Eczema on your scalp is the same as it is everywhere else, except for two complications.
- most people have hair on their heads, which makes it difficult and unsightly to apply thick creams and ointments
- it’s right out in the open where everyone can see. You can hide it only with long hair, and long hair makes it difficult to treat the scalp.
I keep my hair very short. I use a #2 buzzer on my head. I can get away with this because I’m a man in a job where hairstyle doesn’t matter. The #2 keeps my hair short enough that I can apply steroid creams or ointments but long enough that other people can’t see my sores or scabs easily.
Steroid ointments (say, fluocinonide 0.05%, my “strong” option) come with warnings about folliculitis. You’d think this would be a problem on the scalp, but I haven’t found it to be. I try to use it sparingly, though.
Many shampoos and conditioners brag about their moisturizing properties, but they refer to what they do for your hair, not your scalp. In my experience, both shampoos and conditioners have detergents that dry out my scalp to a painful degree, and fragrances that irritate it. What to do?
Go fragrance-free, for a start. Or as fragrance-free as you can; medicated shampoos seem all to come with masking fragrances to hide their smell. Options that I’m aware of are coal tar (say, T-Gel, Zetar, Polytar); zinc pyrithione (e.g. Head and Shoulders, Selsun Blue); and iodine (Betadine). I spent several years in the UK where Betadine is available as a shampoo. I haven’t seen it as a shampoo in North America, but Hidden B, who’s a veterinarian, has a bottle of it that she uses on dogs.
Let’s tackle these one at a time, and ignore any qualms about weird smells.
Zinc pyrithione (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zinc_pyrithione) is an antimicrobial that kills bacteria and fungi. It doesn’t work for me. This is probably because my primary problem is in the skin barrier, not a secondary infection. I may also have infections that it does or doesn’t clear up.
I remember Betadine being relatively pleasant, and leaving terrible brown stains on everything. I think it worked well because it didn’t have a very strong detergent component, and was much more a medical than a cosmetic product. I’m all in favor of this. Hey, maybe I should borrow some from Hidden B. Again, the active ingredient in Betadine is iodine, because it’s a broad-spectrum antimicrobial.
Coal tar works for me, but only in the strongest formulation. I use T-Gel Extra Strength and Polytar. In the past these have been difficult to find where I live in California, and I have bought them online from a Canadian source, but recently I’ve seen tar shampoos on the shelf in pharmacies here.
Coal tar’s a bit of an oddity. It is not a pure substance that can be easily quantified. It is a mixture of apparently up to 20,000 organic compounds, and it’s a traditional treatment for scaling skin diseases that reduces inflammation and itch and kills microbes. Which of the 20,000 compounds are doing what is anyone’s guess, and there have occasionally been claims that coal tar causes cancer. I don’t take these seriously because there has never been a conclusive study and if there were a large risk we’d know about it by now. (See a recent study here.) I think that it matters very much which brand of coal tar you use, because different brands are probably from different sources and contain different stuff.
What I DO take seriously is the increased sensitivity to UV that comes with using tar shampoo. The days I use it, I often find I get lightly sunburned on my face. Sunburn = cancer risk. So if I were going to spend a day outside, I’d be careful not to use tar shampoo that morning.
The more I learn about eczema, though, the more I understand that we might not want to use a strong antiseptic on our head too much. We probably have a flora of beneficial bacteria and fungi living on our scalps, and we ought to keep them healthy while killing off the S. aureus etc. that cause us so much grief.
Lastly, for moisturizing: every morning, and after I shower (which I do not do every day), I rub jojoba oil into my scalp. Jojoba’s a very light oil, and it doesn’t make my head too greasy. I think grapeseed or walnut oil would also do the job, but olive oil would be too heavy. Sometimes, when I have really dry skin, I have resorted to rubbing Eucerin into my scalp, but this is a bit gross.
What are your solutions to cooling itch and moisturizing on your scalp? I’d be interested to hear them.