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You could have the most perfect blowout or the trendiest glass hair look, but if your scalp is itchy or irritated or flaky, it doesn't matter how your hair looks. Because nobody wants to walk around with big dandruff flakes on their shoulder. If this sounds like a daily struggle to you, you may have scalp eczema, also known as seborrheic dermatitis in the medical community.
Scalp eczema is a common condition that can cause itching, redness, and inflammation of the scalp. And it's actually quite common. In fact, it's estimated that 31.6 million people, or 10.1 percent of the U.S. population, have some form of eczema, with 1 in 10 people developing the condition at some point in their lives.
Preview some of the best eczema shampoos:
Thankfully, the right skincare products (and perhaps even a scalp massager) can help. Though prescription medicated shampoos may be recommended, there are plenty of gentle over-the-counter drugstore options that can do the trick too, says Anna Chacon, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and a writer for My Psoriasis Team.
To help you choose the best eczema shampoo to soothe symptoms like dry, itchy, and flaky scalp, we asked dermatologists to share the products they recommend to their patients because they really work.
AD AntiDandruff Shampoo
"This shampoo is considered effective for scalp eczema, because it contains the active ingredient ketoconazole, which is an anti-fungal that can help control the yeast growth associated with seborrheic dermatitis," says Dr. Chacon. Use it to alleviate symptoms like redness, itching, and flaking.
Rave review: "I bought this for my 11-year-old daughter. She has always had dry scalp and, no matter what we do, continues to have dandruff. This stuff is amazing. The first scrub loosened a ton of dry scalp and after the second scrub it was gone. Now she uses it once or twice a week to keep flakes out of her hair! Highly recommend!"
Clinical Dandruff Defense Sensitive Shampoo
Head & Shoulders is one of the most classic options for anyone struggling with dandruff or scalp eczema. Though gentle enough for sensitive skin, the budget buy boasts one percent selenium sulfide—prescription strength—to soothe itchiness and control dandruff and flaking. It's also infused with aloe vera for added relief.
Rave review: "This is a really nice formula. It doesn't have that strong tar smell like some dandruff shampoos. Smells nice after your hair is dried. You only need a little bit as it lathers nicely."
T/Gel Therapeutic Shampoo
This shampoo may be a funny color and have a harsh scent, but that's because it contains coal tar, which can help slow skin cell growth and reduce itching and inflammation, says Dr. Chacon. "It's often recommended for conditions like scalp psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis."
Rave review: "Yes, it smells like tar and yes, you will need a good conditioner but for those of us with eczema and seborrheic dermatitis on our scalps it's the ONLY shampoo I've found that works at removing and preventing build up on scalp."
Harnessing the potency of two percent pyrithione zinc, this shampoo mitigates dandruff-like symptoms and reduces inflammation, says Sarah Roberts, a licensed hair, beauty, and skincare consultant, as well as the founder of A Beauty Edit. The formula is hypoallergenic and entirely fragrance-free, too.
Rave review: "I've battled with eczema for most of my life. Normal dandruff shampoos only make things worse. This is a fantastic OTC shampoo that will knock out the flakes, itchiness and irritation on your scalp. I use nearly everyday and I don't have a need for topical steroid on my scalp to control my eczema. Go buy it!!"
Free & Clear Sensitive Skin Shampoo
This formula is as clean as the bottle looks. The shampoo is free from the most common irritants, like dyes, fragrances, parabens, and sulfates, which makes it highly suitable for individuals with sensitive skin or those prone to allergic reactions, says Dr. Chacon.
Rave review: "I'm on Accutane and my scalp became so very itchy and painful. This was recommended by my dermatologist and after one use it felt 95 percent better. After the second wash the itch was completely gone and my dandruff subsided. "
Medicated Maximum Strength Dandruff Shampoo
Because it's medicated with menthol, this maximum-strength shampoo is an excellent choice for those who suffer from an itchy, painful scalp. It provides a cooling and soothing sensation to instantly relieve symptoms, plus tackles visible flakes and dandruff at the same time.
Rave review: "Honestly hands down my favorite shampoo that actually helps my dandruff go away! I love the after minty feeling my scalp gets."
Dermo Capillary Shampoo Extra Tolerability Shampoo
This shampoo uses natural moisturizing agents like urea and lactate to alleviate itchiness, says Roberts. It also contains polidocanol, which has additional anti-itching properties. Importantly, it's also free from potentially irritating colorants, parabens, and fragrances.
Rave review: "I have had an itchy scalp for years. Coal tar shampoo did not work. Sulfate free shampoo did not work. This shampoo stops the itching. Ahhh!"
Extra Strength Anti Dandruff Shampoo & Conditioner Treatment
Recommended by the National Eczema Association, this medicated two-in-one product takes the guesswork out of selecting a conditioner, too. It contains an impressive three percent salicylic acid to effectively control and treat symptoms of dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis without stripping strands of the natural oils that promote shiny, healthy hair.
Rave review: "I've been using medicated Denorex for years. I suffer [from] clogged pores and eczema. Denorex calmed the condition. I also use Denorex to bathe when my eczema flares up."
Scalp Revival Charcoal + Coconut Oil Micro-Exfoliating Shampoo
Most shampoos formulated especially for scalp eczema have an unpleasant scent, but you won't have those kinds of complaints about this product, which smells a lot like mint chocolate chip ice cream. Though the once-per-week formula is more of a scalp treatment than a true shampoo, it's a fantastic option for anyone suffering from scalp eczema as a result of buildup.
