5 of the best ingredients for eliminating the flakes and itchiness from dandruff, according to dermatologists
- One of the best shampoo ingredients for
dandruffis pyrithione zinc because it's widely available and well-tolerated.
- Salicylic acid helps remove the buildup that happens when you have excess yeast on your scalp.
- A holistic approach to combating dandruff is key to a flake-free scalp.
- This article was medically reviewed by Jason R. McKnight, MD, MS, a family medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine.
If you have an itchy scalp and white flakes all over your clothes, you may want to shop for a dandruff shampoo.
Depending on the cause, dandruff can be mild to severe. For mild cases of dandruff, which can come from conditions like dry skin or sensitivity to a new hair product, a basic over-the-counter dandruff shampoo should suffice.
For more severe cases of dandruff, like seborrheic dermatitis — which is due to excess yeast that can inflame the scalp — you may want to speak with a dermatologist for a more heavy-duty, medicated dandruff shampoo.
Here's how to shop for dandruff shampoo and choose the best ingredients for your specific condition.
The best ingredients for dandruff shampoos
"In general, over-the-counter treatment options aim to either decrease the underlying inflammation, to remove and reduce the flakes from the skin, or to target the yeasts that form dandruff," he says.
"Think of it as you would a face wash and acne — you don't need to have acne to practice good skincare, and in fact, it's good to get ahead of issues by having a solid skin — and in this case, scalp — care routine."
Most popular ingredients found in dandruff shampoos
Depending on what you need, here's a list of ingredients to look for when shopping for dandruff shampoos:
Coal tar: Coal tar has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, which has made it a go-to treatment for itchy, inflamed scalps for at least 100 years. Coal tar works by slowing down the rate at which your scalp skin cells die and flake off.
However, there are some drawbacks to coal tar: It can discolor light-colored hair, increase sensitivity to sunlight, and in some cases cause new rashes. Because of that, it's a good idea to talk to a doctor before use.
"A board-certified dermatologist would be the best choice to address if coal-tar is right for their skin condition," Del Campo says.
Pyrithione zinc: Pyrithione zinc is the most common active ingredient in medicated dandruff shampoos because it's well-tolerated, inexpensive, and easy to find, says Del Campo. Karen also recommends this ingredient.
"Pyrithione zinc is a powerful treatment for the underlying cause of dandruff," Karen says. It works by combating Malassezia, the type of yeast that feeds on oils produced by the scalp and causes the symptoms of dandruff.
"I always recommend products with Pyrithione zinc because it's generally the most gentle, [and] has the most evidence supporting its effectiveness," Karen says.
Salicylic acid: Salicylic acid is another common active ingredient in dandruff shampoos. Whereas Pyrithione zinc helps remove the yeast, salicylic acid helps remove the buildup that happens when you have excess yeast on your scalp.
"Salicylic acid can be a powerful aid in clearing away both the buildup that Malassezia feeds on and the waste the fungus produces that can contribute to irritation, which leads to flaking," Karen says. "It can also help to promote healthier skin sloughing, which is often out of balance on the scalp with dandruff."
Having your body more readily shred the irritated skin can help control symptoms. However, salicylic acid can cause irritation and dry skin if it's used too often, so if it makes your symptoms worse, discontinue use, says Del Campo.
Selenium sulfide: Selenium sulfide is a sulfur-derived product. It can help control the itching and remove flakes and scales that can irritate the scalp, without the rotten-egg smell associated with sulfur.
"It helps to break down the excessive flakes while also using anti-inflammatory effects to decrease the itching on the scalp," Del Campo explains.
Shampoos with selenium sulfide are available over-the-counter or in a more potent prescription form. It's important to talk with your doctor if using a product containing this ingredient since it can cause dryness or burning on the scalp, Del Campo says.
Ketoconazole: Ketoconazole is an antifungal treatment that gets to the root cause of severe dandruff: excessive yeast, says Del Campo. It slows the growth of yeast, stopping further symptoms of dandruff.
Like selenium sulfide, ketoconazole is available both over-the-counter and in prescription strength. Ketoconazole has another benefit for people suffering from hair loss: It can contribute to hair regrowth, Del Campo says.
When choosing a dandruff shampoo, be practical, Del Campo says. There's no way to know ahead of time what dandruff shampoo will work for you, so it's best to start with products that are easy to come by and work for most people.
"It comes down to price, access — how easy it is to obtain and find — and scalp type," he says.
Although there can be some trial and error in finding a shampoo that works well for your scalp, a shampoo with pyrithione zinc is a good place to start since it's widely available and well-tolerated in most people. Karen recommends pairing it with other scalp care products like a moisturizing scalp mask that can help soothe and nourish the scalp with natural ingredients.
"The best way to treat dandruff is with dandruff care products formulated with an active ingredient like pyrithione zinc that addresses dandruff, redness, itching, and irritation," Karen says.
Overall, Karen says a holistic approach to combating dandruff is key to a flake-free scalp and healthy-looking hair.
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