Why Does My Hair Hurt? (Don't Worry, You're Not Just Imagining Things)

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woman running her hand through her hair

For anyone who’s ever posed the question, “why does my hair hurt?” we’re here to confirm that the pain itself is very real. As real as the pain you feel in your legs after an intense SoulCycle class. In truth, that pain is emanating from your scalp (your hair itself is made of dead cells and has no pain receptors), and while the reasons for this trippy, un-fun sensation can usually be pinned down to one of two causes—a build-up of material on the scalp or as a side-effect of migraines—there are multiple ways to fix it. Here’s everything you need to know.

Why Your Hair and Scalp Hurt

According to Chaie, hairstylist at the BENJAMIN Salon at the Arts District in L.A., “There are a lot of things that cause [scalp pain]—overuse of dry shampoo, changes in weather and sometimes the actual water we use when we wash our hair.” But generally speaking, the sensation of having your hair hurt is probably due to a buildup of oils at the base of your hair shafts, which in turn promotes the overgrowth of yeast on your scalp. The main reason for the buildup is not washing your hair often or deeply enough, but there are other factors that can contribute as well.

Hopping on the trend of washing your hair less and less often might not actually be doing you any favors. If your hair is thin, you use a lot of product or you break a sweat on the daily, you might not be a good candidate for the once-a-week wash movement. It’s important to consider your hair type and lifestyle when determining how often you should wash your hair.

The quality of your water can also make a big difference in the health your scalp. Hard water (aka, water that has a lot of dissolved minerals, like calcium and magnesium, floating around) can dry out your scalp and hair and potentially leave mineral deposits on your scalp that contribute to the pain. This is also why your hair might dry a little funky when on vacation—it’s because the quality of the water is different.

How to Fix and Prevent Scalp Pain

The easiest solution is to go take a shower stat, then lather, rinse and repeat. However, if you find yourself experiencing scalp pain on a regular basis, Chaie has a few more pieces of advice to prevent it from coming back.

1. Hold Off on the Dry Shampoo

Dry shampoo is one of our most loved and perhaps the hardest working product in our beauty arsenal. But sometimes you just need to give it a break (do it for your scalp!). Stop using it quite so often, or stop all together for a few weeks and see if this improves the health and happiness of your scalp.

2. Invest in a Hard Water Filter for Your Shower

If the quality of your water is the issue at hand, splurging on a water softening head for your shower (or even your faucet) is something to seriously consider. They typically cost less than $50 and are often easy enough to install yourself. Trust us, your newly luscious locks will be eternally grateful.

Shop hard water filters: Brita ($20); PureAction Store ($30); Aquabliss ($35); Brondell ($40)

3. Switch Up Your Hair Style

If you’ve been regularly rocking an Ariana Grande-style high pony or Solange-inspired waist-length braids, it may be time to find a new, if temporary, hair muse. Consistently keeping your hair done up in a tight ponytail, braid or bun puts pressure on your scalp, especially if your hair is thick, long or abundant. Give your strands a break and switch to a low, loose pony or pushed back from your face with a fabric headband (preferably one that, again, isn’t too tight).

4. Spend Extra Time Working In Your Shampoo

You know how glorious it feels when the washer at your salon works the shampoo into your hair and scalp basically giving you a massage in the process? They don’t just do it to make you feel good. Says Chaie, “when you wash your hair, you need to really scrub it, like how they do it at the salon, with your fingertips.” This is the best way to achieve a deep clean and hopefully eliminate any pain-causing bacteria or yeast that’s built up on your scalp. 

5. Try a Scalp Scrub (But Don’t Overdo It)

If regular shampoo isn’t cutting it, you can try exfoliating your scalp with a scrub. But be warned, in the same way that you can easily over-exfoliate the skin on your face, especially if you’re using a physical exfoliator, it’s easy to go overboard with this very satisfying-feeling hair product. Start with once a week and follow the instructions on the product closely to avoid causing more harm than good.

Shop scalp scrubs: Kristen Ess ($14); Ouai ($38); R+Co ($38); Christophe Robin ($53)

6. Clean Your Brushes

Fun fact: All that yucky bacteria, yeast and leftover product that’s plaguing your scalp has also been plaguing your hair brush. None of the above methods will make much of a difference if you then comb through your hair with a dirty brush. Pull out any loose hairs and give it a rinse in some warm soapy water before your next shower.

7. Consider the Possibiliy That It’s Allodynia

According to the American Migraine Foundation, “allodynia is the experience of pain from stimuli that isn’t normally painful,” in this case hair, which has no nerves and therefore shouldn’t be able to feel pain. It’s a possible frustrating side effect of migraines and therefore unrelated to any of the above causes or treatments. If you suspect this might be a closer match your what you’re experiencing, the AMF recommends talking to your doctor ASAP. “Preventive treatments can reduce the frequency and severity of allodynia, and, when taken early in the migraine cycle, can stop these pain signals. Healthy lifestyle habits like regular exercise and stress management also play a role in managing your migraine and keeping painful side effects like allodynia at bay.”

8. When in Doubt, Talk to Your Stylist

Ask your stylist for help. They are well trained to handle all types of hair issues and concerns and might have some product suggestions tailored to your specific hair type or lifestyle.

Remember to Give Your Hair and Scalp the Same Love Your Do the Rest of Your Body

If you already take the time and care to apply sunscreen daily, treat ingrown hairs on your bikini line or ingrown nails on your toes, then why not add some hair/scalp-specific TLC to the mix, too? If it means never again having to wonder, but seriously, why does my hair hurt???, then we think it’s well worth the effort. And if that means getting to treat yourself to a cool techy hairbrush or some lovely new shampoo, then that’s all the better.

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Abby Hepworth is an RRCA-certified running coach who has worked in fashion for over 10 years. Want to know what shoes are in this season? She's got you. Need recommendations on...