There are a variety of reasons why you might have an itchy scalp, but the most common cause is seborrheic dermatitis (also known as dandruff), Dr. Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip tells Bustle. She says the best shampoos for an itchy scalp tackle that underlying condition with ingredients such as selenium sulfide, zinc pyrithione, or ingredients that have been shown to help reduce dandruff, such as tea tree oil. Just ahead, you'll find five great dandruff-fighting shampoos that contain these key ingredients — but first, some more insights from our expert.
Elaborating as to why dandruff causes itching, Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip explains that “Dandruff is linked to a yeast called Malassezia. We all have this yeast on our skin. However, if you have too much of it you may experience dandruff. When seborrheic dermatitis is severe it can be associated with scalp redness and excessively flaking in addition to itch.”
There are other causes of itching as well, says Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip, such as psoriasis, an autoimmune condition that can affect the scalp, or atopic dermatitis (also known as eczema). Certain types of scarring hair loss are associated with an itchy scalp as well. Most of the time, mild cases of seborrheic dermatitis will respond to over-the-counter shampoos, and your itching will go away. But Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip notes that "If seborrheic dermatitis is severe, then your dermatologist will need to prescribe stronger shampoos, and inflammatory conditions of the scalp such as psoriasis and atopic dermatitis will also require prescription medications."
For run of the mill itching and dandruff, however, any of the best shampoos featured ahead should help.
1. Our Expert’s Top Pick
To treat dandruff, dryness, flaking, and itching, Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip suggests picking a shampoo like this one, from Head & Shoulders, which contains the antibacterial and anti-fungal ingredient pyrithione zinc. Formulated with a refreshing eucalyptus scent, it's sold in a two-pack, so you'll be set for ages.
With this or any other anti-dandruff shampoo, be sure to read the label before using it. Typically, they'll need to sit on the scalp for about 10 minutes before being rinsed out for maximum effectiveness.
2. Our Expert's Runner Up
Another effective, over-the-counter medicated shampoo recommended by our expert, Selsun Blue's formula contains the anti-infective ingredient selenium sulfide. Also formulated with aloe, it can help with scalp dryness, in addition to flaking and itching.
When using a product that contains selenium sulfide, be sure to rinse it out well. Otherwise, the ingredient can cause scalp and hair discoloration, according to The Mayo Clinic.
3. The Best Tea Tree Shampoo For An Itchy Scalp
As an alternative to medicated shampoos like the two listed above, you can try this Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Lavender Mint Moisturizing Shampoo, which uses tea tree oil to help fight dandruff and itching. It has a refreshing feel and soothing smell, thanks to the mint and lavender in the formula, and can also help promote softer, more hydrated hair.
As Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip explains, "Natural ingredients such as tea tree oil, peppermint oil, and apple cider vinegar may be helpful for treating seborrheic dermatitis. The main reason for this is that they all have mild anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties." That said, she advises caution on opting for home remedies using these ingredients, "Due to the risk of contact dermatitis (allergic scalp dermatitis) and/or more inflammation related to improper dilution of these products." So stick with products designed for use on the hair/scalp, rather than mixing up your own DIY treatment or shampoo.
4. The Best Apple Cider Vinegar Shampoo For An Itchy Scalp
Containing gentle, skin-soothing oatmeal extract, this Aveeno Scalp Soothing Apple Cider Vinegar Blend Shampoo cleans your scalp without drying it out. Meanwhile, apple cider vinegar clarifies hair, enhances shine, and may even be able to help reduce dandruff. As a plus, this Aveeno shampoo is sulfate-free, so it's safe for use on color-treated hair.
Aveeno also makes a rinse and conditioner from the same apple cider vinegar line, which has garnered hundreds of five-star reviews from satisfied Amazon customers. All three together would still only set you back about $20, so it's worth giving them a shot.
5. The Best Shampoo & Conditioner Duo For An Itchy Scalp
This set of sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner contains a blend of peppermint and tea tree oils to leave your scalp feeling refreshed and clean. But to avoid drying your hair and scalp out, coconut oil, argan oil, keratin, and silk amino proteins are also included in the formulas to promote strength and restore moisture.
"This peppermint shampoo is perfect for anyone who suffers from dandruff and itching on the scalp from irritation, allergies, anything. I have very bad allergies and even get breakouts sometimes on my scalp. This didn't further irritate like most other products and the cool sensation gave me tons of relief," reported one Amazon reviewer.
Dr. Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip, board-certified dermatologist and owner of Vibrant Dermatology and Skin Bar MD outside of Boston, MA.