Dandruff is one of those conditions that serves as more of an annoyance than a physical ailment. You’ll definitely know if you have it (as evidenced by flakes on your clothing and pillowcase), but everything else surrounding the common scalp condition is a little less clear. “While we don’t know exactly why dandruff occurs, in many people it is thought to be due to a mixture of genetics, allergies and sensitivities, and an imbalance of skin microbes,” says trichologist Dominic Burg, MD. According to Burg, experts believe that the common condition is driven by an overgrowth of microorganisms—like bacteria, yeasts, and fungi—that live on the surface of the scalp. When these microbes consume the natural oils on your skin, they can produce byproducts that the body reacts to, leading to shedding and inflammation. At least, that’s the hypothesis.
“We do know it has nothing to do with hygiene,” says dermatologist Ava Shamban, MD. In other words, dandruff has nothing to do with how often you shower or shampoo. Our skin follows its own shedding cycle, gradually sloughing away excess cells. Dandruff is what happens when you experience increased turnover of cells and this exfoliation happens unevenly, causing both excessive shedding and buildup. While the itching and irritation that follow are often associated with dryness, they can also occur on any hair or skin type.
“It’s a misnomer that dandruff only happens with dry skin or a dry scalp; a flaking, oily scalp is also very common with this condition,” says Shamban. While you’re most likely to experience dandruff on your scalp, it can also happen (more rarely) on the eyebrows or beard.
IAT-certified Trichologist Sophia Emmanuel also points out dandruff can occur with protective styles that make it tricky to shampoo. "Dandruff can show up or worsen if you wait long periods to shampoo your hair," she says. "Specifically, if you wear hair extensions, braids, or other protective hairstyles that do not allow you to shampoo on a regular basis."
Whatever the case, most who have it just want instant and permanent relief from the experience—but it’s not as simple as prescribing a single treatment. Instead, the best course of action is regular care to prevent its return. The good news: It requires only a few steps that are easy to incorporate into your existing routine. Keep scrolling for the best expert tips for treating dandruff quickly.
Make Sure You Actually Have Dandruff
Before you begin treating dandruff, make sure it’s not one of two other possibilities. Burg notes that a dry scalp that has mild dryness, flakiness, and minor shedding shouldn’t be confused with “true” dandruff. “Your scalp condition will change over time, and many of us will notice a change with the seasons or with other factors in our environment,” he says. Often, you’ll notice this type of mild reaction occurs during seasonal changes or when you’re exposed to excess heat styling—and you can soothe it simply by dialing back the heat or switching to more hydrating formulas. Dandruff, on the other hand, has a much stronger effect. “The scenario of true dandruff can usually be recognized by skin cells falling off in medium to large clumps that are usually a little oily,” explains Burg.
On the other side of the spectrum, you might have more extreme symptoms that point to an inflammatory skin condition known as seborrheic dermatitis. Burg describes this as “characterized by flaking, skin irritation, redness, and sometimes sores—whereas dandruff is usually painless.” Both Burg and Shamban agree that if you’re experiencing redness, sores, pain, or excessive itching, you need to book a dermatologist appointment. Unlike most cases of dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis cannot be treated using over-the-counter remedies and requires dermatologist care and prescriptions.
What is Seborrheic Dermatitis?
Seborrheic dermatitis is a skin condition that causes patches of dry flakes or greasy scales along with redness. It is most commonly found on the scalp, but can also appear on other oily areas of the body like the nose and ears.
Use Antifungal Ingredients
Once you’ve verified that you actually have dandruff, head to your nearest drugstore and start reading those ingredient labels. “Common ingredients like pyrithione zinc, ketoconazole, and selenium disulfide are antifungal and have shown some good results in reducing dandruff,” says Burg. They’re an affordable addition to your in-shower arsenal; Shamban’s drugstore favorite is the popular Selsun Blue, which contains cooling menthol and a dose of selenium sulfide. (Leave it on for two minutes to get the full effect.) Some of these ingredients are available in prescription versions, says dermatologist and OptiSkin founder Orit Markowitz, MD. "The difference between prescription and OTC shampoos is the percentage of the active ingredient."
Coal tar and its derivatives have also been typically used to treat dandruff, but Burg cautions against using these ingredients, which he says can be too harsh. “They’re not great for the scalp and hair follicles,” Burg says that the length of treatment will vary based on the individual, but if you don’t see any change after several weeks of use, it’s time to book that derm appointment. It’s important to remember that even if you do see improvement, you could experience more flare-ups down the line. “Some people may require continual treatment,” he says.
Wash Your Hair Often
While your hygiene habits have no bearing on whether you develop dandruff or not, it's important not to avoid washing your hair for fear of making the problem worse. "People often think that over washing or too much heat from drying your hair causes dandruff but that is not true," says Markowitz. "Product buildup can often lead to dandruff so it’s important to wash your hair regularly, especially if you use hair styling products, leave-in conditioners, or dry shampoos."
So, how often is often enough? Well, that depends on your hair and scalp. "If you have mild dandruff, I recommend you wash your hair daily until you have the dandruff under control," says Markowitz. "If you don't use a lot of styling products, you can wash your hair less frequently." Either way, she suggests reaching for a specially-formulated dandruff shampoo whenever you do cleanse.
Make Time for Deep Treatments
We’d suggest regular deep treatments whether or not you have dandruff—for the simple reason that they’re relaxing and always leave your hair looking and feeling better. But for those that have extra flaking and shedding, scalp oil treatments are a must. Burg recommends treatments with added moisturizers like baobab oil to maintain hydration. Shamban likes the Phillip B Rejuvenating Oil ($35) applied as a hot oil treatment at home. "It’s extremely helpful for those that have irritation," she says of the conditioning formula.
