Dandruff Treatments

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on February 21, 2023
4 min read

Dandruff treatments are ways you can get rid of or control itching and flaking on your scalp. The first two to try are brushing your hair and using a dandruff shampoo.

Brush your hair from your scalp down with steady, firm strokes. This carries the oil away from your scalp, where the buildup of it and skin cells can cause dandruff. Moving it along the hair strands helps keep your hair shiny and healthy.

Not all dandruff shampoos are alike. Some have different active ingredients, such as:

  • Coal tar preparations (Denorex Therapeutic Protection, Neutrogena T/Gel, Scytera)
  • Pyrithione zinc (Selsun Blue for Itchy Dry Scalp, Neutrogena T/Gel Daily Control Dandruff Shampoo, Head & Shoulders)
  • Salicylic acid and sulfur (Sebex, Sebulex)
  • Salicylic acid (Neutrogena T/Sal )
  • Selenium sulfide (Dandrex, Head & Shoulders Clinical Strength, Selsun)
  • Ketoconazole (Extina, Nizoral A-D, Xolegel)

You may need to switch between types of shampoos if one type controls the dandruff at first but later loses its effectiveness. And if you decide to try a shampoo that has coal tar in it, you’ll need to use care. Coal tar treats dandruff by making the skin cells on your scalp die and flake off more slowly, but there are things you should know: 

  • Some people have an allergic reaction to it. 
  • It can change the color of lighter-colored hair, fingernails, skin, and clothes. 
  • You’ll need to keep it away from any cuts, broken skin, or infections, as well as your eyes. 
  • It can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. You should stay out of the sun for 24 to 72 hours after using it. 
  • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding shouldn’t use it. 

How to use dandruff shampoos

When shampooing:

  • Rub the shampoo into your scalp well. 
  • Leave the shampoo on your head for 5 minutes, or as directed.
  • Rinse thoroughly. Any leftover shampoo may irritate your skin.

How often you should use dandruff shampoo can vary from daily to a couple of times a week:

  • For white and Asian American people, the best approach is to shampoo every day but use dandruff shampoo only twice a week. If that doesn’t get rid of it, you might try alternating shampoos that have different treatment ingredients. 

  • For Black people, it’s usually best to use a dandruff shampoo only once a week. You also might want to talk with a dermatologist about which one would work best for your hair. Consider a conditioner as well as a hot oil treatment twice a month. If you want to relax the kinks in your hair, go to a professional hair stylist for chemical relaxers (no more than once every 2-3 months). You also can use a ceramic comb or iron on the lowest possible temperature to straighten your hair at home (no more than once a week). 

Once your dandruff is under control, you may be able to use dandruff shampoo less often.

Aside from dandruff shampoos, a few other things may help control it. For example, managing your stress could help with flaking, or you might try some of these natural treatments. They’re either moisturizing or they might be helpful against bacteria or fungi:

Coconut oil. Start by rubbing 3 to 5 teaspoons of this into your scalp, then wait an hour and shampoo your hair.

  • Aloe vera. Rub a bit into your scalp  just before you shampoo your hair.

  • Apple cider vinegar: Mix a quarter cup of apple cider vinegar with a quarter cup of water, then pour it over your scalp. Leave it in for at least 15 minutes, then rinse your scalp well.

  • Aspirin. Crush two aspirin and mix them with your shampoo, then shampoo your hair. Let it sit for 2 minutes then rinse it out.

  • Baking soda. Wet your hair, then put baking soda on your scalp. Let it sit for a few minutes, then rinse it out.

  • Lemon juice. Rub 2 teaspoons of lemon juice into your scalp, let it sit for a couple of minutes, then rinse. Follow that by mixing another teaspoon of lemon juice mixed with 1 cup of water and pouring it over your scalp.

  • Olive oil. Rub several drops of olive oil into your scalp, cover your hair with a shower cap, then sleep on it. In the morning, shampoo your hair. 

Some studies have shown that tea tree oil, a by-product of the Australian tea tree, may help with dandruff, but more research is needed. In some cases, it can irritate your skin or cause an allergic reaction.

If you're still scratching and shedding after trying over-the-counter preparations, see your doctor. For really stubborn dandruff cases, you may need to use a prescription shampoo or topical medication.