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The Best Dandruff Shampoos You Can Buy

Dandruff is embarrassing and can be intensely itchy. Finding relief starts with understanding what's causing it, then using the right shampoo for dandruff to treat it.

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What is dandruff?

Regardless of why it happens, dandruff is a just another term for flaky skin on the scalp, explains Marisa Garshick, MD, a dermatologist at MDCS: Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery Centers in New York. “It could be a result of dry skin, but the most common cause is seborrheic dermatitis.” This is the medical name for inflammation of the scalp and oil glands, she says. The flaking also coincides with scalp itching and redness. Another cause of dandruff is the build-up of dead skin cells on your scalp. Think about how often you exfoliate the skin on your face and body? Your scalp doesn’t get nearly half as much love. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, a dandruff shampoo or scalp treatment is the most effective treatment. The best dandruff shampoo for you depends on what’s causing your dandruff.

woman wearing sunglasses in an outdoor showerAnn-Haritonenko/Shutterstock

What is causing your dandruff?

Before you choose the best dandruff shampoo, you must become a “dandruff detective,” says Doris Day, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and a clinical associate professor of dermatology at the New York University Langone Medical Centers. Your detective work starts by tracing back to when you first noticed dandruff. “What did you switch in your life at that time? Did you change your environment? Start using a new product?” Perhaps there was a stretch of days when you weren’t showering as often?  This exercise may provide important clues to the cause of your scalp woes and help you decide which shampoo for dandruff is best for you. There are many sneaky causes of dandruff.

Selsun Blue bottlevia selsunblue.com, Shutterstock

The best dandruff shampoo for overly dry scalps

Dry skin is not one of the more common causes of dandruff, but it can occur especially in winter when skin is generally so much dryer, says Dr. Garshick. “Dry skin can cause flakiness, and the scalp is not immune to this,” she says. “Avoid harsh ingredients or chemicals and instead choose a mild shampoo and conditioner.” Some dandruff shampoos such as Selsun Blue Moisturizing with Aloe Dandruff Shampoo can add moisture back to the hair and scalp.

La Roche-Posay Kerium DS shampoo bottlevia laroche-posay.com, Shutterstock

Best dandruff shampoos for removing the build-up of dead skin

“Frequent hair washing with manual massaging can be exfoliating,” says Dr. Garshick. “Think of it as a scalp wash as opposed to a hair wash and really lather it up and in,” she says. “If you don’t like the smell, texture, or feel of dandruff shampoos, you can just increase hair washing and see if it helps.” Certain varieties of medicated shampoo for dandruff such as Neutrogena /T-Sal® Therapeutic Shampoo Scalp Build-Up Control, which contains salicylic acid, and La Roche-Posay Kerium Anti-Dandruff Shampoo, will also slough off dead skin skills. “You can use these just a few times per week and still get that sloughing effect.” If salicylic acid sounds familiar, it’s one of the same exfoliating agents found in a host of skincare products.

Head and Shoulders Clinical Solutions shampoo bottlevia headandshoulders.com, Shutterstock

The best dandruff shampoo for seborrheic dermatitis

“Dandruff shampoos like Head and Shoulders contain zinc pyrithione, which prevents dandruff, stops the itch, and has anti-fungal and antibacterial properties,” Dr. Garshick says. “Other ingredients such as the anti-fungal ketoconazole, which is found in NIZORAL® A-D Shampoo can also help with dandruff and itch.” Sometimes dandruff is caused by a yeast-like fungus. In these cases the selenium sulfide found in Selsun Blue Dandruff Shampoo and Head and Shoulders Clinical Solutions Itch Relief Dandruff Shampoo hits the mark. A tar-based shampoo for dandruff like Neutrogena T/Gel Therapeutic Shampoo – Original Formula is also effective, she says. “The downside is that the tar shampoos are pretty strong and can stain clothing.” Tea tree oil also has anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties and shampoos that contain it such as Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Lavender Mint Moisturizing Shampoo can help treat seborrheic dermatitis, she says. “Tea tree oil is a more natural approach and can help with inflammation.” Try these other natural dandruff remedies.

beautiful woman checking her brunette hairBatkova-Elena/Shutterstock

The best dandruff shampoo for thinning hair

If you have thinning hair and dandruff, choosing the best dandruff shampoo is especially important, as you don’t want to treat one condition at the expense of the other. “Zinc-based shampoos are good when there is also thinning,” Dr. Day says. Sometimes the two conditions are even more closely related. “Topical minoxidil for hair loss can cause dandruff and flaking, but a good scalp oil, more frequent brushing, or a change in the formula may help treat the dandruff.”

Smiling female doctor with stethoscopeS_L/Shutterstock

When to see a doctor about your dandruff

“If it is just the flakes, self-treating is totally fine,” Dr. Garshick says. “If there is also itching, it is a good idea to check in with your dermatologist as there are topical steroids and other medications that can calm down the inflammation and soothe the irritation,” she says. Your doctor can tell you how to get rid of dandruff and rule out any other causes of the itch and flakiness such as scalp psoriasis. To help rule out other conditions, check out these 21 reasons your scalp might itch.

Sources
  • Marisa K. Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS: Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery, and an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Cornell New York Presbyterian Medical Center.
  • Doris Day, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and a clinical associate professor of dermatology at the New York University Langone Medical Centers.
  • American Academy of Dermatology: "Dandruff: How to Treat."
Medically reviewed by Jessica Wu, MD, on October 29, 2019

Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in WebMD, HealthDay, and other consumer health portals. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors (for a cover story she wrote in Plastic Surgery Practice magazine); and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. She was part of the writing team awarded a 2008 Sigma Delta Chi award for her part in a WebMD series on autism. Her first foray into health reporting was with the Medical Tribune News Service, where her articles appeared regularly in such newspapers as the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, and Los Angeles Daily News. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu.