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Dandruff is a scaly, itchy scalp condition where clumps of skin cells come together to create flakes you can see in your hair.
If you have mild to moderate dandruff, treating it with over-the-counter (OTC) shampoos can often help keep flakes, itching, and irritation at bay.
Keep reading to learn what to look for in a dandruff shampoo, and how specific ingredients interact with certain hair types.
We also recommend five products worth trying and explain why we like them.
When you start to look at dandruff shampoos, it’s important to know that dandruff usually occurs due to a combination of the three following factors:
- presence of Malassezia yeasts on the scalp
- sebaceous (oil gland) function and overproduction
- your body’s immune response to the presence of yeast
As a result, most dandruff shampoos contain ingredients that aim to reduce yeast on the scalp or keep the sweat glands from producing too much oil.
Manufacturers use a number of ingredients in dandruff shampoos. The following table lists these ingredients and how they work to minimize dandruff.
|Ingredient||How it works|
|Ciclopirox||This antifungal agent works by stopping the growth of the fungus.|
|Coal tar||Coal tar helps reduce skin scaling and the overgrowth of skin cells that lead to dandruff.|
|Ketoconazole||This antifungal agent helps kill the Malassezia fungus that irritates oil glands and can lead to dandruff.|
|Salicylic acid||This beta hydroxy acid keeps skin cells from sticking together and can help remove scaly skin cells.|
|Salicylic acid and sulfur||Adding sulfur to salicylic acid helps further reduce skin cell buildup. Sulfur also has antimicrobial activity.|
|Selenium sulfide||This antimicrobial agent also helps slow skin cell turnover and scaling as well as reduce yeast growth.|
|Zinc pyrithione||Also known as ZPT or ZnPT, this ingredient helps heal the scalp by reducing yeast growth, excess oil production, and overproduction of skin cells that can lead to dandruff flakes.|
As you can see, there are lots of different dandruff shampoo ingredients. Certain ingredients may work well for some people, but not so well for others.
Also, some shampoos may be good for your scalp but aren’t great for your hair or scalp type.
Other factors to consider
In addition to ingredients, you may also want to take into account the following variables when choosing a dandruff shampoo:
Frizzy and flyaway hair
If you have flyaway-prone hair, you may wish to try a ZPT-containing product.
One older study of women with dandruff asked them to use either a 1 percent ZPT solution or a 2 percent ketoconazole shampoo.
Researchers found that 75 percent of them preferred the ZPT-containing shampoo because it resulted in less frizz and flyaway compared with the ketoconazole shampoo.
Coal tar shampoos can darken or stain the appearance of your hair. For this reason, doctors don’t usually recommend using it on light-colored hair.
Male vs. female response
Men are more likely than women to have dandruff due to differences in their skin barrier. A small study found men’s dandruff responded better to a 1 percent ZPT shampoo compared with women who used the same shampoo.
The study’s authors also found women’s dandruff responded better to non-dandruff shampoos than men, which they thought was probably due to the detergent (cleaning) effects of shampoo on women’s hair.
Dandruff shampoos with selenium sulfide can make oily hair feel even oilier, according to a
Here are five medicated dandruff shampoos that might help you keep the white flakes and itching at bay. We selected these shampoos based on their ingredients and available research studies.
It’s important to note that choosing a shampoo may take a trial and error approach. You also need to consider your hair type and color.
Give a medicated shampoo at least 3 weeks before deciding to move on. If you don’t notice a difference by that time, you can try using another ingredient.
Price range guide
|Up to $10||$|
|$10 to $20||$$|
Use for: This medicated shampoo from Neutrogena contains 0.5 percent coal tar. While it’s very effective for relieving itching and flaking, it’s not suitable for those with light-colored hair, such as blond, bleached, or gray hair. Use with caution on tinted or color-treated hair.
How to use: Use at least once weekly to maintain dandruff-free hair, leaving on the hair and scalp for several minutes before rinsing. You may need to use it twice a week if you’re having an especially bad dandruff episode.
Ingredients: coal tar 0.5 percent (2 percent Neutar solubilized coal tar extract), water, sodium laureth sulfate, cocamide MEA, laureth-4, fragrance, sodium chloride, polysorbate 20, cocamidopropyl betaine, DMDM hydantoin, citric acid, tetrasodium EDTA
Price range: $$
Where to buy: Online or at most pharmacies.
Use for: Authors in the journal Pharmacy & Therapeutics recommend a 2 percent ketoconazole shampoo for moderate to severe dandruff. While 2 percent shampoos are only available by prescription, you can purchase the Nizoral 1 percent solution over the counter. We like it because it’s safe to use on all hair types, including color-treated and chemically processed hair.
How to use: Shampoo with Nizoral twice a week.
