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Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Maybe you’ve only recently noticed white flakes on your shoulders or maybe you’ve dealt with an itchy scalp for years. Either way, few hair-related issues are as much of an annoyance as dandruff.
Dandruff happens when an overly dry or oily scalp causes dead skin cells to shed too fast, in the form of small white skin flakes.
If you’re experiencing this, you can take some solace in the fact that you’re not alone in dealing with dandruff — about 50 percent of the general adult population worldwide deal with dandruff at some point in life.
There are several causes of dandruff in hair, including skin conditions and sensitivity to hair products like shampoo and conditioner. But regardless of how it comes about, we can all agree that we want those white flakes gone.
Whether you’re treating severe dandruff or only dealing with a few flakes, you’ve probably searched high and low on how to get rid of dandruff permanently.
The good news is that we have plenty of tips for getting rid of dandruff, and the condition is normally cheap and easy to treat. Keep reading to learn how to treat dandruff, as well as what causes dandruff.
Before we dive into how to stop dandruff, we’ll look at what causes it. Knowing the possible reasons why you have this condition can help you find the best way to get rid of dandruff.
Just as your body grows new hairs and old ones fall out, a healthy scalp is constantly creating new skin cells while shedding old ones in the form of dead, exfoliated skin.
Most of the time, you don’t even notice this happening, as old skin cells wash out in the shower and new ones take their place.
Dandruff, however, happens when your body replaces old skin cells at an overly fast rate. These dead skin cells combine with natural scalp oils, which causes them to form larger, visually obvious skin flakes. This can leave you with a scaly, dry scalp that has you scratching your head — and not because you’re confused.
Speaking of which, this is a common question, so let’s get the answer out of the way: There’s no connection between an itchy scalp and hair loss, so you don’t need to worry about baldness along with your dandruff.
There are a few root causes of dandruff:
Oil buildup. If you don’t shampoo your hair enough, your hair and skin’s natural oils (or sebum) can build up and cause dandruff to develop. On the other hand, though, dandruff can also be the result of sensitivity to ingredients in hair care products like shampoo, hair dye or hair gel.
Seborrheic dermatitis. This type of dandruff is a chronic condition, causing scalp inflammation and reddish-yellow dandruff. Dandruff can also be caused by other underlying skin conditions, such as psoriasis.
Malassezia. A yeast-like scalp fungus, Malassezia is naturally present on most scalps, but in some cases it can cause your skin to grow overly fast and lead to dandruff.
Because each type of dandruff has a different root cause, it’s important to speak to your healthcare provider if you’re seeing these white flakes. They can help identify the underlying cause of your dandruff and give you an effective treatment. Below, we’ve listed the best treatments for how to get rid of dandruff.
Getting rid of dandruff — or pityriasis capitis, the medical term for dandruff — can be a trial-and- error process. Treating a scalp condition like dandruff may also take time and patience, so unfortunately you may not find a way to get rid of dandruff (or treat the underlying condition) fast if you have severe dandruff.
The most common dandruff treatments typically include:
Using a shampoo specifically made for getting rid of dandruff
A special shampoo, like a coal tar shampoo (for seborrheic dermatitis)
Lifestyle changes and healthy hair care habits
You may or may not already be using a dandruff shampoo to stop flakes, but there are certain ingredients that may help remove dandruff quickly.
Key active ingredients to look for in a dandruff shampoo include:
Shampoos with these ingredients, or a combination, are proven effective in removing scalp buildup. Hims’ dandruff detox shampoo has pyrithione zinc (1%) and salicylic acid, and a ketoconazole shampoo like Nizoral can also help treat dandruff with regular use.
Those with more severe dandruff may need to use a medicated scalp treatment once weekly to keep oil levels down, alternating it with regular use of anti-dandruff shampoo. You can learn more about these ingredients in this article on salicylic acid shampoo.
Or you can browse this article about sulfates in shampoo if you’re curious whether this popular but polarizing ingredient is good for a flaky scalp and general hair health.
And while there’s no connection between dandruff and hair loss, you might be concerned about whether dandruff shampoos affect hair growth. We’ve covered this topic in our guide to ketoconazole and hair loss, as well as Head & Shoulders and hair loss (a popular dandruff shampoo you’ve probably heard of).
While flakes and coal might be associated with Christmas, they’re also part of the world of dandruff treatment.
If your dandruff is caused by seborrheic dermatitis, you can try using a shampoo that contains coal tar. A dark, viscous liquid, coal tar is equivalent in its antifungal properties to ketoconazole, the dandruff-fighting shampoo ingredient we mentioned above.
Coal tar shampoo is widely used as an effective treatment for psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis of the scalp.
Like regular anti-dandruff shampoos, you’ll need to wait for about a month before you notice long-term results from coal tar shampoo.
Some people get skin irritation from coal tar shampoo, making it important to stop if you notice any rash or redness.
If your dandruff is caused by fungal infections, you may need to use the above dandruff shampoo ingredients. However, certain lifestyle changes can be useful in treating dandruff.
Since an oily scalp can lead to dandruff, regular shampooing is a good first step for stopping dandruff, as is limiting the use of hair-styling products like gels and hairsprays.
Believe it or not, what you eat can worsen or improve many aspects of your hair health — including dandruff.
One study, which included over 4,300 participants, found that a diet high in fruit consumption resulted in fewer instances of seborrheic dermatitis. However, a diet that was high in processed foods full of fat and sugar (known in the study as a “Western” diet) resulted in more instances of dandruff.
Managing your stress is not only good for your mental health but your physical health, including dandruff. Some research has found a connection between stressful events and seborrheic dermatitis flaring up.
Finally, dandruff may also get worse in the winter months when the weather causes dry skin. While there’s little you can do to change the weather, improving your hair care habits and treating your dandruff using an anti-dandruff shampoo can make scalp dryness more tolerable, at least until the weather improves.
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You may be curious about the effectiveness of home remedies for dandruff. You may have heard of these natural remedies:
Tea tree oil. One study found tea tree oil shampoo to be effective in treating dandruff in a small group of participants.
Coconut oil. A multi-purpose natural ingredient, coconut oil is often used for scalp and hair health and may provide hydration to a dry scalp plagued by dandruff.
Aloe vera. Known for its hydrating powers, the antibacterial and antifungal properties of aloe vera may also protect against dandruff.
Other essential oils. Other natural oils, such as lemon and olive oil, have been found to be a useful dandruff treatment in some people.
There are other natural remedies you may have heard about — such as apple cider vinegar or baking soda — but there isn’t enough research to support these as effective dandruff treatments.
Generic for Rogaine®, this FDA-approved over-the-counter version of topical minoxidil is used for regrowth on the crown of the head.
This is the FDA-approved dynamic duo. When used together, men saw better results in clinical trials compared to using either alone.
If you’re looking for something effective but don’t want too many steps in your routine, this once-a-day pill could be right for you.
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Dealing with dandruff is possibly one of the most annoying hair problems. But you don’t have to constantly deal with white flakes in your hair and on your shoulders. If you want to know how to get rid of dandruff, remember:
There’s no best way to get rid of dandruff. Treating dandruff depends on the root cause, of which there are three: oil buildup, seborrheic dermatitis and Malassezia, a scalp fungus.
If you’re looking for how to get rid of dandruff permanently, unfortunately it might not be possible. However, dandruff can be reduced with the right treatment.
If you’re wondering how to get rid of dandruff fast, you should also know that results from dandruff treatments may take a few weeks — there’s no magic treatment.
Dandruff might be worse during colder, winter months, and we’re sure you already know you can’t change the weather.
Dandruff treatments are not a one size fits all — you may have to try different shampoos until you find one you like.
Treating dandruff can take time, so patience is necessary. Using specialized shampoos with the right ingredients, as well as implementing some good hair care habits, can help. You can also talk to your healthcare provider about the cause of your dandruff and get advice on the right treatment options.
You should also know that dandruff doesn’t directly cause hair loss, so if you’re seeing signs of balding you may want to look into hair loss treatments.