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How to treat dandruff

How to treat dandruff

Board-certified dermatologists recommend these tips to help treat dandruff at home.

Dandruff is a common scalp condition in which small pieces of dry skin flake off of the scalp. If you have dark hair or you’re wearing dark colors, you may notice the flakes in your hair or on your shoulders. Dandruff may also make your scalp itch.

Dandruff can develop due to multiple reasons, including some medical conditions, your hair care habits, or oily skin.

You can usually treat mild dandruff at home by regularly washing your hair. If this doesn’t relieve your dandruff, follow these tips from board-certified dermatologists.

  1. Choose a dandruff shampoo. You can find shampoos specially formulated to treat dandruff over the counter at your local drugstore. If one shampoo doesn’t work, try alternating between dandruff shampoos with different active ingredients.

    Look for a shampoo with one of the following ingredients: Zinc pyrithione; salicylic acid; sulfur; selenium sulfide; ketoconazole; and coal tar shampoo.

  2. Follow the instructions on the dandruff shampoo bottle. Dandruff shampoos need to be applied to and lathered on your scalp. You may also need to allow some dandruff shampoos to sit on your scalp for up to 5-10 minutes before rinsing. These instructions will be different depending on the shampoo you choose and your hair texture.

  3. Shampoo according to your hair type. If you have fine or naturally straight hair, or an oily scalp, wash your hair often. For example, you may need to shampoo daily and use your dandruff shampoo twice a week. If you have coarse or naturally curly or coily hair, wash your hair when needed, and use your dandruff shampoo about once a week, if tolerated. Take care to only apply the dandruff shampoo to your scalp if you have curly or coily hair, as the ingredients that treat dandruff can dry your hair. You can shampoo and condition your hair with your normal products after using your dandruff shampoo if it is needed for hair care.

  4. Protect your scalp from the sun. Some dandruff shampoos, such as those containing coal tar, can make your scalp more sensitive to the sun’s harmful UV rays. A sunburn on your scalp can also increase flaking. To protect your scalp from the sun, seek shade, wear sun-protective clothing, like a wide-brimmed hat, and apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to your scalp if you have thinning hair. Try powder or spray sunscreen for easier application to your scalp.

For most people, dandruff does not require medical attention. If your dandruff doesn’t go away after following these tips, or if you develop severe dandruff, partner with a board-certified dermatologist.

Your dermatologist may prescribe stronger dandruff shampoo or medication. Your dermatologist also knows whether your dandruff is a sign of a medical condition, such as seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, fungal infections of the scalp, or eczema.

Related AAD resources

Written by:
Brooke Schleehauf

Reviewed by:
Roopal Vashi Kundu, MD, FAAD
William Warren Kwan, MD, FAAD
Laurel Geraghty, MD, FAAD
Ata Moshiri, MD, MPH, FAAD
Darrell S. Rigel, MD, FAAD
Sanna Ronkainen, MD, FAAD
Desmond Shipp, MD, FAAD

Last updated: 12/11/23