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Sense and Sensitivity: How to deal with a sensitive scalp
June 7th 2013
Skincare doesn't stop at the forehead; sensitive types must look after their scalps too, writes Judy Johnson
A couple of months ago I awoke one morning only to find that my face was covered in an angry, red bumpy rash. Symmetrical across both cheeks and dry to the touch, I glared at my dressing table to work out which face cream was the latest culprit to aggravate my sensitive skin. But I hadn't used anything different; I'd learned my lesson and had been a loyal user of Avene's skincare for some time.
A quick, panicked email to the Glossy bosses later, and GTG's resident skincare agony aunt Sarah Vine reckoned it was something on my pillow and diagnosed that I'd need hydrocortisone cream, stat. Then it dawned on me; I'd tried a new leave-in conditioner which only the night before I was raving about for its gorgeous scent, and had gone to bed with slightly damp hair (a sin, I know).
Never before had I considered hair products as potentially problematic in terms of sensitive skin. Hair dye, perhaps; you'll often hear dramatic stories of people reacting to hair colour and that's one product you should always patch test. But when it comes down to shampoos, conditioners, hairsprays and mousse, I'd thought that was one beauty umbrella that my skin was suitably shielded from. I nevertheless stopped using the new conditioner (which smelt oh-so-lovely… fragrance is forever my downfall) and surprise, surprise, the rash died down after a few days of hiding and lashings of hydrocortisone cream and Cetaphil.
MORE GLOSS: The best sunscreens for sensitive skin
It led me to think about my haircare and how it's not only my face that's intolerant to it, but my scalp, too; for years I've battled a dry and often sore scalp under annoyingly fine and thin hair which doesn't hide it too well. As dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting explains, "Sensitive skin is not limited to the face, by any means – the scalp is a very common site and in one study in France as many as a third of those with facial sensitivity also complained of scalp-related issues. Itching and burning of the scalp are unpleasant and distressing symptoms, and the problem is that once you start scratching the scalp, it’s hard to stop."
It makes sense; your scalp is skin too and with most of us washing our hair daily, as well as styling it together with heat protector sprays hairsprays, mousse and more, it's no surprise that it can be irritated by product overload. But it's not just our haircare that can cause issues, which is why Glenn Lyons, a Trichologist from Philip Kingsley's London clinic, follows the mantra that washing your hair daily is the best way to look after the scalp.
"Dust, pollution, and perspiration are all capable of being primary irritants. Therefore the single most important, beneficial and easiest way of minimising potential problems is, in most cases, daily shampooing; I'd recommend Philip Kingsley’s Flaky Itchy Scalp Toner, £16.15 and Flaky Itchy Shampoo, £17.45, to help ease irritation and itchiness," Glenn explains. If daily washing isn't always a possibility, Philip Kingsley is about to launch his first dry shampoo One More Day, which unlike existing ranges includes skin-soothing ingredients for reduced irritation on those days where you're too busy to lather up.
If you know you're sensitive and want to keep your scalp calm and carry on, Dr Bunting also suggests checking the ingredients of your hair products just like you would for face creams and skincare. "I’d recommend looking at shampoos which contain gentle surfactants and humectants (much like I’d suggest for the face) like Eucerin Calming Urea Shampoo, £10.54 – a lot of my patients have had great symptom relief from using this. If you have dandruff, then Nizoral shampoo, £9.49 (containing ketoconazole) is excellent."
The sun too can play its part in scalp soreness and it's here more than ever that the scalp should be treated just as you would treat the rest of your skin: with sunscreen. "Always protect the delicate skin on the scalp from the sun," advises Dr Bunting. "Sunburn here will aggravate sensitivity further, so wear a hat and shield skin exposed by a parting with the same level of sun protection you’d use on your face." The risks of the sun increase as your hair thins, too, as Glenn explains: "The likelihood of scalp tissue damage occurs accordingly with increasing hair thinning and baldness. In such circumstances sunscreens should be applied to the scalp."
It's easy to be so concerned with getting bigger, bouncier hair and more luscious locks with the latest shampoos and root-boosters that we ignore the skin underneath it. Healthy hair starts at the scalp - choose your products wisely and you needn't wake up faced with a reaction again.