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Salicylic acid works in shampoo by breaking down dead skin cells. This is scientifically proven to help treat conditions that affect the scalp, like seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis. Other uses for the shampoo lack substantial evidence.
If you’re curious about whether salicylic acid can help treat a dry, itchy, and scaly scalp, read on to learn more about the potential benefits and side effects. Talk to a dermatologist about any concerns.
Salicylic acid works by dissolving dead skin cells. In certain skin and scalp conditions, dead skin cells can accumulate, creating thick patches of dry skin. A salicylic acid shampoo can help by breaking down these patches while increasing moisture to help stop them from forming.
This shampoo can help treat the following conditions:
Dandruff is a common scalp condition that causes itchy, flaky skin. The white flakes from dandruff can build up in your hair and on your shoulders.
Salicylic acid is one ingredient found in over-the-counter (OTC) dandruff shampoos. It can help get rid of flakes while also moisturizing a dry scalp. You can use the shampoo for seasonal dandruff, or on a regular basis to help maintain your scalp’s moisture levels.
Seborrheic dermatitis is closely related to dandruff, and is also marked by a flaky, itchy scalp. This inflammatory skin condition is known for skin flakes that are more oily than they are dry.
You may be able to tell you have seborrheic dermatitis if you see oily skin patches on areas of the skin other than your scalp, including your ears and face.
Salicylic acid shampoo can help treat seborrheic dermatitis that occurs on the scalp. The shampoo may be irritating to other parts of the body.
Don’t use salicylic acid shampoo on babies and young children unless directed by your child’s pediatrician.
Salicylic acid shampoo has not been shown to be effective for the following conditions.
Psoriasis is another type of inflammatory skin condition that can affect all areas of the body. Known for its thick, red-silver, dry skin patches, this skin condition is caused by increased skin cell turnover. When your skin produces new cells at a quicker rate than normal, dead skin cells won’t have a chance to break down, and therefore build up on the surface of your skin.
Prescription shampoos are usually required for the treatment of scalp psoriasis. Salicylic acid is just one method of breaking down excess skin cells for scalp relief.
Salicylic acid does not treat hair loss directly. Instead, the medication may help decrease the urge to scratch and pick at an itchy scalp, which can decrease your risk for hair loss in the future.
Salicylic acid is considered safe for most users, but it can cause irritation in some people. Related side effects may include:
- increased dry skin
- burning sensation
- broken or peeling skin
Allergic reactions to salicylic acid are rare. However, you should seek immediate medical help if you experience any of the following symptoms after using this shampoo:
- swelling that extends to the face
- red rash that spreads
- breathing difficulties
It isn’t known whether salicylic acid can harm unborn babies, and there’s a lack of clinical studies on these risks. However, if you are pregnant or nursing, talk to your doctor before using it. Your doctor may also advise against using salicylic acid shampoo if you have liver or kidney disease.
As with any medication, salicylic acid shampoo only works if you use it correctly. Follow these steps for proper usage:
- Thoroughly wet your hair and scalp with lukewarm water.
- Apply a small amount of the shampoo directly to the scalp, adding more as needed.
- Work the shampoo into a lather by massaging your scalp. Do not scrub or rub the shampoo through your ends.
- Let the shampoo sit for up to 5 minutes at a time.
- Rinse thoroughly.
- Follow up with a conditioner for the mid to end sections of your hair to replenish moisture.
Salicylic acid shampoo is most effective when it’s used on a weekly basis. A dermatologist may recommend you use the shampoo daily until your condition improves. Even if your scalp clears up, you’ll likely need to use salicylic acid shampoo once or twice a week for maintenance.
Shampoo containing salicylic acid is widely available in drugstores in varying strengths. It’s best to start off with the smallest strength at first, and then build up to a stronger medication, if needed.
If your condition doesn’t respond to OTC versions, a dermatologist may recommend a prescription version.
Salicylic acid is one widely available treatment option for scalp conditions, including dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis of the scalp. There isn’t any evidence the shampoo is effective for psoriasis, hair loss, or other hair benefits. However, a healthier scalp can lead to better hair health overall.
If you don’t notice any improvements in your scalp after using an OTC salicylic acid shampoo, see a dermatologist. They may prescribe another formula or recommend an alternative treatment.