Seborrheic dermatitis is a form of eczema that primarily affects the scalp and trunk. You may also notice symptoms, like redness and scales, on the face or ears.
The cause of this chronic inflammatory condition is unknown, but genetics, hormones, and certain triggers — like stress — may play a role. While seborrheic dermatitis can affect anyone, it’s more likely to develop in babies under 3 months old and adults between the ages of 30 and 60 years old.
Seborrheic dermatitis of the scalp can cause unwanted dandruff and scaly patches. However, there are several shampoos that you can buy — or make yourself — that may help.
Dandruff is common with this condition. Medicated shampoos are a first-line treatment doctors suggest to help ease discomfort and control flaking. There are many options available over the counter (OTC) at your local drug store or online.
Shampoos containing selenium sulfide
Antifungal agents, like selenium sulfide, may help when used as little as twice a week. This ingredient:
- targets a specific yeast, Pityrosporum ovale
- reduces the number of dandruff cells on the scalp
- eases irritation and itching
Shampoos containing pyrithione zinc
A common ingredient in many OTC anti-dandruff shampoos, pyrithione zinc may have both antimicrobial and antifungal power. It may also help with inflammation and itch. Some authorities, like the National Eczema Foundation, even suggest washing affected areas of the body with pyrithione zinc soaps.
You’ll see OTC products with concentrations ranging from 1 to 2 percent. Head & Shoulders Dry Scalp Care and Head & Shoulders Extra Strength, for example, contain 1 and 2 percent concentrations of pyrithione zinc, respectively. Mountain Falls Dandruff Shampoo also contains this ingredient.
Shampoos containing salicylic acid
Salicylic acid hasn’t been as well studied for seborrheic dermatitis as other ingredients. It may be useful when used in conjunction with other treatments. Its main benefit is that it helps to reduce scaling on the scalp.
Salicylic acid is the active ingredient in Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic, a shampoo specifically formulated to manage scalp buildup.
Shampoos containing ketoconazole
Antifungal ketoconazole, on the other hand, is well studied as a treatment for dandruff and associated conditions. It inhibits fungus growth. Not only that, but azoles like ketoconazole may also have mild anti-inflammatory properties.
This ingredient is available OTC in shampoos like Nizoral Anti-Dandruff.
Once the initial symptoms subside, some people are able to manage their seborrheic dermatitis by using ketoconazole shampoos just once or twice a week.
Ketoconazole is considered safe. Studies haven’t shown that it irritates the skin or causes other side effects.
Shampoos containing coal tar
Coal tar suppresses fungus and decreases inflammation. This ingredient may even reduce sebum production.
Studies have revealed that coal tar is just as effective as ketoconazole with its ability to reduce fungal growth.
Coal tar has several associated side effects. Some people may develop contact dermatitis on their fingers after applying. Signs of toxicity include nausea, vomiting, and black urine. Coal tar may increase chances of developing some cancers, like squamous cell carcinoma.
You may also want to try DIY home remedies before reaching for prescription treatments. These natural options yield varying results. The information you’ll find online about these treatments is often anecdotal. Discuss any concerns you have with your doctor.
Coconut oil has antimicrobial and antifungal properties. Blogger Seth Pollins shares that he’s successfully treated his seborrheic dermatitis for over 10 years by applying a coconut oil mask — 1 tablespoon of extra virgin coconut oil — to his scalp after shampooing. He follows this process just twice a week, leaving the oil on for a few hours and then washing it out.
Apple cider vinegar
The malic acid in apple cider vinegar (ACV) may help to shed excess skin cells on the scalp. Not only that, but its acetic acid potentially works against dandruff-causing yeasts and bacteria.
Make sure you pick up unfiltered ACV with “the mother” in it. Processed varieties don’t provide the same benefits.
Combine 1 part water and 1 part ACV. You may leave this in the hair after washing or rinse clean after a couple hours.
The essential oil Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree oil) is an alternative remedy for treating a variety of skin conditions due to its antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. Learn more about tea tree oil for eczema.
Tea tree oil is generally safe when applied topically, though some people may experience dermatitis. Tea tree oil shampoos are also available OTC at many natural food stores. Other essential oils that may help with dandruff include lemongrass and frankincense.
To use oils to treat dandruff, you’ll need to first dilute them with either honey, a carrier oil (such as coconut or grapeseed), or your regular shampoo. Add a few drops and massage the mixture into your scalp. Let sit for up to 5 minutes before rinsing out.
Honey is antimicrobial and moisturizing to the skin, all while being a good hair conditioner. Raw honey is unprocessed and especially packed with good stuff like vitamins and minerals, protein, and enzymes. Applying it to the scalp can be soothing and may prevent skin infections.
Combine 2 tablespoons of raw, unfiltered honey with 3/4 cup of water. Stir to dissolve and then rinse your hair with the mixture. Use your fingers to massage it over the scalp.
Besides specific products or ingredients, following certain hygiene practices may also help with dandruff.
- Use OTC shampoos daily until symptoms ease. After that, using them once to three times weekly may be enough to manage symptoms.
- Alternate between two or more types of shampoos if using one doesn’t do the trick. Always follow package instructions for the best results.
- Skip styling products like hair sprays and gels. Also avoid personal care products that contain alcohol. They may make scaling and irritation worse.
- Remove scales from your scalp by applying mineral oil or olive oil. Leave it on for about an hour before combing through your hair and washing away.
- Men: Shampoo facial hair regularly. While the scalp gets the main focus, the skin under beards and mustaches may respond well to OTC shampoos. Shaving may also make your symptoms subside.
- Infants: Try a nonmedicated shampoo once a day for cradle cap. A soft-bristled brush may help gently remove scales before rinsing. If not, try mineral oil for a couple hours and then gently combing out scales.
If you’ve tried OTC shampoos or other home remedies and still don’t find relief, make an appointment with a doctor. There are many prescription-strength shampoos that contain higher concentrations of active ingredients you may try.
There are also other treatments, like antifungal medications, that may ease more severe cases of seborrheic dermatitis.
Healthline and our partners may receive a portion of revenues if you make a purchase using the links above.