. The longer your hair is, the more difficult it is to treat scalp psoriasis.

Woman applying softener to hair in bathroom mirror.

Tip #2

Remove the plaques by applying a softener that contains salicylic acid and gently remove the excess skin with a brush or fine tooth comb. Try not to scratch or pick as this can irritate your scalp and cause a flare or cause your hair to temporarily fall out.

Split and whole coconuts with jar of coconut oil skin cream.

Tip #3

Keep your scalp moist and hydrated. Apply aloe vera, coconut oil, or a lotion recommended by your dermatologist while your scalp is damp. You might find that wearing a shower cap after applying moisturizers improves their effectiveness; however, you should discuss this with your doctor first.

Hair styling equipment on table.

Tip #4

Limit the use of hot styling tools, such as a hair dryer or curling iron, as these can dry out your scalp and worsen your psoriasis.

Woman working in office in white blouse.

Tip #5

If your psoriasis is prone to flaking and causes dandruff, try wearing light colored tops and scarves to help hide the flakes. It can take several months after you begin treatment to see an improvement in dandruff.

Man icing his head with ice pack.

Tip #6

For itching, try shampoos with menthol, over-the-counter oral antihistamines, or use cool packs on areas that are most bothersome. Your doctor can also prescribe medication to control the itchiness.

Doctor on phone with patient.

Tip #7

If you experience discomfort, pain or tenderness, contact your dermatologist. Scalp psoriasis can sometimes become infected. Signs of infection include tenderness, crusting and swollen lymph nodes. You should call your doctor immediately if you experience these symptoms.

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.