The Weird Reason Your Hair Sometimes Hurts

The pain is REAL.

You know that feeling you get when you haven’t washed your hair in a while, or maybe you’ve had it lazily tucked into a topknot for a few days, and your hair starts to hurt? Like physically throb and hurt? Even though we all logically know that your hair is dead, and it has zero nerve endings or feelings, it can still feel like the ache is radiating from your scalp and down your hair shaft—and it freaking sucks.

But why? Like, sure, it doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that dirty-as-hell hair probably won’t feel the greatest, but I want to know what, exactly, is causing the the weird head pain, especially on hair that’s not even that dirty. And, as it turns out, it’s part your fault, and part your body’s fault. Which is fun.

“Not washing your hair, or just having a naturally oil scalp, can result in an accumulation of sebum on the scalp, which just sits there, causing inflammation and itchiness in the follicle,” says Yale dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD. “That alone can cause an itch or an ache, but 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. And with more inflammation brings more blood flow to the area, resulting in that throbbing pain you feel in your ‘hair.’”

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(Image credit: Courtesy of Brands)

Okay, but what about the times when you just washed your hair last night, and it’s aching again just 12 hours later? Welp, your hair products are a likely cause. If you’re covering your hair and scalp with leave-ins, creams, dry shampoos, and hairsprays, all day every day, you’re basically smothering your scalp with chemicals, trapping in oils and gunk. All of which can very quickly irritate your scalp, especially if your shampoo isn’t cutting through the grime each time you rinse.

Luckily, ouchie scalp (can I call it that? Can I trademark that?) is a pretty easy fix: Wash your hair somewhat more frequently—as in, don’t wait a week to rinse your hair—use fewer thick, suffocating hair products, avoid topknots and tight hairstyles when your scalp is inflamed, and pick up a clarifying shampoo, which gently breaks down scalp oils and product build-up, without stripping your hair. Our favorites: Fekkai Apple Cider Shampoo, which uses natural fruit acids to dissolve grime, and Acure Lemongrass Clarifying Shampoo, a sulfate-free cleanser that softens hair with argan oil after cleansing it BUY THEM. Pick one, use it once a week in lieu of your usual shampoo, and your scalp will feel like a happy little clam forever more.

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(Image credit: Marie Claire)
Chloe Metzger
Beauty Editor

Chloe Metzger is the deputy beauty director at Cosmopolitan, overseeing the editorial content and growth strategy of the hair, makeup, and skin space on digital, while also obsessively writing about the best hair products for every hair type (curly girl here; whattup), and the skincare routines that really, truly work (follow her on Instagram to see behind-the-scenes pics of that magazine life). She brings nearly a decade of writing and editing expertise, and her work has appeared in AllureHealthFitnessMarie ClaireStyleCaster, and Parents. She also has an unhealthy adoration for Tom Hanks and would like to please meet him one day, if you could arrange that. Thanks.