Dandruff is embarrassing and can be intensely itchy. Finding relief starts with understanding what’s causing it, then using the right product to treat it.
By Denise Mann, MS
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What is dandruff?ilaria-burlini/ShutterstockRegardless of why it happens (and there are some surprising causes of dandruff), 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, NY. “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. The best dandruff shampoo for you depends on what’s causing your dandruff.
What is causing your dandruff?Ann-Haritonenko/ShutterstockBefore you choose the best dandruff shampoo, you must become a “dandruff detective,” says Doris Day, MD, a New York City dermatologist. Your detective work starts by tracing back to the 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? There are many sneaky causes of dandruff. This exercise may provide important clues to the cause of your scalp woes.
The best dandruff shampoo for overly dry scalpsvia selsunblue.com, ShutterstockDry 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.
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Best dandruff shampoos for removing the build-up of dead skin via laroche-posay.com, Shutterstock”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 medicated shampoos 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 skin care products.
The best dandruff shampoo for seborrheic dermatitisvia headandshoulders.com, Shutterstock”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. Tar-based shampoos like Neutrogena T/Gel Therapeutic Shampoo – Original Formula are 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.
The best dandruff shampoo for thinning hairBatkova-Elena/ShutterstockIf 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.”
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When to see a doctor about your dandruffS_L/Shutterstock”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. (These are the foods that worsen psoriasis, FYI.)