When you look good, you feel good, but even on your best day a flaky scalp can be an immediate buzzkill.
This dryness, flakiness and itchiness, otherwise known as dandruff, is most commonly caused by seborrheic dermatitis, a condition that is due to an overgrowth of yeast. “This is a harmless yeast that lives on us, but due to a person’s body chemistry, it can overgrow on the scalp, ears, eyebrows or nose,” says Los Angeles-based dermatologist Dr. Jessica Wu. “When there’s an overgrowth of yeast, your body develops an inflammatory response that creates an itching, flaking or redness.” This isn’t the only cause of dandruff, though. Those symptoms can also be due to product buildup, allergic reactions, seasonality or medical conditions like psoriasis.
A common misconception with dandruff is that it is due to dry hair, but that isn’t quite the case. Wu explains that with seborrheic dermatitis, yeast feeds on the oils we all produce, causing an overproduction that leads to dandruff. She sees patients who think their scalp is dry, so they use more oil when they should be doing the opposite. The oil works in the short-term to mask the flakiness, but the symptoms come back because the yeast eats up the oils. “We often see this in people with oilier hair or who don’t wash their hair as frequently,” she says.
According to Dr. Sumayah Jamal, a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City, eliminating oils from your routine isn’t necessarily the answer. “There are plenty of approaches that can maintain moisture in the hair while controlling yeast production,” she explains. Your hair texture and quality, along with your hair care routine, determine what kind of treatment might work best. However, it is important to remember that dandruff is not something we can get rid of completely. “Because it’s linked to yeast that’s part of our natural skin flora, we can’t get rid of that,” she says. “Some people have very mild dandruff with intermittent flaring, but some people require ongoing treatment that can’t be cured.”
Both Jamal and Wu recommend trying over-the-counter dandruff shampoos first to treat your symptoms. Ingredients like pyrithione zinc and ketoconazole are effective in killing yeast, and common in a lot of shampoo treatments. If you have dry or coarse hair, be sure to look for a shampoo that won’t take away too much moisture.
As Wu says, nowadays our hair care is more important than ever to help us feel more confident, considering we typically cover most of our faces with masks, and we have to agree. If you’re on the market for the best dandruff shampoos for your best hair day yet, check out our top-rated picks below.
Nizoral A-D Anti-Dandruff Shampoo ($14.84, originally $17.17; amazon.com)
If you go to the dermatologist about treating your dandruff, they’ll likely tell you to try this shampoo. In fact, this was recommended by both of our experts because it’s the over-the-counter version of what doctors prescribe patients with more severe cases. Nizoral contains 1% of the active ingredient ketoconazole to help prevent dandruff flare-ups (the prescription is typically 2%). Nearly 17,000 reviewers on Amazon are impressed with its ability to treat symptoms after just a few uses at a pretty affordable cost.
Neutrogena T/Gel Therapeutic Shampoo ($4.95, originally $7.59; amazon.com)
This T/Gel shampoo by Neutrogena lives up to its name by providing therapeutic relief of itchiness and flaking. According to Jamal, it’s known to reduce inflammation because it contains coal tar extract. It’s gentle yet formulated to keep working even once you rinse it out. Beyond dandruff, it also works well for people with scalp psoriasis and more severe seborrheic dermatitis. Reviewers aren’t quite fans of the smell but think it’s worth it for the exceptional results.
Harry’s Anti-Dandruff 2-in-1 Shampoo & Conditioner ($7; harrys.com)
This new 2-in-1 by Harry’s will be a game changer for those super-flaky days when you need quick relief. For less than $10, you can get the anti-dandruff formula that contains pyrithione zinc to fight even your toughest flakes. The shampoo even comes in three different strengths (with slightly different formulas) — dry scalp, anti-dandruff and extra-strength anti-dandruff — to best suit your concerns.
Dove DermaCare Scalp Dryness & Itch Relief Anti-Dandruff Shampoo ($3.44, originally $4.88; walmart.com)
We can personally attest to how effective the Dove DermaCare collection is for fighting stubborn dandruff. This Dryness & Itch Relief shampoo is, again, formulated with pyrithione zinc to properly care for your dandruff and the symptoms that accompany it. For under $5, you can rid yourself of a flaky scalp as you lather to the soothing smells of coconut and shea butter.
Shea Moisture African Black Soap Bamboo Charcoal Deep Cleansing Shampoo ($11.49; target.com)
Jamal advises that those with color-treated hair should avoid products that contain the ingredient sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). Essentially, these can be too strong and strip your hair of the color or nutrients it needs. She recommends this African black soap cleansing shampoo by Shea Moisture. It’s made with tea tree oil and willow bark extract for a deep clean that removes buildup while calming the scalp without damaging your color. Reviewers also love it because it controls oil without drying out your hair.
Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Tea Tree Scalp Treatment Serum ($32; sephora.com)
Wu recommends this scalp treatment serum because of the charcoal and tea tree oil. “Charcoal is good for oilier hair. It helps absorb dirt and oil,” she explains. The charcoal can remove buildup, while the mix of tea tree, peppermint and aloe works to reduce itchiness and soothe the scalp.
This vegan, cruelty-free treatment is super light, so it won’t cause buildup. She advises that if you’re looking for a scalp treatment in between shampoos, choose a serum, not an oil, unless it’s tea tree oil.
Head & Shoulders Deep Moisture Daily Shampoo ($5.99; target.com)
According to Wu, this shampoo by dandruff-fighting legend Head & Shoulders is great for those with dry hair. This contains 1% pyrithione zinc, which controls yeast but is also infused with avocado oil to bring nourishment to your every strand. Jamal also notes that this shampoo is safe for color-treated hair as well.
Head & Shoulders Royal Oils Instant Soothe Scalp Elixir ($9.88, originally $10.99; amazon.com)
Branching off its legacy of treating dandruff, Head & Shoulders created the Royal Oils line to address the specific scalp needs of those with curly hair. Each product is designed with hydration in mind, to maintain moisture while relieving symptoms of flaky and dry scalps. This scalp elixir is a standout product of the line, recommended by both of our dermatologists, as a way for those with natural hair to treat their concerns between washes. It contains anti-inflammatory ingredients like niacinamide, menthol and peppermint oil to help relieve itchiness after each use.
Ethique Heali Kiwi Shampoo Bar ($15.99; amazon.com)
Trying to be more conscious of how much plastic you’re buying and disposing? A shampoo bar is your solution. The Heali Kiwi shampoo bar by Ethique is a favorite for both its commitment to zero-waste beauty and for its ability to comfort touchy scalps. The bar contains oatmeal, coconut oil, neem oil and karanja oil to resolve itchiness without weighing down your hair.
Christophe Robin Purifying Scalp Scrub With Sea Salt (starting at $19; sephora.com)
Reviewers can’t seem to get enough of this scalp scrub by Christophe Robin. The scrub works with sea salt to remove residue on the scalp while using sweet almond oil to soothe sensitivity or itchiness. Wu recommends those with oily hair use a scalp scrub in between shampoos. And although this scrub is meant to be used as a shampoo, she advises only to use a scrub once or twice per week to not overexacerbate the skin.
Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Special Shampoo ($18.70, originally $22.02; amazon.com)
If you’re looking for a more natural shampoo to treat your dandruff, a tea tree oil-based shampoo might be worth a shot. Although it may not be as effective as a zinc shampoo treatment, Wu shares that the oil has anti-yeast effects to balance out the scalp. She recommends Paul Mitchell’s Tea Tree Special Shampoo, a well-loved option to thoroughly cleanse the scalp, leaving it with that tingling sensation that cools and soothes.
Ouai Detox Shampoo (starting at $30; sephora.com and nordstrom.com)
Apple cider vinegar is another natural ingredient known to help treat dandruff, and it’s a key ingredient of Ouai’s Detox Shampoo. According to Wu, ACV has antimicrobial properties to help remove yeast and is acidic enough to eliminate dead skin cells. However, in most cases, it’s not strong enough to properly control yeast like pyrithione zinc. So if you’re experiencing milder flakiness, this formula works with keratin and chelating agents to literally detox your hair while strengthening it. Better yet, it doesn’t contain SLS, meaning it’s safe for color-treated hair.
Oribe Serene Scalp Anti-Dandruff Shampoo ($39.10, originally $46; amazon.com and nordstrom.com)
Let’s go ahead and state the obvious that this Oribe bottle will look Insta-worthy in your shower. Luckily, form matches function, because according to reviewers, this anti-dandruff shampoo is as great at relieving your scalp problems as it is beautiful. Sulfate-free and formulated with salicylic acid, this shampoo can break down dead skin cells, reduce itchiness and gently cleanse for a healthy head of hair. It also contains caffeine to energize hair follicles and different extracts that can help protect against breakage and damage.
Overall, treating your dandruff is all about listening to your scalp, since a successful treatment really depends on how severe your dandruff is. According to our experts, try using your dandruff shampoo once a week, then see how your hair responds to it. You may need to increase the frequency if you aren’t seeing results. If your symptoms don’t go away, consider seeing a dermatologist.