How to Handle an Itchy Scalp Postpartum

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If you are or recently were pregnant and noticing changes in your skin, know that you’re not alone. Over 90% of people who are pregnant experience changes in their skin—and some symptoms last for a bit even after the baby arrives. The hallmark of one of the most common, pruritus, is itchy skin.

Whether or not you’re familiar with the nagging itchiness that can occur before or after childbirth, it’s worth knowing that it’s a possibility. And, most importantly, that it’s completely normal. One particularly common place for it to manifest is as a postpartum itchy scalp.

Your body is transformed during pregnancy—and indeed performs a miracle by creating a living, breathing little human. This undeniably precious infant can shower you and your family with immense joy. Yet, there are some side effects that can arise from your miraculous feat—an itchy scalp postpartum among them. 

People with this condition don’t just have a tiny itch either. It can be a maddening, creepy-crawly feeling all over their scalp or concentrated in one area. So vexing that it interferes with their daily life. That’s why we tapped two board-certified dermatologists to share everything you need to know about treating a postpartum itchy scalp. Keep reading to learn all about this condition, why it occurs, and how you can help relieve it. 

Why Is My Skin So Itchy After Pregnancy?

Next to growing a baby inside you, another astonishing thing your body develops during pregnancy is an entirely new organ—your placenta. It enables you to nourish your infant with essential nutrients, and it makes hormones. This introduces a new pregnancy-specific hormone, pregnenolone, to your system and amps up the production of one already flowing through your blood, progesterone. And just like topping off a glass that’s half full causes the water that’s already in it to become disrupted, this surge of hormones disrupts your regular hormone balance.

After childbirth, the opposite occurs. The repercussions of this hormonal flow and ebb, coupled with the enormous toll on your body and mind that goes along with having a baby can have reverberating effects—including on your scalp.

“Hormonal fluctuations, dehydration, and physical and emotional stress can all cause or exacerbate itch,” explains Blair Murphy-Rose, MD, FAAD, a board-certified cosmetic and medical dermatologist at the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York in NYC and the Hamptons. “Postpartum scalp itch can be due to the same causes.”

Even though it’s common, that doesn’t make itchy skin postpartum any easier to deal with. It can be so bothersome, in fact, that it can interfere with a person’s sleep and quality of life, and can even lead to depression.

Joshua Zeichner, MD

The postpartum period is traumatic for the body as it heals after the delivery of the baby. It is a time of hormonal fluctuations, weight loss, and wound healing.  This takes a toll on the skin resulting in dryness, flaking, and itching.

— Joshua Zeichner, MD

“The postpartum period is traumatic for the body as it heals after the delivery of the baby,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology, and an Associate Professor of Dermatology at the Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC. “It is a time of hormonal fluctuations, weight loss, and wound healing.  This takes a toll on the skin resulting in dryness, flaking, and itching.”

Your scalp is especially susceptible to postpartum itchiness. It has more nerves and blood vessels than the skin on the rest of your body, as well as more hair follicles and sebaceous glands. All these things combine to make it more vulnerable to certain skin issues, like postpartum itchy scalp. 

The feeling—not unlike bugs crawling through your hair—can be so uncomfortable and distracting that it can actually become disabling. And when you have a new baby at home, having the urge to constantly rake your fingernails across your scalp is not only unwelcomed, it can be downright infuriating. To further salt the wound, itchy postpartum scalp can open the floodgates to other scalp issues.

Are There Any Other Symptoms That Go Along With an Itchy Scalp?

As if an incessantly itchy scalp wasn’t enough, postpartum hair loss is also a side effect of childbirth. When you’re pregnant, the surge in hormones keeps most of your hair from falling out—and makes your mane lustrous in the process. Once the extra boost of hormones subsides, your hair can shed as your strands return to their usual lifecycle, most commonly in the first three to four months after delivery. The good news is that postpartum hair loss is temporary, and should right itself in six to 12 months.

“After childbirth, the hairs are shocked into a resting phase known as telogen,” explains Dr. Zeichner. “Subsequently, [people] often experience a massive shedding known as telogen effluvium.” He goes on to affirm that this type of hair loss can be associated with an itchy scalp postpartum, but assures us it’s completely harmless.  

You may also experience dandruff. This doesn’t only produce an embarrassing snowfall of flakes, it can perpetuate your postpartum hair loss, as well.

“Because of [postpartum] hormonal fluctuations, the skin and the scalp may become more oily, contributing to worsening of dandruff, along with itching,” Dr. Zeichner elaborates.  “At the same time, the scalp develops flaking and scaling.”

This triple-whammy means that in addition to your postpartum itchy scalp, dandruff itself can cause even more itching. But don’t lose all hope yet. There are steps you can take to help relieve the itch, no matter if it’s due to itchy scalp postpartum, dandruff, or both.

How Do You Stop Your Scalp From Itching?

Start with the basics. Try using dandruff shampoo and conditioner, or other scalp treatments, like a scalp scrub. The latter might help give you some relief and be a super satisfying—and safe—way to scratch that itchy scalp.

