Seborrheic dermatitis, aka dandruff, can cause scaly patches, inflammation, and itching of the scalp — and frankly, managing it can be tough. That said, the shampoo you use can make a big difference. According to board-certified hair loss surgeon Dr. William Yates, the best shampoos for seborrheic dermatitis are medicated formulas that contain zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide, or ketoconazole, though he does tell Bustle that non-medicated ingredients like zinc, salicylic acid, tea tree oil, and apple cider vinegar can also be helpful. Since everyone’s skin reacts differently, you may have to try out a few different dandruff shampoos to figure out which ingredient works best for you.
According to Dr. Yates, seborrheic dermatitis is caused by an overgrowth of an organism that normally lives on our skin: malassezia yeast (fungus). “When this [fungus] gets out of control, your immune system overreacts and causes an inflammatory response which then causes changes to the skin that result in redness, itching, scales, flakes, et cetera.” Most people with seborrheic dermatitis have an oily scalp, but Dr. Yates says that it can occur in people who have dry scalps, as well.
Medicated shampoos can be drying, so you may want to alternate your dandruff shampoo with another, non-medicated one. Dr. Yates says that depends on the status of your scalp: “If the seborrheic dermatitis is severe, [patients] may need to use only the medicated shampoo until symptoms resolve, and then have the natural products available for flareups to hopefully control the symptoms right away before having to return to a medicated shampoo,” he says. If your medicated shampoo stops being effective, you may have to switch to a different ingredient. And of course, it’s always good to speak to your doctor or dermatologist to come up with the right treatment plan for you.
To discover the best shampoos for dandruff — medicated and non-medicated alike — just keep reading.
1. The Best Zinc Pyrithione Shampoo
Vanicream’s medicated dandruff shampoo contains 2% zinc pyrithione to reduce itching, flaking, and redness. The gentle formula is free of sulfates, parabens, gluten, dyes, and fragrance, so even if you have highly reactive skin or a condition like eczema, this shampoo shouldn’t cause any irritation. For an equally gentle follow-up, pick up the brand’s unscented conditioner.
For this, and all other medicated shampoos, do read the label; some work best if you lather up and leave the shampoo on your scalp for a few minutes before rinsing it out.
2. The Best Selenium Sulfide Shampoo
The active ingredient in Selsun Blue’s dandruff shampoo is 1% selenium sulfide, but it also contains cooling menthol to help soothe scalp irritation. Selsun Blue is a popular and well-reviewed anti-dandruff shampoo, but be aware that some users have noted that selenium sulfide makes their hair feel oily (though at the same time, several people have hailed it as an oily-hair savior. Again, everyone is different). If you have longer hair, you may opt to use your medicated shampoo on your scalp only, and a different one on your ends.
Note that some Amazon reviewers reported that this shampoo helped treat their tinea versicolor, fungal acne, and even certain rashes, in addition to seborrheic dermatitis.
3. The Best Ketoconazole Shampoo
Another popular anti-dandruff shampoo, Nizoral A-D contains ketoconazole, which is an anti-fungal medicine. (As a reminder, Dr. Yates says an anti-fungal ingredient can be helpful since it’s that out-of-control fungus that leads to inflammation of the scalp.) This is not intended to be used as a daily shampoo, so plan on using it every three to four days.
For what it’s worth, this shampoo has been awarded over 30,000 five-star ratings on Amazon, so you may have luck with it, too. One person wrote, “I've suffered with dandruff my whole life and have tried everything under the sun; prescription shampoos and serums, smelly vinegar and mouth wash, salt, scrub brushes. Nothing worked like this shampoo! It's my miracle worker. [...] I don't even have to use it every wash, just every 3rd wash or so and I stay flake free. If you've tried everything and nothing works, definitely give this a try!”
4. The Best Salicylic Acid Shampoo
Though Dermarest’s shampoo and conditioner is designed for people with psoriasis of the scalp, the 3% salicylic acid is also helpful for removing scaly skin that’s often a hallmark of seborrheic dermatitis (people love it for eczema, too). The formula combines two steps in one, so you don’t even have to follow up with a separate conditioner; in addition to salicylic acid, you’ll find good-for-hair ingredients like green tea, zinc, and safflower in here. If you don’t like added scent in your hair care products, or if you’re sensitive to fragrance, this — like the Vanicream shampoo — is completely unscented.
One Amazon reviewer — who has both eczema and seborrheic dermatitis — reported that “This stuff REALLY breaks down the gunk.” Another person confirmed that it “Works best for itchy scalp and controls the scales and crusty scabs on the scalp.”
5. The Best Tea Tree Shampoo
When you’re alternating your anti-dandruff shampoo with a non-medicated one, pick a regular shampoo that contains scalp-balancing ingredients, like this OGX Teatree Mint Shampoo. The main ingredient is tea tree oil, which Dr. Yates says is a natural anti-inflammatory. It also contains the natural astringent witch hazel, as well as invigorating peppermint, which gives this a nice, refreshing feel. This is a sulfate-free shampoo, so it’s a good, budget-friendly choice for people who prefer to steer clear of sulfates.
6. The Best Apple Cider Vinegar Shampoo
Great for sensitive scalps, ACURE’s apple cider vinegar and hemp shampoo works to clarify your hair and deep-clean your scalp without being overly drying. Dr. Yates explains that apple cider vinegar can help return the pH balance of your scalp back to normal, which can in turn help reduce inflammation, irritation, and bacteria/fungi growth.
This shampoo is free of sulfates, fragrance, and parabens, so it’s a safe choice for people who find most shampoos to be irritating. Accordingly, this would be a nice, non-medicated complement to the Vanicream dandruff shampoo.
Dr. William Yates, M,D., F.A.C.S., a board-certified hair loss surgeon based in Chicago.