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No one likes flakes — especially when they’re on your head. Who wants to look and feel like a snow globe? Exactly. That’s why a dandruff shampoo is the most effective solution to combat flaking, but there are a lot out there.
Then there’s the small matter of figuring out why your scalp is flaking in the first place. If your dandruff tends to occur seasonally, you might have a dry scalp. Yearlong flakes may indicate a skin condition like psoriasis or seborrheic dermatitis, a kind of eczema.
So, is it dandruff or is your scalp just dry?
It can be hard to tell the two apart since both have similar symptoms, but board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of CompleteSkinMD, dermatologist Dr. Julie Karen, walks us through the key differences. While both conditions can cause discomfort like itching, redness, and general irritation, “dandruff is linked to an overproduction of oil which usually results in an oily scalp, and oily or sticky flakes,” she explains. “Whereas dry scalp is related to your scalp lacking moisture, which produces smaller flakes that look almost like powdered sugar.”
What causes dandruff?
Dandruff is caused by an overgrowth of yeast (called malassezia) that is naturally found on your skin. According to Karen, your scalp feeds off your skin’s oil, causing dead skin cells to slough off. While the cause varies from person to person, Wes Sharpton, a hairstylist and the lead educator for Hairstory, also notes that even some of the products you currently use can trigger it, too.
What are the best ways to combat a dry and flaky scalp?
You can find relief no matter why your scalp is flaking, because just like every other beauty product out there, the best dandruff shampoos are catered for every kind of hair, and we’ve listed them all below.
For Extreme Dandruff
Head to the doctor for a scalp check if your dandruff is especially stubborn. You might have psoriasis or seborrheic dermatitis: two skin conditions that trigger flakes and yet are unrelated to dry skin. If you are diagnosed with seborrheic dermatitis, your doctor might prescribe you a 2 percent ketoconazole shampoo. It’s an antifungal treatment that restores balance to your scalp’s natural fungal ecosystem. After using it, your flakes could vanish almost immediately, but the shampoo will be incredibly drying. Try alternating every other wash with a moisturizing shampoo to find some relief.
The One Redditors Rave About
This is the over-the-counter version of a prescription dandruff shampoo. It’s equipped with the same active ingredient — ketoconazole — but in a smaller dose. It’s a big hit in the dandruff community on Reddit, although it is obviously not as effective as its prescription counterpart, and it has an innocuous, barely there scent.
The Invigorating One
If itching is the only sensation your scalp has been experiencing lately, get ready to change your life with this best-selling reviving shampoo. The star ingredient, tea-tree oil, is known for antifungal and antibacterial properties that keep scalps clean and balanced. This bottle contains the “Tingle Complex” (a refreshing blend of tea-tree oil, peppermint, and lavender), which gets irritated scalps to truly chill.
The Best In-Shower Experience
While most dandruff shampoos are at the very least a little bit drying, Sachajuan’s is actually moisturizing. It makes hair feel soft, and the bottle is actually pretty, not an embarrassing medicinal-looking thing. The shampoo uses salicylic and lactic acids to remove flakes, and a few different oils in the mix help soothe your scalp. Although this isn’t the most powerful dandruff fighter, using it is a very pleasant experience.
The Chemical Exfoliant for Your Scalp
Ouai’s latest release combats a flaky scalp with gently exfoliating salicylic acid and helps reduce flaking, itching, and irritation without drying out your hair. Reviewers with all hair types love both how it makes their hair feel and how it smells — it has earthy notes of ginger, spearmint, and green fig.
If Your Hair Is Very Dry or Fragile
Fighting flakes sounds like it’d be harsh on the scalp, but this effective formulation from the trichology experts at Philip Kingsley is gentle enough for daily use. The antimicrobial piroctone olamine alleviates the scalp of flaking, itching, and buildup, while a hefty dose of aloe vera soothes and repairs skin without drying or stripping hair in the process.
The One for Sensitive Skin
Of course the brand beloved by derms for its no-frills, sensitive skin care offers sensitive scalp care. It contains 2 percent pyrithione zinc, an antifungal and antimicrobial used to treat dandruff, and reviewers rave about how well the unscented shampoo cleared up their dermatitis and dandruff without irritating already sensitive skin.
The Best-Smelling Option
Instead of chemical exfoliants or ketoconazole, Philip B.’s Anti-Flake shampoo uses zinc and coal tar to fight dandruff. They work to normalize your scalp’s natural oil production and slow down the rate scalp skin cells die and flake off. Philip B.’s shampoo is perfect if your dandruff situation is mild to moderate, and I can’t get over how great it smells: like a hippie oil store.
