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If you’re currently fighting flakes, we feel ya. While dandruff isn’t necessarily a condition to be concerned about from a medical perspective, it can be, in a word, totally embarrassing. But what is dandruff and what causes it? It’s a little bit complicated, but basically, there are multiple factors at play.
“A combination of fungal growth on the scalp and inflammation causes skin cells to proliferate in an abnormal way, resulting in both flaking and itching,” explains dermatologist Dr. Nava Greenfield. It’s super common and often flares up with the change of seasons, adds dermatologist Dr. Rita Linkner.
Your best bet when it comes to combatting this pesky condition is to pick up an over-the-counter dandruff shampoo; most of these use anti-fungal ingredients such as pyrithione zinc and selenium sulfate to get the root of the issue, says Dr. Greenfield (though there are other ingredients that can help too, more on those to come). Use one a few times per week, making sure to let it sit on your scalp for at least a few minutes before rinsing to let said ingredients do their thing, she adds.
Here, we rounded up the best anti-dandruff shampoos. Go ahead and add these flake fighters into your shampoo rotation.
Best Overall: Selsun Blue Medicated Anti-Dandruff Shampoo
Three of the dermatologists we spoke with agree that this sudser is a serious standout. “This is a great over-the-counter option,” says Dr. Linkner. “It’s not as strong as prescription dandruff shampoos, but works very well to help with scaling and is a great place to start.” It works effectively to combat the fungal element of dandruff, adds dermatologist Dr. Rachel Nazarian, who’s also a fan. Cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Michele Green points out that it also has the added benefits of containing menthol to soothe irritation and make it feel extra refreshing.
Best Budget: Head & Shoulders Dandruff Shampoo
Dr. Nazarian recommends any of the anti-dandruff options from this “trusted brand,” and adds that they also offer accompanying conditioners, which she likes. We’re partial to this affordable, effective classic formula; it helps knock out not only flakes (thanks to the use of pyrithione zinc) but also itch, oil, and dryness.
Best for Itch: Nizoral Anti-Dandruff Shampoo
Flakes aren’t the only symptom of dandruff—itch can also be a major problem. To combat flaking, scaling, and itch (oh, and redness too), try another one of Dr. Green’s picks, which contains a 1% concentration of ketoconazole, an anti-fungal ingredient. Dr. Linkner likes the same active ingredient, often prescribing a shampoo that contains a slightly higher amount of it. Also nice: The formula is effective, yet gentle enough to use even on color-treated and/or chemically-processed hair.
Best Medicated: Head & Shoulders Clinical Strength Anti-Dandruff Shampoo
To the point of Head & Shoulders really cornering the dandruff market, here’s yet another derm-approved pick from the brand. “This shampoo contains 1% selenium sulfide which helps prevent flaking, itching, irritation, scaling, and redness associated with dandruff,” says Dr. Green.
Try alternating between this formula and the classic Head & Shoulders option featured earlier; switching between the two active ingredients can be a more effective way to target flakes, notes Dr. Nazarian.
Best Drugstore: Neutrogena T/Gel Daily Control 2-in-1 Dandruff Shampoo Plus Conditioner
In theory, some of the anti-dandruff shampoos we’ve mentioned can be a bit intense, which is largely why Dr. Green likes this formula. It has pyrithione zinc to fight the flaking, but also has vitamin E to condition and nourish the scalp, she says. It is considered to be a shampoo-conditioner in one, but if your strands are extra dry, you may want to go ahead and follow-up with a separate conditioner as well.
Best With Salicylic Acid: Biolage R.A.W. Scalp Care Anti-Dandruff Shampoo
According to Dr. Green, salicylic acid is a great ingredient to seek out in an anti-dandruff shampoo. Unlike others, it isn’t an anti-fungal but rather works by helping to break down excess oil that feeds into the dandruff cycle, as well as dissolving dead skin cells before they can start to clump together and fall off as flakes. This guy boasts a whopping 2.9% salicylic acid, the highest amount you can get over-the-counter. As if that weren’t enough, it also contains willow bark extract, which is often considered a natural alternative to salicylic acid and works similarly.
Best for Curly Hair: Curls The Green Collection Sea Kelp Curl Cleanser
You might have heard about sea kelp's internal health benefits, but the vitamin-packed superfood also purportedly does wonders for scalp health. This Curls shampoo is totally natural and sulfate-free, so don't expect a ton of suds, but what you can expect is a soothing treatment for your flaky scalp. Made with textured hair in mind, users report hair that was softer, hydrated, and dandruff-free.
Best for Dry Hair: RE-Fresh Scalp Care Anti-Dandruff Shampoo
Dealing with both dandruff and dry hair can make for a tricky conundrum. On the one hand, you want to knock out oiliness on the scalp, but you also don’t want to further dehydrate your strands. Enter this pick. It contains salicylic acid to break down excess oil and flakes but is packed with hydrating coconut water to ensure it isn’t too drying. Pair it with the accompanying conditioner and you’re good to go.
Best Splurge: Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Coconut Oil Micro-Exfoliating Shampoo
This unique detoxifying shampoo draws impurities from the scalp and the hair follicles for optimum scalp health. With charcoal, peppermint, and plant-based micro-exfoliants, this cooling formula promises to reduce itchiness and irritation to stop dandruff in its tracks. In a clinical laboratory study, 100% of participants saw reduced flakiness and irritation, according to the brand.
