When it comes to hair-raising hair issues, dandruff is somewhere (parted?) in the middle — it’s not as bad as lice but more annoying than, say, dry scalp. Even though it's common — approximately half the world's population will deal with dandruff (a buildup of shedding dead skin) at some point — and usually not cause for alarm, you'll still want to deal with it, fast. The good news about an itchy, flaky scalp? You can treat it in your very own shower! Over-the-counter dandruff shampoos are packed with antifungal and antimicrobial ingredients to tackle the root of the problem (sorry, couldn't help ourselves).
Need some relief? Don't grab any old bottle claiming to fight flakes. To find the best dandruff shampoos on the market, we combed through a team of top-rated dermatologists, hair stylists and Yahoo's very own shopping experts to see which ones topped their lists and why. We looked for fast-acting formulas that soothed scalps and hydrated hair to boot. Let's go!
This award-winning shampoo by Nizoral — clinically proven to obliterate dandruff and itchiness — has been a favorite among experts and shoppers for years. Three dermatologists we spoke with recommended it, including New York–based Rachel Nazarian, MD: “The ketoconazole in this product decreases the yeast associated with seborrheic dermatitis," said the doc, adding that it can be "used long-term to prevent a return of flaking and scaling.” Michelle Henry, MD, clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College added, “The active ingredient also serves as a potent antifungal agent, particularly effective against Malassezia [a fungus that causes dandruff]." You only need to use it twice a week to get relief; no wonder it’s also an Amazon bestseller with over 65,000 five-star ratings.
Pros: Tackles dandruff, itch and flakes quickly and efficiently; smells nice
Cons: Some shoppers said it stripped color off dyed hair
This popular Dove option proves you don’t need to spend a ton of money to get results. New York dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD, recommends it. “It helps control dandruff because it contains pyrithione zinc, which adds anti-microbial properties to the shampoo," she said. "It also contains shea butter and coconut oil to keep your scalp hydrated and healthy.” Along with being gentle and calming enough to use daily, the shampoo has a delicious smell that shoppers adore. Some note that it can weigh your hair down if you don’t rinse thoroughly.
Both Dr. Nazarian and Dr. Graff recommend this formula. “This shampoo incorporates coal tar to slow down the turnover of skin cells and reduce flaking,” said Dr. Graff. It contains 3% salicylic acid, which treats symptoms caused by scalp psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff by removing scalp buildup while relieving itching and flaking. While the shampoo says it’s fragrance-free, some shoppers felt that it had a medicinal smell to it.
Pros: Removes buildup, affordable, helps itch and flakes
This ultra-hydrating option is celebrity hairstylist Harry David’s top pick. “It’s important to really target the scalp because that’s where the excess oil and yeast overgrowth starts," he said. "This shampoo moisturizes, stimulates and rebalances to strengthen the natural protective layer for a refreshed and energized scalp." Aside from nourishing, soothing and rebalancing oily, flaky or dry scalp, it also reduces scalp irritation and leaves hair silky smooth.
Dr. Graf is a fan of this cleansing shampoo because it contains pyrithione zinc, “which helps balance and hydrate the skin, and soothe irritation,” she said. According to the brand, the shampoo can help reduce itching and flaking with just one use — but you should use it at least three times a week for best results. Multiple Amazon shoppers have called it a “life saver.” Take it from this customer: “This is the only shampoo that helps with my itchy flaky scalp."
Pros: Reduces itch and flakes, helps calm irritated scalps
Our deputy editor Izabella Zaydenberg has been using this Kérastase shampoo for three months: “It made my dandruff go away by about 90% after one use," she said. "I see far fewer flakes, my scalp is way less itchy and irritated, and it doesn't weigh my hair down! I'd buy it all the time if it wasn't so expensive.” The shampoo’s main ingredient is pyrithione zinc, which according to dermatologist Jeannette Graf, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, “helps regulate the sebum production on the scalp." (Note: A buildup of sebum, a natural waxy substance produced by hair follicles, can lead to dandruff.) Besides eliminating dandruff, the shampoo also works to hydrate your scalp and hair to leave it soft and moisturized.
Pros: Hydrating, effective, doesn’t weigh hair down
This exfoliating Briogeo shampoo is Zaydenberg's other top pick, but she uses it more for periodic maintenance. “It's not an everyday shampoo — it's a little heavy — but it really leaves my scalp feeling clean and flake-free. I have a friend who uses it for eczema on her scalp and she loves it, too,” she said. The scrub shampoo gets rid of impurities and buildup while balancing and soothing an itchy, irritated scalp. It can be used on oily or dry scalps and all hair types.