The Ecofriendly Option
If you’re slowly replacing all the bottles in your shower, here’s a plastic-free alternative. This kiwi-scented bar combats scalp issues with neem oil — an antifungal that contains nimbidin, an anti-inflammatory that prevents irritation. You’ll also find Karanja oil — often used to treat conditions like eczema with soothing anti-inflammatory and antifungal properties. Reviewers love the scent and rich lather and how it volumizes and cleans even the finest hair without drying or weighing it down.
If You Love a Good Routine
This shampoo requires you to take on an intense, two-week hair regimen of marinating and massaging your dry scalp with the formula for five to seven minutes, two or three times per week. Even if you typically wash your hair only once a week, the extra shampooing isn’t damaging or drying. Your flakes will be gone before you know it, and after that, you can switch to monthly washes with a maintenance shampoo in between. It’s exhausting at first, but you’ll be glad you held strong.
If Your Hair Is Dyed
Coloring your hair costs a lot of money, so it makes sense that you’d rather not play a game of chance when it comes to finding the right shampoo. This one from Redken is formulated with pyrithione zinc, which treats dandruff without stripping your hair color. And it’s convenient: You can apply the shampoo to your dry scalp and let it marinate before heading into the shower (it works on a wet scalp too).
The Drugstore Favorite
Dove’s anti-dandruff shampoo is a well-rounded formula that’s easy to find. It’s formulated with dandruff-removing and -preventing pyrithione zinc (the same stuff in Head & Shoulders), but it’s backed up with moisturizing coconut and shea butters to make sure your scalp and hair stay nourished during the medication process.
If You Prefer a Vegan Option
This shampoo will teleport you to a spa with its calming aroma. The medicated cleanser is imbued with vegan ingredients that work to nourish the scalp while getting to the root of dandruff and irritation with an ingredient list that is free of sulfates, parabens, phthalates, and dyes. And it contains zinc pyrithione, which Karen recommends as an ingredient to get at the root of flaking and control oil production on the scalp.
If Your Hair Is Jealous of Your Skin-Care Routine
We’ve come a long way. It’s now possible to buy dandruff shampoos in millennial pink, skin-care-level packaging. With Oribe’s luxe formula, your scalp gets the treatment your face is used to with exfoliating salicylic acid that lifts flakes instead of sloughing them off. And it has vitamin C and caffeine to keep your scalp stimulated.
The Itch-Relieving One
This shampoo is First Aid Beauty’s first swing at hair-care products. The skin-care and makeup brand has always been keen on treating specific dermatological issues, so tackling dandruff is a natural next step. Formulated with one percent pyrithione zinc and vitamin E, the creamy shampoo removes flakes while soothing not only the scalp but the hair follicles. While I don’t suffer from too much dandruff, I do have an extremely itchy scalp from wearing so many weaves, and this shampoo, along with its sister serum, has been a game changer for my scalp.
The Co-Wash Option
Dandruff shampoos may not be the kindest on curly hair. For one, they can be very drying, which is why Amazon reviewers love this moisturizing co-wash. It contains the usual dandruff fighter, zinc pyrithione (one percent), as well as olive oil and tea-tree oil. Along with a tingly scalp (thanks to the tea-tree oil), reviewers report less flakes and no more dryness and itching. It also has lots of slip for easy detangling and washing.
If You Want Something Physical
If you’re over medicated scents and shampoos, this is a good alternative for a little scalp (and body) care. Not only does it smell amazing, but it uses sugar crystals to gently exfoliate and buff away dead skin while drawing moisture with glycerin and sealing it in with coconut oil.
If You Prefer Something More Natural
This exfoliating shampoo will give you peace of mind with its soothing, naturally derived ingredients like tingly peppermint oil, moisturizing castor and coconut oils, and charcoal to draw impurities from the scalp and hair follicles. And it leaves a delicious minty-fresh scent (in case you need an extra reminder that your scalp is truly clean).
The New Wash Option
Hairstory is not a co-wash but a reimagined shampoo alternative to cleanse hair, which Cut Shop contributor Brooke LaMantia has tried and loved. Instead of using a shampoo and conditioner, New Wash is a creamy detergent and sulfate-free formula that cleans and conditions hair all while restoring your scalp’s natural balance. Plus, it contains aloe barbadensis leaf juice, which focuses on dry scalp.
- Dr. Julie Karen, Jupiter’s Head of Science & Resident Dermatologist, board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of CompleteSkinMD, dermatologist
- Wes Sharpton, hairstylist and the lead educator for Hairstory
- Chinea Rodriguez, fashion and beauty shopping writer at the Cut
- Brooke LaMantia, Cut shop contributor