“OTC anti-dandruff shampoos containing selenium sulfide or zinc pyrithione can be very effective,” Dr. Murphy-Blair advises. She recommends some gentle options such as Free and Clear Shampoo for Sensitive Skin ($11) and Dove Dermacare Scalp Dryness & Itch Relief Shampoo ($7), as well as Head & Shoulders Dry Scalp Care Almond Oil Anti-Dandruff Shampoo ($7).

Another way to calm the itch is by fortifying your skin’s natural barrier (stratum corneum), the protective shield on your skin’s outermost layer that helps lock in moisture and keep irritants out. Disruption of this crucial barrier has been linked to countless skin conditions, including itchy ones. And fortunately, you can do this topically.

“To address itching, the first step is to apply a moisturizer to help repair the skin barrier,” counsels Dr. Zeichner. Looks for products specifically designed to help relieve itching, like CeraVe Itch Relief Moisturizing Cream ($20) and CeraVe Hydrocortisone Anti-Itch Cream ($9). You can also try anti-itch moisturizers formulated specifically for itchy scalps such as Scalpicin Maximum Strength Hydrocortisone 1% Anti-Itch Liquid ($13).

To combat excessive hair shedding in your first few months postpartum, try using volumizing shampoo, conditioner, and hair treatments or formulas for thin hair. Avoid any products that say “conditioning shampoo” or “intensive conditioner” on the label, as they tend to weigh hair down.

Apply conditioner only on the tips of your strands to the mid-length. Conditioning your scalp will only make it oilier, which could perpetuate both hair loss and dandruff. Try Biolage Volume Bloom Shampoo ($20) and Conditioner ($20). There’s also Kérastase Densifique Shampoo ($35) and Conditioner ($42). 

It helps to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, which contain antioxidants and flavonoids. They may protect your hair follicles and promote growth. And avoid tight hairstyles, hot tools, and tugging on your hair when it’s wet. You can also speak to a board-certified dermatologist who can help curate the right hair loss-fighting routine.

When Should I Go to the Doctor for an Itchy Scalp?

Although postpartum itchy scalp is quite common and usually harmless, it could also indicate an underlying medical condition. If you're concerned, talk to your health care provider or a dermatologist. They may want to run some tests to determine if there’s any underlying cause, like certain liver conditions.

“If you develop significant itching in your scalp, are experiencing hair loss, and dandruff shampoos aren't helping, make sure to touch base with a board-certified dermatologist for professional evaluation,” recommends Dr. Zeichnner. If simple interventions aren’t making a dent in the itchiness and, especially, if it’s interfering in your day-to-day or quality of life, it’s definitely time to see a pro.

Dr. Murphy-Rose also makes a good point that, since it’s hard to get a good look at your own scalp, it might not be a bad idea to see a dermatologist as soon as the itchiness creeps up. Practicing a little extra caution never hurt anyone. And sometimes, nipping the problem in the bud at the get-go can save you a lot of time, energy, and, well, itchiness.

What Do Doctors Prescribe for an Itchy Scalp?

If you’re considering seeking the help of a dermatologist or other healthcare provider, here’s a sneak peek of how you might expect your treatment to proceed. (Of course, always let them know if you’re currently breastfeeding, as that may affect what course of action they advise taking.)

Corticosteroid Ointments & Creams

Your dermatologist may recommend either an over-the-counter or prescription corticosteroid to help relieve your itch. After you apply the product to your skin, dampen a clean cloth or towel with cool water and lay it over the affected area. The coolness will help soothe the itching and the moisture will help with absorption. They may also recommend bathing routinely in lukewarm water for 20 minutes with your scalp under the water before bed. This will help the medication absorb and trap in moisture.

Calcineurin-inhibiting Ointments & Creams

Calcineurina are cellular messengers that trigger an immune response, like the release of histamine, the culprit behind your itchiness. Inhibiting them with treatments such as Protopic (tacrolimus) and Elidel (pimecrolimus) can help relieve itchiness. Likewise, other treatments, including topical anesthetics, doxepin, or capsaicin may help.

Antidepressant Medications

Some oral antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, like Zoloft (sertraline), Prozac (fluoxetine), as well as tricyclic antidepressants such as doxepin, may help the itching subside. The only drawback with these options, however, is that it can take a while—eight to 12 weeks—for them to fully kick in.

Phototherapy

An option that’s as easy as flipping a lightswitch—quite literally—is phototherapy, otherwise known as light therapy. UV light can reach both the surface of your skin (epidermis) and down into the next layer (dermis). Exactly how it works to relieve itching is somewhat unknown, but it’s thought to interact with networks of nerves, either directly or indirectly. It may take several sessions, but it can ultimately soothe your postpartum itchy scalp, and finally give you some relief.

A Word From Verywell

Bringing your new baby into the world can be one of your life’s greatest joys. But after you’ve given birth, hormonal fluctuations can put you at risk of certain skin conditions, like postpartum itchy scalp. Fortunately, it’s a temporary—albeit, irritating—ailment, and there are at-home and in-office treatments that can help. As always, talk to your healthcare provider about your options, and always let them know if you’re breastfeeding, as that may alter your treatment route.

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