Go Ahead and Scratch … Your Brain Is Telling You To

Itchy and dry skin

Credit: iStock

Winter is here, and for much of the country, it’s going to stick around for a while. When exposure to frosty air and the constant hum of the heat pump continue for too long, you may end up with dry, itchy skin. We know that scratching an itch feels good, but why?

Researchers studied brain activity in two groups of volunteers. One group had chronic itching problems, and the other did not. The chronic itch group had more activity in the area of the brain involved with movement than the non-itchy group. This boost in activity means their brains were “wired” to scratch.

The non-itchy volunteers were then treated with an irritant that made their skin itch. The research team found that when the healthy volunteers scratched an itch, the reward center in the brain lit up. In other words, scratching feels good even if you don’t have a chronic skin condition.

Slathering yourself with moisturizer and drinking more water can help hydrate the skin—your largest organ—and keep winter itches at bay. But sometimes you just want relief from a good—yet gentle— scratch. Now you know that your brain is giving you permission to indulge.

Erica Roth

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