Fighting flakes? We’ve got solutions.

By Melanie Rud
July 05, 2019
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There’s no way around it—dandruff is a serious pain in the you-know-what. The annoying (not to mention unsightly) white flakes can be both embarrassing and challenging to treat.

So what is dandruff exactly? It’s important to not confuse it with regular dry skin. In dandruff, there's an abnormally accelerated renewal of scalp skin cells that fall off as scales and clusters, says Antonella Tosti, MD, a dermatologist and medical advisor for Keeps. Basically, the skin cells are growing and turning over too quickly.

What causes dandruff?

There’s no clear-cut answer to what causes dandruff. “We don’t know exactly why true dandruff occurs, but in many people, it’s thought to be due to a mix of genetics, allergies, or sensitivities, and an imbalance of skin microbes,” says Dominic Burg, chief scientist, hair biologist, microbiologist, and trichologist for évolis Professional. The most commonly accepted explanation of dandruff ties back to microorganisms—bacteria, yeast, fungus, and particularly one type of mold known as Malassezia —that live on the scalp and feed off the oil. When they eat these scalp oils, they produce by-products that the body reacts to, resulting in that excess skin shedding, explains Burg. File under gross but true.

And while some people are simply born with scalp oil that makes them more prone to dandruff, certain habits that throw off the microbiome—the delicate balance of good bacteria on your scalp—can exacerbate the issue. These include things like using overly harsh shampoos or over-cleansing. (Contrary to popular belief, cold, dry weather doesn’t make dandruff worse. It can exacerbate a basic dry scalp, but it’s not actually impacting the microorganisms involved with dandruff, notes Burg.)

How to get rid of dandruff

The good news is that there are a number of effective ways to get rid of dandruff, ranging from both prescription options to OTC medicated dandruff shampoos to more natural alternatives. With most of these, you can usually see results in two to three weeks, says Dr. Tosti. Still, “keep in mind that dandruff is a chronic condition, so it's important to continue treatment to maintain results,” she advises. Ahead, five top flake-fighting ingredients and products that contain them.

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1
Pyrithione Zinc

One of the most common active ingredients in dandruff shampoo, this works as an anti-fungal ingredient, says Burg. And not only is it readily available, it’s also shown good results when it comes to reducing dandruff, he adds. FYI, you may also see it listed on the ingredient label as ZPT.

Find it in: Head and Shoulders Classic Clean Anti-Dandruff Shampoo ($2.50; target.com).

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2
Coal Tar

One of the most traditional treatments, this old-school option works by both slowing down the growth of skin cells and combating inflammation. The only drawback? It’s pretty harsh and can be intense on both the scalp and hair, cautions Burg, so be sure to use any product that contains it as directed.

Find it In: Neutrogena T/Gel Therapeutic Dandruff Treatment Shampoo ($8; cvs.com).

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3
Ketoconazole

“This helps to control the growth of malassezia, making it a very good dandruff treatment,” say Dr. Tosti. She adds that it’s particularly effective when used at prescription-strength concentrations, though you can also find it over-the-counter.

Find it In: Nizoral A-D Anti-Dandruff Shampoo ($20; walmart.com).

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4
Salicylic Acid

Another anti-inflammatory, there’s good evidence behind the dandruff-fighting qualities of this ingredient, says Burg. Not to mention that it also dissolves oil and is a gentle exfoliant, helping to break down some of those pesky flakes.

Find it in: Aveda Scalp Remedy Dandruff Solution ($31; nordstrom.com).

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5
Rosemary Oil

With anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic properties, this natural solution can be helpful for those with dandruff, according to Burg. Plus, it feels soothing, a nice plus when you’re dealing with an itchy scalp. Try mixing one drop of rosemary essential oil with a tablespoon of a plain carrier oil (jojoba and coconut are both good options) and massaging it into your scalp. Leave it on for 20 minutes or up to overnight before shampooing as normal.  

Find it in: Thrive Market Organic Rosemary Essential Oil ($7; thrivemarket.com).

Related: A Bottle of This $10 Shampoo Sells Every 4 Seconds—and It Will Save Your Scalp

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