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Why does my scalp burn after highlights?

Getting your hair highlighted can be an exciting experience. You leave the salon with gorgeous, shiny new locks that look fantastic. But sometimes, highlights can leave your scalp feeling irritated, itchy, or like it’s burning. This uncomfortable scalp reaction is pretty common after highlights, but what causes it and how can you find relief?

What Causes Scalp Burning After Highlights?

There are a few potential culprits that could be to blame when your scalp starts burning after highlights:

Chemical Irritation

The bleaches and peroxide in highlight hair dye can be quite drying and irritating to the delicate skin on your scalp. This chemical irritation is likely the most common reason behind scalp burning and discomfort after getting highlights.


Highlift hair color can cause inflammation of your scalp. This inflammatory response leads to redness, burning, tenderness, and sensitivity. It’s the same reaction you would get after irritation from things like allergies, illness, or injury.

Damage to Scalp

The chemicals in highlight dye can actually damage the top layer of your scalp when left on too long or used incorrectly. This can make your scalp feel raw and burned.

Allergic Reaction

Some people may have an allergic reaction to ingredients in the hair dye. This could cause redness, itching, burning, and discomfort. Let your stylist know if you have any known hair dye allergies before getting highlights.

How to Soothe a Burning Scalp After Highlights

Luckily, there are some simple ways you can help soothe your scalp and find relief if it starts burning after highlights:

Cold compress

Wrap an ice pack or cold, damp towel around your head to help reduce inflammation and discomfort. The cold temperature helps constrict blood vessels and decreases circulation to the area, reducing scalp burning.

Anti-inflammatory shampoo

Use a gentle shampoo containing natural anti-inflammatories like aloe vera, chamomile, tea tree oil, or green tea. These ingredients are calming and soothing for an irritated, burned scalp.

Avoid heat styling

Give your scalp a break by avoiding blow drying, curling irons, or straighteners until the burning subsides. The added heat will only aggravate your scalp more.

Dandruff shampoo

A shampoo containing zinc pyrithione or selenium sulfide can help control any flare ups of dandruff that may occur if your scalp is damaged from highlights. Reducing flaking and itching helps calm inflammation.

Moisturizing conditioner

Nourish your scalp and hair with a rich, ultra-hydrating conditioner after shampooing. Look for ingredients like coconut oil, shea butter, argan oil, aloe vera, and olive oil to moisturize and soothe.

Avoid irritants

Steer clear of hair sprays, mousses, gels, and any other styling products that contain alcohols, sulfates, or fragrances until your scalp feels better. These can further irritate and dry out your already parched scalp.

OTC hydrocortisone cream

For quick relief, you can dab a bit of over-the-counter 1% hydrocortisone cream directly onto your scalp. This helps control inflammation and decrease sensitivity and burning fast.

Pain relievers

If the pain is severe, OTC pain medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help reduce inflammation and discomfort.

Avoid scratching

As tempting as it may be, try not to scratch your head if it’s burning, as this can further aggravate the skin. For itchy relief, massage your scalp instead.

When to See a Doctor

In most cases, scalp burning after highlights will subside within a few days as your skin recovers. But if the pain, redness, and inflammation persist or worsen, make an appointment to see your dermatologist or doctor.

Signs your reaction requires medical care include:

  • Burning that gets progressively worse instead of better
  • Development of rash, hives, swelling, or oozing
  • Burning combined with dizziness, trouble breathing, or fainting
  • Raw, bleeding, or cracked skin on your scalp
  • Intense itching of your head, face, neck or ears
  • Hair loss in clumps

These could signal a more severe allergic reaction, skin infection, or serious irritation from the chemicals that requires treatment. It’s better to be safe and have it checked out by a pro if symptoms don’t improve or get increasingly worse.

How to Prevent Burning After Future Highlights

Once your scalp has healed, there are some precautions you can take during your next highlighting session to help avoid irritation and burning:

  • Do an allergy patch test 2-3 days before highlighting to check for a reaction.
  • Ask your colorist to do a strand test first.
  • Request highlights using gentler, low-volume developer.
  • Apply a nourishing hair mask or oil to your hair before highlighting.
  • Have your scalp rinsed with cool water after rinsing out dye.
  • Apply a soothing gel or serum to your scalp after highlighting.
  • Wait longer between highlight sessions to minimize damage.

Being cautious and giving your scalp a little extra TLC can help prevent discomfort next time you get highlights.


Although having your scalp burn after highlights can be unpleasant, the discomfort is usually temporary. With some simple at-home treatments and care, the redness, pain, and irritation should fade within a few days.

Pay attention to your reaction over the next couple weeks. If symptoms persist or seem to be getting worse instead of better, don’t hesitate to check with your doctor or dermatologist. They can help determine if an allergic reaction, infection, or other issue is going on that requires medical treatment.

With your colorist’s help taking proper precautions, you can hopefully enjoy your gorgeous highlights moving forward without having to endure a burned, bothered scalp afterwards.

Cause Symptoms Treatment
Chemical irritation Redness, stinging, burning, itching Cold compress, soothing shampoo, moisturizing conditioner
Inflammation Burning, tenderness, sensitivity Anti-inflammatory shampoo, OTC hydrocortisone cream
Scalp damage Raw, painful scalp Pain medication, avoid heat styling
Allergic reaction Itching, swelling, rash Antihistamines, see a doctor

This table summarizes the common causes, symptoms, and treatments for scalp burning after highlights.