Runner-Up, Best Splurge: Oribe Serene Scalp Anti-Dandruff Shampoo
There’s no way around it—anti-dandruff shampoos aren’t particularly sexy or luxurious feeling. Enter this welcome alternative which proves you can still have an enjoyable shampooing experience while still combating dandruff. Everything from the pretty pink bottle to the sophisticated scent makes this nothing like any other dandruff shampoo you may have used. Still, it gets the job done with exfoliating salicylic acid, and also has caffeine to help give hair follicles a boost.
Best Multitasker: Rugby Sebex Medicated Dandruff Shampoo
Dandruff isn’t the only scalp condition out there: “Dry scalp, psoriasis, and eczema can all present with similar symptoms as dandruff, however, the treatments are all different,” explains Dr. Green. The one exception? This shampoo, which works effectively to target them all. “It packs a one-two punch, containing both salicylic acid to gently exfoliate and colloidal sulfur, which acts as an anti-microbial,” she says.
Best for Oily Scalps: Jupiter Balancing Shampoo
Excess oil is a key component in the complicated equation that is dandruff (we’re simplifying slightly, but the fungus or yeast on the scalp feed off the oil). This newbie uses zinc pyrithione to knock out that fungus but also contains decylene glycol, an ingredient meant to help control oil production. We also appreciate that it’s good for all hair types and textures, sulfate-free, vegan, and has a lovely, herbaceous fragrance to boot.
Best With Coal Tar: Denorex Extra-Strength Dandruff Shampoo
Coal tar is in fact what it sounds like—a thick, black substance that comes from, well, coal. It may sound like a strange ingredient for a shampoo, but Dr. Green says it’s another one of the best ones to look for in a flake-fighter. It works by normalizing how quickly skin cells fall off (when you have dandruff, they’re falling off too fast). This particular pick contains a high concentration of the ingredient—almost 2%—and pairs it with soothing menthol as well as conditioning ingredients to keep your hair strong and healthy.
Dandruff can be a pesky problem to deal with, but luckily it's one of the easiest to address with over-the-counter shampoos. The best dandruff shampoo—one that all three dermatologists we spoke to unanimously love—is Selsun Blue's Medicated Shampoo. It works effectively to combat the fungal element of dandruff and contains menthol to soothe irritation. Of course, we can't forget about Head & Shoulders, one of the most trusted brands for dandruff care. Their Clinical Strength Dandruff Shampoo is a fan-favorite, containing 1% selenium sulfide to prevent flaking and itching.
What to Look For in a Dandruff Shampoo
Trichologist Dominic Burg, MD, advises looking for anti-fungal ingredients to help curb the impact of the microorganisms that may be the culprits behind your dandruff. "Common ingredients like pyrithione zinc, ketoconazole, and selenium disulfide are anti-fungal and have shown some good results in reducing dandruff," he says.
"Rosemary oil, lavender oil, green tea extract, and mangosteen all have great antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic properties," Burg adds. When used alone, he notes that they may take a longer time than selenium disulfide to impact dandruff, but they can be as effective when used in the long term.
If you have color-treated hair, make sure to look for a color-safe option to keep your hue intact. Those aforementioned anti-fungal ingredients, while effective, can be pretty harsh on color and may cause premature fading. Using a color-safe formula can help to combat the toll they take on your highlights, extending the life of your hue while keeping flakes at bay.
What causes dandruff?
Manhattan-based dermatologist Dr. Blair Murphy Rose states that dandruff is a chronic condition and is often considered to be a form of mild seborrheic dermatitis. "The cause of dandruff is not entirely understood but it is often associated with excess oil production and an overgrowth of fungus, particularly Malassezia sp, on the scalp,” Murphy-Rose says. “The scalp contains an abundance of hair follicles with sebaceous glands that produce large amounts of sebum—an oily substance—creating an ideal environment for fungi to thrive in.” If you have dandruff, you will notice white flakes of varying sizes, itchiness, and some potential redness.
How can I tell if I have dandruff or dry scalp?
The key difference between dandruff and dry scalp is that dandruff is a medical condition and a dry scalp is not. As such, BosleyMD certified trichologist Gretchen Friese says that simply shampooing your hair less might improve a dry scalp, while dandruff is unlikely to go away unless you treat it. Note: It's also possible to have both dandruff and a dry scalp.
How often should I use my dandruff shampoo?
This depends on how often you wash your hair, but you can opt to use your dandruff-fighting formula as often as you typically lather up, or alternate between your go-to shampoo and the dandruff-specific option to see how your hair and scalp are affected by the latter.
Why Trust Byrdie?
Byrdie contributor Melanie Rud has over a decade of experience in the beauty industry, writing for some of the biggest magazines and websites out there. While she doesn’t have dandruff, she frequently writes about the topic (and has her dad try out and weigh in on all the anti-dandruff shampoos she features).
Meet the Expert
Rita Linkner, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist at Spring Street Dermatology in New York City. In addition to being in private practice, she is a Clinical Instructor of Dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Meet the Expert
Nava Greenfield, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in Brooklyn, NY. She’s been published in many medical journals and is a member of the American Academy of Dermatology, Women’s Dermatologic Society, and the American Medical Association.
Meet the Expert
Michele Green, MD, is a cosmetic dermatologist in New York City. She’s worked with many global skincare brands developing and testing product launches and addresses both medical and cosmetic issues with her patients.