The Impact of Scalp Psoriasis and Topical Treatments

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Scalp Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition that is thought to be caused by the body’s own immune system. Psoriasis is an inflammatory condition and appears on the skin with plaques covered in silvery scales over different parts of the body.[1]

The term “scalp psoriasis” means that the condition is affecting the scalp, and in over 25% of people with psoriasis, scalp psoriasis is the first sign of the condition.[2] Furthermore, 80% of psoriasis patients have scalp psoriasis.[2] The severity and distribution can vary from mild to severe. Psoriasis can reach beyond the scalp to the face or neck and can sometimes be itchy.[3] It is usually not associated with hair loss unless the disease becomes severe or prolonged.[3]

 

Treatments for Scalp Psoriasis

Treatment for scalp psoriasis can be tricky and frustrating. It is complicated with problems of getting medications through the hair. The psoriasis treatment plans can be time-consuming, long-term, messy, and need to be cosmetically acceptable.[4]

Generally, scalp psoriasis treatment involves the use of topical medications. These can be provided in a range of formulations that include psoriasis shampoos, lotions, gels, creams, ointments, and/or oils.[2] Only a few of the therapies used for scalp psoriasis have been evaluated for efficacy in clinical studies.[2] The general classes of medication to treat scalp psoriasis include keratolytics (a peeling agent that can soften and shed excess dead skin), tars, dithranol, steroids, and Vitamin D-like medications. Of these classes, only steroids and Vitamin D analogs have long-term data of efficacy. For example, treatment of scalp psoriasis with a gel containing betamethasone propionate (a steroid) plus calcipotriol (a Vitamin D analog) used once daily was found to be effective and safe.[2]

Phases to treatment

Treatment can be divided into four phases.[4] The first phase involves smoothening the scaly plaques using salicylic acid or urea preparations if the skin is thickened. Second is the clearing phase which can include topical corticosteroids, Vitamin D analogs, and others. The third phase is stabilization using a combination of Vitamin D analogs and topical corticosteroids. The fourth phase is the maintenance phase. Frequently, this involves the use of a Vitamin D analog alone, occasional use of a topical steroid, or psoriasis based shampoo such as a tar shampoo.[4] The phases of treatment are frequently overlapped, and in some cases, are altered based on the availability of medications. 

In a study by Koo, the investigators used a three-phase approach detailed below:[5]

Table 1. Phases of Scalp Psoriasis Treatment

Phase

Treatment

Phase 1: Clearing

Apply clobetasol solution (a strong steroid) or gel in the morning; calcipotriene solution (Vitamin D analog) in the evening for 2 weeks

Phase 2: Transitional

Clobetasol on weekends; calcipotriene solution applied on weekdays

Phase 3: Maintenance

Calcipotriene solution alone to prevent recurrence

 

The Topical Medication Formulation Matters

The formulation of topical medications varies widely and different topical formulations are better suited for use on the scalp, especially when trying to treat through hair. Here is a summary of the different common formulations and whether they are a good option for a scalp full of hair.

Table 2. Formulations and How They Work on the Hair

Formulation

Pros

Cons

Final Verdict

Ointment

Most potent and mainly meant for the body rather than hair

Virtually impossible to get through the hair

Not a good option

Cream

Easy to handle and can also use on the body

Very difficult to get through the hair

Not a good option

Solution

Easy to get through the hair

Can lead to stinging in actively inflamed skin

Good option but need to be careful about treating open skin due to possible stinging

Gel

Easy to get through the hair

Can lead to stinging in actively inflamed skin

Good option but need to be careful about treating open skin due to possible stinging

Oil

Easy to get onto the scalp

May be messy

Great option

Shampoo

Easy to get into the hair and rinse off

The shampoo’s other ingredients may dry out the skin

Good option but may not be as effective as the oil or solution

 

Scalp Psoriasis on Quality of Life

Scalp psoriasis can be frequently itchy, cosmetically embarrassing, and affect the quality of life.[4]

  • Those suffering from scalp psoriasis can feel an emotional toll because the visible lesions may affect one’s self-esteem and desire to socialize.[3]
  • Scalp psoriasis results in continual shedding onto clothes and can add to the emotional burden of social stigma and personal interactions.[2]
  • Topical therapy affects hair conditions cosmetically which can result in oily, brittle, or dry hair.[3]
  • Scalp psoriasis can be itchy, sting or even burn and can be a burden and distraction throughout the day.[2]

In addition to the medical treatment for psoriasis, quality of life needs to be taken into account and can be addressed along with therapy. To be treated most effectively, both the physical and emotional effects should be discussed when seeking treatment. Find a dermatologist close to you to have a more detailed discussion about treatment of scalp psoriasis.

For further reading on Psoriasis, click on the article links below:

Psoriasis Is More Than Skin Deep

Psoriasis Food Triggers: Foods That May Worsen Psoriasis

Five Important Habits to Fend Against Psoriasis

Finding the Right Approach to Treat Psoriasis

* This Website is for general skin beauty, wellness, and health information only. This Website is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. The information provided on this Website should never be used to disregard, delay, or refuse treatment or advice from a physician or a qualified health provider.

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References

  1. Nair PA, Al Aboud DM. Psoriasis. StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL)2017.
  2. Kragballe K, Menter A, Lebwohl M, et al. Long-term management of scalp psoriasis: perspectives from the International Psoriasis Council. J Dermatolog Treat.2013;24(3):188-192; PMID: 22455460 Link to research.
  3. Wozel G. Psoriasis treatment in difficult locations: scalp, nails, and intertriginous areas. Clin Dermatol.2008;26(5):448-459; PMID: 18755363 Link to research.
  4. Handa S. Newer trends in the management of psoriasis at difficult to treat locations: scalp, palmoplantar disease and nails. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol.2010;76(6):634-644; PMID: 21079306 Link to research.
  5. Koo J. Vitamin D and scalp psoriasis. Cutis.2002;70(5 Suppl):21-24; PMID: 12467336 Link to research.