The scrub contains a potent blend of binchotan charcoal to eradicate any impurities, vegetable-derived exfoliators to reset the scalp, moisturizing oils to nourish, peppermint and spearmint to soothe, and panthenol to fortify.
Rave review: "Loving this! It helps clear dandruff very effectively! In just a couple of uses I can feel the difference in my scalp, especially when combing through my hair there is much less scaling. "
Apple Cider Vinegar Sulfate-Free Shampoo
To help balance your scalp's pH and eliminate any buildup that can exacerbate symptoms of scalp eczema, try this apple cider vinegar rinse recommended by Sheel Desai Solomon, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in North Carolina. It contains beneficial vitamins, enzymes, and amino acids that work together to clarify and combat irritation, itchiness, and dandruff.
Rave review: "This shampoo is great. No harsh chemicals that would normally wreck havoc on my hair. The ACV works wonders to keep frizz at bay."
Stelatopia Eczema-Prone Skin Foam Shampoo
According to the National Eczema Association, seborrheic dermatitis is very common in infants and babies. who'd need extra-gentle shampoo, like this one. In fact, the weightless, mousse-like formula was originally made specifically for the youngest set. It's fragrance- and tear-free, plus contains natural oils like avocado and sunflower that won't strip their delicate skin.
Rave review: "Tried this for baby’s cradle cap. It seemed to work well. I did not have to soak the scales in oil and scrub them. The shampoo has a light scent and doesn’t leave a lingering smell.
Don't like how most shampoos for scalp eczema are drying and smelly? You're in luck, because this salon-quality pick is ultra-hydrating and smells delicious, but still tackles common complaints associated with the condition. That's because it contains algae to effectively rid hair of impurities and acts as a natural moisturizer at the same time, says Gretchen Frieling, MD, a board-certified dermatopathologist in Boston.
Rave review: "I loved this product!!! Made my hair extremely soft and smells soooo delicious! I’ve used many shampoos in my life but this one definitely is at the top of my list."
Tea Tree Special Shampoo
An Amazon bestseller (it has nearly 55,000 reviews!), this shampoo by John Paul Mitchell hinges on tea tree and peppermint oils to purify and remove buildup. It also contains lavender oil to help soothe an angry scalp. Reviewers love the cooling sensation, noting it instantly works to relieve symptoms like itchiness.
Rave review: "This stuff is a game changer! I stumbled upon this shampoo while aimlessly wandering through the hair care aisle, and I'm so glad I did. I'm not exaggerating when I say it's the best shampoo I've ever used."
Meet the experts
Anna Chacon, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist in Miami and a writer for My Psoriasis Team. Sarah Roberts is a licensed hair, beauty, and skincare consultant, as well as the founder of A Beauty Edit. Sheel Desai Solomon, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist in North Carolina. Gretchen Frieling, MD is a board-certified dermatopathologist in Boston.
What causes scalp eczema?
Seborrheic dermatitis, more commonly referred to as scalp eczema, can affect people of any age, though it’s most common in infants and adults between the ages of 30 and 60, according to the National Eczema Association. But what exactly causes this condition? It's generally a combination of genetic and environmental factors, says Dr. Chacon.
Essentially, scalp eczema is triggered by an inflammatory reaction to excess Malassezia yeast, an organism that normally lives on the skin’s surface, but can cause a flare-up when the immune system overreacts to it. This causes the fungal infection that results in skin changes, including flaking or dandruff, patchy or flaky white or yellow scales on top of greasy skin, a painful rash, or itchiness.
Certain medical conditions—psoriasis, HIV, acne, rosacea, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, alcoholism, depression, eating disorders and recovery from a stroke or heart attack—can increase a person's odds of developing scalp eczema, as can things like stress, harsh shampoo or soap, cold, dry weather, or a change in medication.
What type of shampoo is best for treating scalp eczema?
If you have scalp eczema, your dermatologist may recommend a medicated shampoo, since are these formulas contain active ingredients such as ketoconazole, selenium sulfide, coal tar, zinc pyrithione, or salicylic acid, all of which can help control symptoms, says Dr. Chacon. "Ketoconazole, for instance, is an effective antifungal that can control yeast growth associated with this condition, while salicylic acid assists in removing scales and flakes." These shampoos should be used as directed by a healthcare provider to avoid potential side effects.
If you're hoping to go the OTC route, hypoallergenic shampoos can also be beneficial, since they're free from common allergens like fragrances and dyes that can irritate sensitive skin and exacerbate symptoms of scalp eczema, says Chacon. Some may also find relief with natural ingredients like tea tree oil, aloe vera, or oatmeal.
Whichever route you go, it's important to choose a shampoo that's free from sulfates and alcohol, as these ingredients can dry out the scalp and worsen the symptoms of eczema, says Chacon.
How often should you wash your hair if you have scalp eczema?
If you suffer from scalp eczema, the frequency at which you lather up is important for curbing symptoms, though exact guidelines vary based on the individual and the severity of the case. "The rule of thumb for mild cases is every two days, but those with severe cases may need to wash daily," says Dr. Chacon. "During flare-ups, you may need to wash more frequently to help manage symptoms and remove scales."
Discussing your washing routine, triggers, and hair products with a qualified dermatologist can help you determine the best routine for your scalp eczema—there's really no one-size-fits-all solution.
How we chose the best eczema shampoos
For the past few months, Women’s Health editors, including writer Brigitt Earley, have been researching the bestselling, most popular, and top-rated eczema shampoos. Our team consulted three dermatologists and a licensed hair expert for opinions, and then evaluated thousands of customer reviews and ratings to narrow down the best eczema shampoos for a wide range of needs and preferences.
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