Brush it Out
While you’re at it, make some time to brush your hair, too. "It’s old-school, but it works to get rid of the scale," says Shamban. Brushing helps stimulate the scalp and brings more circulation to the area while also gently exfoliating cell buildup. In a pinch, brushing your hair can make a world of difference.
Turn to Essential Oils
Aside from smelling good, your favorite essential oils and botanical extracts can go a long way in soothing dandruff symptoms. “Rosemary oil, lavender oil, green tea extract, and mangosteen all have great antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic properties,” says Burg. He particularly likes the évolis Professional Promote, Prevent, and Reverse ranges, which utilize essential oils to target scalp buildup and encourage overall hair health. "The great thing about these ingredients is that they can be used long term, are gentle, and can keep dandruff at bay," says Burg—noting that since they have a more mild effect, they also may take slightly longer to work than ingredients like selenium disulfide.
Shamban also suggests swapping your usual shampoos for formulas that rely on an essential oil base. Her pick is Philip B Anti-Flake Relief Shampoo ($42), which features a base that’s free of irritating coal tar and packs a powerful mixture of tea tree oil, sage, and aloe vera. The calming, soothing effect helps take down inflammation and minimize itching and discomfort. "It works equally well on flaking scalps that are dry or oily," she says.
Try At-Home Treatments
Don't be afraid to DIY it! Markowitz recommends homeopathic remedies like applying coconut oil, mixing yogurt and thyme, or lemon juice and oil, which are "effective in treating dandruff but may not work as quickly as conventional methods." If you want to try the natural route and see if your pantry holds the answer, try the below to reduce your dandruff.
- Coconut oil: This ingredient seems to be the answer to all of life's problems. It's also great for keeping your hair and scalp moisturized, too. Massage into your hair and cover with a shower cap for about 30 minutes. Shampoo and rinse well. If your hair is fine, using coconut oil may make weigh your strands down.
- Aloe vera: Aloe's anti-inflammatory properties are ideal for soothing those with itchy scalps and dandruff. Add a tablespoon of aloe to your favorite conditioner to coat your strands. Only use aloe vera as needed. Due to its high water content, it is possible to make your strands too moisturized.
- Apple cider vinegar: Using ACV as a rinse can help balance the pH level of the scalp and remove build-up. Add one part of vinegar to one part of warm water and massage into your hair and scalp for three to five minutes, rinsing well. This can be done twice a week.
- Aspirin: It's not just for headaches. Some people credit aspirin's salicylic acid properties to helping combat dandruff when crushed and mixed with shampoo.
- Baking soda: The gritty texture of baking soda is ace for grabbing oil and excess dirt from your hair and scalp. Combine one tablespoon of baking soda for every cup of water and mix well. Massage into your scalp and rinse thoroughly. Take care not to use this method more than once a week, as baking soda is very abrasive.
- Lemon juice: The citric acid in lemons is also thought to help cleanse the scalp of excess oil. However, because of its high alkaline levels, derms recommend diluting it or using a lemon essential oil instead.
- Olive oil: A natural emollient that helps to maintain hydration in the hair, olive oil also contributes so that glossy, soft, and shiny mane we all dream of. Use as a mask and leave on for 15 minutes to a half hour under a shower cap before rinsing off in the shower.
Consider a Prescription
In some cases, dandruff may be extreme and persistent enough to warrant a derm prescription (without classifying it as seborrheic dermatitis). If nothing OTC seems to work for you, you’ll want to visit a doctor’s office anyway. Burg says that most prescriptions for dandruff are stronger versions of over-the-counter medicated shampoos. “With medicated solutions, results can be seen relatively quickly—within a week or two,” he says. Once the symptoms improve, ask your doctor how to proceed. Some patients with more long-lasting dandruff use a medicated treatment once weekly to keep sebum levels down, alternating it with regular use of a dandruff-friendly shampoo. Any of the essential oil-packed formulas above are a good option for the latter; Burg says the main thing you want to avoid are sulfates, which can be too harsh and stripping for those with sensitive scalps.
Your dermatologist or trichologist may also choose to prescribe steroids, which are typically used short-term. “If necessary, there are steroid shampoos or steroid liquid solutions,” says Shamban. These should work within a week. “Even if there is still some excess after one or two washes, at least the discomfort will subside,” she says. Once the worst of the symptoms have been treated, proceed with the rest of their expert advice: once-weekly medicated washes, anti-inflammatory shampoos, and plenty of nourishing at-home treatments. Your scalp should revert to its pre-flake state in no time.
Should I scratch my dandruff out?
While brushing your dandruff out and making use of scalp scrubs are dermatologist-recommended methods for treating dandruff, it's important to avoid scratching your scalp too vigorously or too often, as it can lead to more irritation—and make your dandruff worse.
Can you get rid of dandruff permanently?
Though dandruff is a chronic condition (meaning it cannot be "cured" permanently) it can be easily treated through either at-home remedies or prescriptions.
Does wet hair cause dandruff?
While it's important to wash your hair frequently when you have dandruff, make sure your strands are at least somewhat dry before you hit the hay. Sleeping on wet hair increases your risk of infections, including fungal infections like Malassezia folliculitis, which causes dandruff.
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Can wet hair make you sick? Cleveland Clinic.