What to Look for in Eczema Shampoo

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on May 06, 2023
3 min read

When you have eczema, or atopic dermatitis, you need to go gentle on your skin -- and that includes your scalp. With a dizzying number of shampoos to choose from, though, how do you find products that won’t cause a flare-up?

Most shampoos you’ll find in stores lean toward flowery, fruity, and fragrant. But shampoos loaded with botanical ingredients and scents can make your eczema worse, no matter how nice they smell.

Because your scalp is more likely to get irritated than most other people’s, your shampoo should have fewer additives that might rile up that tender skin. If you look for shampoos that have fewer ingredients, you may sidestep much of the trial and error that can come with the quest for the right shampoo.

Bear in mind “unscented” and “fragrance-free” aren’t the same. “Unscented” means something’s been added to the product to mask the smell. “Fragrance-free” means no ingredients in the shampoo should have a scent.

One key to keeping flares at bay is to stay away from shampoos that contain sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS. It’s a detergent and surfactant -- a strong grease-buster that also makes products foamy. Reactions to SLS are common: One large study found that 42% of people tested had an irritation response to it.

SLS doesn’t always irritate normal skin. Shampoo formulas that have SLS often balance it out with other additives to soften its effects. While this might make the shampoo more gentle, it still ups the number of ingredients.

Some studies have shown that Asian skin in general tends to be more sensitive than Caucasian skin when it comes to irritants -- such as SLS -- in over-the-counter products.

If you’re Black, and especially if you have eczema, your hair might tend to be dry. Curly or tightly coiled hair is more likely to have tangles and breakage, too. Don’t wash your hair too often -- you might shoot for once or twice a  week to once every other week. It can help to follow up with a conditioner to keep your tresses hydrated. As with shampoo, seek out products with as few ingredients as possible.

Another method you may want to try is conditioner washing. Also called co-washing, this means skipping the shampoo altogether. Co-washing can work well to cleanse Black hair while keeping in the moisture. Wet your hair well with water, then massage in the conditioner. Leave the product in your hair for a few minutes to soak in, and then rinse it out.

One thing to remember about co-washing is that most conditioners contain ingredients -- usually silicones -- to smooth and detangle hair. These ingredients can leave residue that can build up in your hair and damage it. If you go the co-wash route, check with your dermatologist to see if you need to cleanse your hair every 2 weeks or so with a clarifying shampoo to prevent buildup.

Bottom line: The product you use shouldn’t irritate your scalp or make scalp and face eczema worse. If you still need more gentle treatment, a medicated shampoo, such as one formulated for dandruff, can be your best bet.

Look for shampoos can contain medical-grade coal tar. This is a standard treatment for the swelling, redness, and itching that come with eczema. Also keep an eye out for products with zinc pyrithione, another active ingredient in dandruff shampoo that can ease eczema discomfort.

You can also check out the National Eczema Association website, which lists products that receive their seal of acceptance.