Ingredients: Nizoral A-D (ketoconazole) 1 percent, acrylic acid polymer (carbomer 1342), butylated hydroxytoluene, cocamide MEA, FD&C Blue #1, fragrance, glycol distearate, polyquaternium-7, quaternium-15, sodium chloride, sodium cocoyl sarcosinate, sodium hydroxide and/or hydrochloric acid, sodium laureth sulfate, tetrasodium EDTA, water
Price range: $$
Where to buy: Online and at most drugstores.
Jason Dandruff Relief
Use for: Authors in the journal Pharmacy & Therapeutics recommend using a salicylic acid–containing shampoo to fight off mild to moderate dandruff. This shampoo contains salicylic acid plus sulfur to help reduce the fungus that can cause dandruff. Plus, it doesn’t contain chemicals like sulfates, parabens, phthalates, or petrolatum, which can be damaging to hair.
How to use: Apply three times a week, massaging it onto your scalp.
Ingredients: water, cetyl alcohol, glycerin, sodium cocoyl isethionate, cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine, stearyl alcohol, glyceryl stearate SE, disodium cocoyl glutamate, sodium chloride, caprylic/capric triglyceride, citrus aurantinum dulcis (orange) peel oil, olea europaea (olive) fruit oil, simmondsia chinensis (Jojoba) seed oil, chenopodium quinoa seed, alcohol, babassu oil polyglyceryl-4 esters, benzyl acetate, capryloyl flycerin/sebacid acid copolymer, cyamopsis tetragonoloba (guar) gum, diheptyl succinate, guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride, sodium hydroxide, sodium PCA, terpineol, triethyl citrate, zinc carbonate, ethylhexylglycerin, phenoxyethanol, limonene, linalool
Price range: $
Where to buy: Online and in pharmacies.
Head & Shoulders, clinical strength
Use for: Head & Shoulders clinical strength shampoo contains selenium sulfide to fight dandruff. Marketed for severe dandruff symptoms, the shampoos are labeled as safe for color-treated, curly, and textured hair types. However, if you do have light-colored, gray, or permed hair, the brand cautions you to rinse out the shampoo for at least 5 minutes.
How to use: Shake the shampoo bottle before use and massage onto hair and scalp. Rinse the shampoo and repeat. Use twice a week.
Ingredients: selenium sulfide 1 percent, water, ammonium laureth sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, glycol distearate, cocamide MEA, ammonium xylenesulfonate, sodium citrate, fragrance, dimethicone, cetyl alcohol, sodium chloride, citric acid, sodium benzoate, stearyl alcohol, disodium EDTA, hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, methylchloroisothiazolinone, methylisothiazolinone, Red 4
Price range: $$$ (for a pack of two)
Where to buy: Online and most drugstores.
L’Oreal Paris EverFresh, sulfate-free
Use it for: L’Oreal’s anti-dandruff shampoo uses ZPT as its active ingredient. This gentle formula doesn’t contain sulfates, salts, or surfactants that may otherwise damage hair (especially color-treated hair). They also sell a sulfate-free conditioner if you’re looking to buy a two-part system.
How to use: Shampoo at least twice weekly, rinsing thoroughly after each wash.
Ingredients: pyrithione zinc 1 percent, water, cocamidopropyl betaine, disodium laureth sulfosuccinate, sodium lauryl sulfoacetate, decyl glucoside, sodium lauroyl sarcosinate, glycol distearate, sodium chloride, coco-betaine, fragrance, amodimethicone, Ppg-5-ceteth-20, acrylates copolymer, sodium benzoate, carbomer, Peg-55 propylene glycol oleate, propylene glycol, polyquaternium-39, menthol, benzoic acid, sorbitol, butylene glycol, trideceth-6, citronellol, sodium polynaphthalenesulfonate, linalool, limonene, geraniol, cetrimonium chloride, citral, cellulose gum, algae extract, melia azadirachta leaf extract, methylisothiazolinone, phenoxyethanol, potassium sorbate, sodium hydroxide, citric acid
Price range: $
Where to buy: Online and many drugstores.
Hair conditioners make the hair softer and ideally more manageable. Some people advocate using conditioners specifically aimed for people with dandruff. These conditioners often contain ingredients such as ZPT to further penetrate the hair and scalp.
In addition to conditioners, it’s important to avoid certain hair products that may be drying to the scalp.
A dry scalp can cause an overproduction of oil that further contributes to dandruff. Products to avoid include hair sprays or regular shampoos that have a high alcohol content.
For a significant number of people, OTC dandruff shampoos help treat symptoms.
If your dandruff is more severe, a dermatologist may need to prescribe stronger treatments to help you get you manage your dandruff. Talk to your doctor if OTC dandruff shampoos aren’t giving you the results you desire.