The Real Reason Your Hair Feels Like It's Throbbing

Yes, your hair can actually hurt. Here's what to do about it .

hair hurts
(Image credit: Future)

Maybe you haven’t washed your hair in a while, or maybe you’ve had it lazily tucked into a top knot for a few days. Then, out of nowhere, it starts to physically throb. Science says hair can’t actually hurt (hair is dead, after all), but that uncomfortable tender-headed feeling isn't your imagination. A sore, achy scalp can leave your hair feeling sensitive to the touch, causing you to avoid combing, brushing, or even washing your hair.

“Scalp sensitivities can occur due to many things, from seasonal changes when the weather gets dryer to product irritations or buildup (i.e. sometimes overusing dry shampoo can clog your scalp making it itchy and uncomfortable), to even wearing hats too often,” explains House of Frieda celebrity stylist, Laura Polko, whose clients include Charli D’Amelio and Madelyn Cline. Once irritation takes hold, inflammation can start to make your hair feel like it's hurting. "If you then find yourself scratching your scalp, you’ll actually end up releasing cytokines, these little chemicals that start a whole inflammatory cascade through your scalp," adds Yale dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD. "With more inflammation, brings more blood flow to the area, resulting in that throbbing pain you feel in your hair.’”

All that said, if you maintain healthy scalp hygiene and still experience scalp issues, something larger might be at play. Below, we break down the five main culprits of a tender scalp—and dermatologist-approved recommendations to reduce the pain.

Tension on the Hair and Scalp

Certain tight or heavy hairstyles, such as braids, weaves, or extensions, cause constant tension on the hair and scalp. Unfortunately, this excess pulling can lead to a condition called traction alopecia, where the hair follicles are under continuous stress, and eventually stop growing. “Over time, this can cause inflammation of the hair follicles and surrounding scalp tissues,” explains celebrity hairstylist, licensed trichologist and Senior Director of Product Development at MAV Beauty Brands, Kimberlee J. Blakley. “The pain associated with tension alopecia results from the continuous strain on the hair roots.”

To combat scalp pain from tension, she suggests by shying away from frequent tight ponytails and top knots. “If you have a protective style, your concern is preserving your scalp and your investment,” she shares. “But, if you notice any tiny bumps or pustules at the scalp, remove them ASAP.” Her best advice? Don’t be afraid to speak up to your stylist if you feel pain or tugging at your scalp during or after your appointment. You can also include a scalp oil in your regimen to keep the scalp hydrated.


Sometimes the painful sensation you feel on the hair shaft is actually originating from an issue at the root. While there are a few different diagnoses that could be at play, a fairly common one is called folliculitis. Folliculitis is the inflammation or infection of hair follicles, which sometimes results in major discomfort. “When hair follicles become clogged, they can get red, swollen, and painful,” explains Blakely. “Folliculitis can result from bacterial, fungal, or viral infections, and it often occurs when the hair follicles become clogged, either from oil, sweat, or other debris. The pain may result from inflammation, itching, or even a reaction to accumulating residues on the scalp.”

If you suspect folliculitis is the culprit of your hair's pain, getting a professionals opinion is best. Even mild infections might require a prescription lotion, gel, or pill. You'll want to visit a board-certified dermatologist or trichologist who is "trained to diagnose and address issues related to the hair and scalp."

Infrequent Washing

If you’ve pushed past your suggested wash day, your hair can start to feel a little, well, off. There’s a reason for that. “A clogged scalp prevents both sebum and hair from growing and releasing naturally from the hair follicle,” explains NYC-based hair health expert and trichologist, Shab Caspara. “It creates inflammation and hinders hair growth, disrupts the scalp microbiome, and causes the overproduction of sebum." Think of the resulting irritation as your body's defense mechanism.

The good news: The fix is pretty easy. Adding a clarifying shampoo into your routine biweekly is a great tool to get rid of buildup, especially if you’ve used a lot of product in your hair, like a dry shampoo. “Clarifying shampoos typically contain more harsh cleansing agents and are therefore recommended to use on an as-needed basis,” she explains. “To prevent drying-out your strands, focus mostly on the scalp and avoid scrubbing the product into your actual hair.”

Over Washing

In the same way that not washing your hair enough can cause irritation, overwashing can lead to the same hair hurting state. “A great comparison would be over washing your face, which as we know can dry out our skin and similarly disrupt the microbiome and pH levels,” explains Caspara. “Washing hair too frequently (everyday or every other day) with shampoos that contain unsafe and harsh cleansing agents can dry out and strip the scalp of its protective layer known as the acid mantle.”

When figuring out how often to wash your hair, texture is a huge factor. Curls and coils can often prolong time in between shampoos, whereas straight, finer hair types may find their hair getting greasy after a few days. Consider other variables like workout schedule, product usage, and hair porosity to find the right sweet spot. 

If you do need to wash your hair every day or every other day, make sure you're using a hydrating shampoo that will restore moisture to the scalp.

Scalp Dryness

When the seasons change, it's common to experience tight, dry skin. The scalp, an extension of the skin, is no different. Frequently moisturizing with calming serums or oils can help soothe and relieve some of the discomfort, but if you notice dandruff or lingering irritation, seek professional help. “It's essential to consult a trichologist (or a dermatologist) who can provide specialized guidance and treatment options,” explains Blakely.

Meet the Experts

Laura Polko

Laura Polko is an L.A. based hair stylist. Some of her clients include Gigi and Bella Hadid, Priyanka Chopra, Adriana Lima, Emma Roberts, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Hailee Steinfeld, Candice Swanepoel, Adriana Lima, Olivia Munn, and Poppy Delevingne.

Dr. Mona Gohara

After graduating from medical school with AOA honors, Dr. Mona Gohara did her dermatology training at Yale New Haven Hospital, where she served as chief resident. Dr. Gohara continues to teach at Yale where she holds a faculty appointment as an associate clinical professor. Dr. Gohara and her husband have two tween boys. Besides mothering and doctoring, she spends time watching her son’s basketball games, educating the public on skin health, skin cancer, and sun protection. She has done this through writing, lecturing on the local, national, and international level, and by engaging popular media.

Dr. Gohara serves as a medical expert for ELLE, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, O the Oprah Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Allure and Real Simple. She is on the advisory board of Women’s Health Magazine. Dr. Gohara serves as Vice President of the Women’s Dermatologic Society. She is an active member of The American Academy of Dermatology, where she chairs the Social Media Task Force, and The American Society For Dermatologic Surgery, where she chairs the Media Relations Work Group.

Kimberlee Blakely

As a Product Development Manager, Blakely creates new product concepts and follow them through to commercialization. She determines each products benefits for various hair types, as well as conducts testing and analyze each product’s benefits against competitors’ product lines.

Janell M. Hickman-Kirby

Janell M. Hickman-Kirby is a seasoned writer, editor, and brand expert based in Brooklyn, New York currently working as senior brand copywriter at Sol de Janeiro.

A Minneapolis native, Janell moved to New York to join WWD after earning her degree in Journalism from Hampton University and swiftly made her way up in the city’s fashion-culture world, working at the Victoria's Secret headquarters where she assisted on legendary 2008 and 2009 fashion shows.

With contributions from