Head & Shoulders has been synonymous with tackling dandruff for decades — and this clinical strength formula might be its most effective product yet. Dr. Graf loves it because “it is infused with manuka honey, which has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties to break down the yeast and soothe and hydrate the scalp.” With regular use, the brand says you will see 100% protection against visible flakes. Thousands of Amazon shoppers are fans, with many reporting immediate results. Some didn't love the strong smell, though.
I noticed my hair getting flakier last winter, so I gave this anti-dandruff shampoo from Ouai a try when it launched last December and loved it. Thanks to the 2% salicylic acid formula, not only did I see a reduction in flakes after consistently using it for a few weeks but I also loved how soft and clean my hair felt. It was much gentler than other dandruff shampoos I tried in the past — but since my case is mild, it worked great for my needs. I really fell for the ginger, basil and spearmint smell, too.
Pros: Great scent, doesn’t weigh hair down, reduces flakes
If you suffer from a super itchy scalp, Dr. Henry suggests trying this Selsun Blue option. “Selenium sulfide is the key component here, effectively targeting dandruff and alleviating itching,” she said. The shampoo is infused with menthol for a cooling and soothing sensation on the scalp that users love. “Something was making my head really itchy, so I got this. Wow, this explodes into an amazing thick blue lather and the menthol was just what the doctor ordered,” raved one. The smell, however, might not be what Some shoppers warn the scent can be too intense.
Pros: Affordable, soothes scalp, fights itch and flakes
What ingredients should a dandruff shampoo contain?
“Zinc pyrithione, ketoconazole, selenium sulfide and salicylic acid are all ingredients I tell my patients to look for when they have trouble with dandruff, because they have antifungal properties,” said New York City dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD.
“Salicylic acid is a very good ingredient to look for,” the doc added, "because it helps the exfoliation process and gets rid of the dead skin cells on the outermost layer of the skin. While zinc pyrithione and selenium sulfide help eliminate the fungus on the skin called Malassezia, ketoconazole decreases the growth of the fungus that causes the dandruff."
Other key players: Coal tar and pyridoxine (vitamin B6), according to Michelle Henry, MD, clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College. They both address the root causes of dandruff: “Coal tar slows down the growth of skin cells and pyridoxine (vitamin B6) helps regulate the production of sebum.”
What causes dandruff?
According to Jeannette Graf, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “Dandruff is caused by seborrheic dermatitis — a very common condition precipitated by increased oil production in the scalp. In response to the oil, our fungal microflora — part of our protective microbiome — rapidly multiplies as it loves the oily environment. As it continues, it can result in what seems like dry scalp with redness, scaling bumps, patches on the scalp and flaking along hair and shoulders.”
Another reason you may suffer from dandruff is from an overgrowth of Malassezia — a yeast-like fungus naturally occurring on the scalp. “When this fungus proliferates, it can trigger an inflammatory response in some individuals, leading to the characteristic flakes and itching,” Dr. Henry told Yahoo Life.
What is the difference between dandruff and dry scalp?
While you may think they are the same thing, celebrity hair stylist Harry Josh explains, “dry scalp is caused by the lack of moisture on the scalp, whereas dandruff is caused by excess oil,” so they are two very different problems. Dr. Graf added, “While both dandruff and dry scalp cause the scalp to flake off, dandruff flakes tend to be large, have a yellow hue and are oily to the touch. A dry scalp produces small, white flakes of skin. Since the fungus is part of our normal flora, dandruff is not curable but can be controlled.”
How often should you use dandruff shampoo?
While washing your hair every day can strip away oils, if you’ve got dandruff, doing the deed daily can actually help (depending on the severity of your case). “If you’re experiencing dandruff, the more exposure to the active ingredients in the shampoo, the quicker the condition will resolve. Washing your hair daily is completely fine, and encouraged,” said New York City dermatologist. Rachel Nazarian, MD. If your case is less severe, Dr Jaliman said, “In most cases, using a dandruff shampoo two to three times a week should be sufficient. Once dandruff is under control, the frequency can be reduced to once a week or as needed to maintain results.”
How long does it take to work?
Dr. Nazarian recommends “giving it a full week to notice improvement. But many of my patients experience relief after one wash!” Just remember results can vary from person to person. While some individuals may notice an improvement after a few washes, others might require several weeks of consistent use to see full results.