Scratching your head and seeing little flames of dandruff fall onto your favorite top can spur a lot of emotion: annoyance, loathing, discouragement. For many, dandruff is a small but persistent problem in their self-care routine. Thankfully, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, it’s easily treatable with a dandruff shampoo.
SKIP AHEAD Best shampoos for a dry, flaky scalp
Dandruff, a common condition where small pieces of dry skin flake off the scalp, is frequently used as a catch-all term for a myriad of issues; a dry scalp, oil buildup that itches and flakes, seborrheic dermatitis or psoriasis. When it comes to one’s scalp, dandruff can occur at any time of the year for a myriad of reasons, but people may experience more flaking in winter. “The external air in the wintertime tends to be drier or less humid than in warmer months, which tends to have a drying effect on our skin, including the scalp,” explained Shari Hicks-Graham, MD, a dermatologist in Columbus, Ohio.
What’s more, indoor heating systems pump out dry air, so they have a similar effect on your scalp, while hot showers can also exacerbate dryness during the colder weather season, said Hicks-Graham. “Scalp dryness can turn into flakiness when we brush our hair or rub or scratch our head,” she adds.
Dandruff, technically a mild form of seborrheic dermatitis, may also be the result of stress, or a build-up of excess oils and skin cells on the scalp. “In some cases, there is an overgrowth of a yeast — Malassezia — that normally lives on the skin but may be in excess,” says Mona Mofid, MD, a dermatologist at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in San Diego.
Whatever the cause of these pesky flakes falling from your head, there are solutions. While shopping for a dandruff shampoo or treatment, consider the following ingredients.
- Coconut oil, olive, jojoba or avocado oil: If you’re struggling with a dry scalp, these natural oils are “very good for the scalp,” says Debra Jaliman, MD, a dermatologist in New York City and author of “Skin Rules”. Coconut oil is naturally antibacterial and extremely nourishing thanks to the vitamins and essential fatty acids it contains, while olive oil is full of antioxidants that help protect the skin when applied topically. “A good trick is to apply one of those oils to the scalp overnight once a week, or even once a month, to give your scalp a hydrating treatment,” says Mofid.
- Apple cider vinegar is antibacterial and antifungal, said Jaliman, which can help with a buildup of excess oil. She recommends diluting the vinegar with water before putting it near your scalp.
- Tar or tar-based shampoos can also help too with dandruff from, said Mofid, though they can have a strong, unpleasant scent.
- Beyond natural remedies, there are plenty of shampoos targeted to treat seborrheic dermatitis. “Some ingredients to look for which can help soothe a flaky scalp include ketoconazole, salicylic acid, selenium sulfide, and 2% pyrithione zinc,” said Paul Cellura, MD, dermatologist at Tribeca Skin Center in New York City. Glycolic acid, which is commonly used in facial chemical peels, can also be very effective on the scalp when used in modest amounts, says Hicks-Graham.
- pH balance: The pH balance of the skin is 5.5, noted Jaliman. So using a product that is close to that pH will keep your skin at that pH. “A product with a very high or a very low pH would alter the pH of the skin,” she said, potentially spurring further flaking.
As for what not to put on your scalp: “Avoid hair products that may be drying, such as hair sprays and shampoos with a high alcohol content,” advises Paradi Mirmirani, MD, dermatologist and director of hair disorders for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California. “The higher up on the ingredient list, the more of the product it contains.”
The best shampoos for a dry, flaky scalp
Take care of your dandruff with one of these dermatologist-approved shampoos. But keep this in mind: “If over-the-counter products fail to fully control the scalp irritation, it may be wise to pay a visit to a board-certified dermatologist for further evaluation,” says Cellura.
Tar shampoos, like this option from Neutrogena, “tend to be a bit smelly,” said Mofid, but they do work. This option, which Cellura recommended, relies on 1 percent coal tar to ease flaking and scalp irritation associated with seborrheic dermatitis, dandruff and scalp psoriasis. Neutrogena says it’s gentle enough for daily use, but can be used just once to reduce symptoms for an entire week.
Cerulla also likes this drugstore shampoo, which is formulated with 1 percent ketoconazole to fight dandruff. Nizoral can help control the fungus on your scalp, says the brand, and cut down on inflammation, redness and scaly patches.
Powered by 2 percent pyrithione zinc to help control dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis symptoms, this shampoo is a favorite of Mohid’s because it’s both affordable and available OTC. “For people who experience seborrheic dermatitis on the face or chest it can also be used as a wash and comes in a body wash option as well,” she says.
With 1 percent pyrithione zinc and coconut oil, this shampoo offers a one-two punch against dandruff and dry scalp. “This shampoo helps to nourish dry itchy scalp and also helps to relieve it from irritation,” says Jaliman. “It’s pH balanced to gently cleanse the scalp and hair.”
Cradle cap is the name for seborrheic dermatitis in infants and is usually treated with a cradle cap shampoo, like this one from Mustela. Jaliman recommends it to patients of all ages who have sensitive or dry skin “because it’s fragrance-free and very gentle,” she said.
While this favorite from our guide to the best drugstore shampoos isn’t formulated to fight dandruff specifically, it’s a great option for removing excess buildup. It’s also formulated with apple cider vinegar, which Jaliman said can help remove excess sebum.
“If your hair produces a lot of sebum,” or oil and has dandruff, said Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City, you might want to try this shampoo that is formulated with apple cider vinegar and salicylic acid “to exfoliate and offer anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties.” This paraben-free option (i.e., no preservatives that can disrupt hormones), has additional moisturizing ingredients to keep the scalp and hair from getting dried out.
Meet our experts
At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Shari Hicks-Graham, MD, a dermatologist in Columbus, Ohio.
- Mona Mofid, MD, dermatologist at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in San Diego.
- Debra Jaliman, MD, dermatologist in New York City and author of “Skin Rules.”
- Paul Cellura, MD, dermatologist at Tribeca Skin Center in New York City.
- Paradi Mirmirani, MD, dermatologist and director of hair disorders for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California.
- Dr. Hadley King, a board certified dermatologist based in New York City.