Dandruff isn’t exactly the most glamorous of all hair topics — but hey, if you have hair, it’s possible you’ve had dandruff at some point. It can happen to anyone and has nothing to do with hygiene. Maybe you’re dealing with it right now. The good news is that there is some much-needed relief in your future. But first off, let’s dive into a bit of background.
What is dandruff, even? Though dandruff is commonly mistaken for a dry scalp, the two conditions couldn’t be the more opposite. “Dandruff is the result of increased oil production and yeast overgrowth on the scalp,” Texas-based board-certified dermatologist Heidi Prather, previously told Allure. Accordingly, it makes sense that dandruff tends to develop on those with oily scalps rather than dry ones.
Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, explains the yeast in question is one typically found on the skin called Malassezia. “It can contribute to the inflammatory response in seborrhea or seborrheic dermatitis [the scientific name for dandruff] and feeds on sebum, [so it] therefore thrives in oily areas,” she adds.
Dandruff is limited to the scalp and typically presents itself as loose, white scales or plaques, Prather explains, but can evolve into the aforementioned seborrheic dermatitis. The latter can affect other seborrheic areas (like your face, chest, and back à la fungal acne) and manifests as yellow, greasy scales coupled with redness, itching, and irritation. Triggers such as buildup-causing styling products, stress, infrequent (or too much) shampooing, overproduction of sweat, and living in moist, humid, and warm environments can exacerbate dandruff, too.
While King says we can’t fully cure seborrheic dermatitis, there are ways we can manage it through over-the-counter (or OTC) shampoo ingredients — that is, outside of topical corticosteroids that your board-certified dermatologist can prescribe. King calls out several anti-fungal (and some antimicrobial) ingredients like selenium sulfide, pyrithione zinc, ketoconazole, coal tar, and tea tree oil that can decrease Malassezia, inhibit fungus growth, and calm an irritated, inflamed, and itchy scalp. Salicylic acid is another useful ingredient that can help reduce scaling when used in conjunction with other dandruff-specific treatments, she adds.
Ahead, we tapped some of our dermatologist friends to provide us with 14 shampoo recommendations that’ll help you keep your flaking in check. You’ll see pyrithione zinc pop up a lot throughout this roundup, and for good reason. King recommends using a gentle formulation laced with this star player if you have sensitive skin.