Identifying your dandruff type is key to treating it.
The overwhelming thing about dandruff is that there are so many treatments for it out there: curated shampoos, essential oils, therapy (yes, stress is a factor!), you name it. And as if that’s not complicated enough, dandruff doesn’t just fall under one category—in fact, there are four types of dandruff—and each type warrants different treatment plans. In other words, before you switch to battle mode, you want to start by knowing what's causing all that flaking, i.e. whether it's the result of fungus, dry skin, or even something bigger, like an undiagnosed skin condition.
Ahead, trichologists Kerry E. Yates and William Gaunitz, FWTS, break down the different types of dandruff—and the best shampoos for each—so you’re better equipped to target your specific dandruff type.
Fungal dandruff is very common; unlike how it sounds, it's not contagious. "The number one culprit of fungal dandruff is a fungus called Malassezia," explains Yates. "It exists on most adults' scalps and feeds on the oil, breaking it down and leaving oleic acid in its place."
Interestingly, not everyone is sensitive to oleic acid. However, in cases of those who are, the body reacts by renewing cells faster than usual, says Yates. In turn, dead skin cells appear as flakes, and the scalp becomes itchy. Since the enemy here is fungus, the key to treating fungal dandruff is using a shampoo containing an antifungal agent (pretty straightforward, right?), such as selenium sulfide and coal tar (a byproduct of black coal).
Best Shampoos for Fungal Dandruff
This formula contains 1% selenium sulfide, recommended by Yates for fighting fungal dandruff. It also features manuka honey to combat dryness (another cause of dandruff that we’ll discuss in a sec).
Neutrogena T Gel
Instead of utilizing selenium sulfide, this popular formula is powered by coal tar extract, which acts as both "an antibiotic and antifungal," Yates says.
A more severe dandruff-causing condition is seborrheic dermatitis (SD). This inflammatory skin disease affects the body's seborrheic areas (aka its oiliest areas, i.e. the scalp).
What's a bit complicated about seborrheic dermatitis is that experts haven't nailed down its exact cause. It's often linked to the aforementioned Malassezia that causes fungal acne, as well as excess sebum production, genetics, immunocompromised patients, and nutritional deficiencies.
One way to identify seborrheic dermatitis is the color and appearance—you’ll witness large, yellow flakes on your scalp instead of small, white flecks. It's also typically associated with red patches and scaly skin.
To treat oil-based dandruff, Gaunitz recommends using shampoo with 1% ketoconazole. Like selenium sulfide, it's an antifungal agent that reduces fungus and inflammation. He also notes that your treatment may also require a topical steroid, such as clobetasol .05%, if you have a severe case.
Best Shampoos for Oil-Based Dandruff
Recommended by Gaunitz, this shampoo contains 1% ketoconazole to quell fungus growth and prevent itchiness and flaking. Shoppers attest that it’s one of the better-smelling formulas on the market, with one reviewer describing it as a “laundry soap”-like scent.
If you're looking for a natural, non-medicated solution, consider this refreshing formula. Its star ingredient is tea tree oil, which can help treat seborrheic dermatitis thanks to its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties.
Dry Scalp-Related Dandruff
Does your skin get dry and flaky in the winter? Well, the same thing can happen to your scalp when it sheds cells, hence the white flakes. "Dry scalp can be triggered by temperature changes, old age, or even contact dermatitis caused by an inflammatory reaction to haircare products," Yates says. Treating a dry scalp is the same as treating any dry skin—in addition to moisturizing hair masks that cover the scalp, she recommends a shampoo focusing on hydrating ingredients, such as shea butter and argan oil.
Best Shampoos for Dry Scalp-Related Dandruff
This shampoo works overtime to balance sebum production, which as we just talked about, is crucial to maintaining a dandruff-free scalp. And since you don’t want to dry out your scalp (which will only make it produce more oil to compensate), the formula also hydrates with the help of nourishing vegan proteins.
Looking to reduce water usage and plastic waste? Consider using a shampoo bar—this one boasts emollient ingredients, including shea butter and Moroccan argan oil, to restore your hair and scalp's hydration.
Skin Condition-Related Dandruff
Dandruff may also result from common skin conditions, including psoriasis and eczema. The former appears "powdery with a silvery sheen," per the National Psoriasis Foundation, and "fine scaling that looks like dandruff." On the other hand, eczema is recognized by dry, itchy, and inflamed skin.
Best Shampoos for Skin Condition-Related Dandruff
If psoriasis is the culprit behind your flakes, consider this 3% coal tar shampoo to slow cell turnover, control build-up, and relieve irritation. It has the National Psoriasis Foundation's seal of approval so you know it’s the real deal.
This shampoo is formulated without common irritants like sulfates, silicones, phthalates, parabens, dyes, and pore-clogging oils—you get the gist. Instead, it includes a gentle cleansing agent, an anti-inflammatory ingredient called bisabolol, and glycerin for hydration. Plus, it's National Eczema Association-approved.
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