- To stop dandruff you can either try using a shampoo with the active ingredient pyrithione zinc or you can try some natural remedies.
- Some natural remedies include an olive oil soak, stress relief, and taking probiotics that contain the bacterial strain Lactobacillus paracasei.
- It is important not to pick at dandruff or remove the scales manually, as this can worsen the condition.
- This article was medically reviewed by Jason R. McKnight, MD, MS, a family medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
If you’re finding an abundance of white flakes in your hair or on your shoulders, plus an itchy scalp, you may be experiencing the annoying and embarrassing condition known as dandruff.
There are many reasons why you may have dandruff. Common causes include a dry scalp, psoriasis, and the skin condition known as seborrheic dermatitis. Your age and gender may also have something to do with it.
Dandruff is common at three stages in life: the first three months of life, puberty, and adulthood between the ages of 40-60. For example, up to 42% of infants have dandruff — called cradle cap. By comparison, roughly 3% of adults struggle with a flakey, itchy scalp — and it’s more common in men than in women.
Regardless of your condition, there is no cure for dandruff but “treatment can suppress the symptoms but does not cure it,” says Jeffrey Weinberg, MD, a dermatologist and associate clinical professor at Mount Sinai Health System in New York.
Learn more about what to do ― and not to do ― to help alleviate dandruff symptoms.
Over-the-counter medicated shampoos
A medicated dandruff shampoo can help control flakes and itchiness, says Sandra Marchese Johnson, MD, a dermatologist in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
“I usually advise most patients to use Head and Shoulders a few times a week to decrease yeast and inflammation — especially if they’re prone to acne or if they exercise a lot,” she says.
Pyrithione zinc — the active ingredient in the common dandruff shampoo Head and Shoulders — reduces inflammation and reduces the amount of yeast on the skin, says Marchese Johnson.
However, how often you use dandruff shampoo should depend on your specific needs. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends these tips for using an over-the-counter dandruff shampoo:
- Read and follow the shampoo directions — some require the shampoo to sit for 5 minutes.
- Asian and caucasian individuals should shampoo daily, and use dandruff shampoo twice a week.
- Black individuals should shampoo once a week with a dandruff shampoo.
If one dandruff shampoo stops working, alternate your shampoo with another active ingredient. Marchese Johnson recommends these two other active ingredients:
- Salicylic acid: the active ingredient in some shampoos, including Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo — is good for individuals who have excess scales and oil, and it can help the skin heal long-term, Marchese Johnson says.
- Selenium sulfide: the active ingredient in Selsun Blue — decreases yeast and inflammation, she says.
If you don’t notice a difference in symptoms within a few weeks, you should talk to a dermatologist, who may recommend a prescription option.
“Generally I recommend prescription therapies, including topical steroids and topical antifungal shampoos,” says Weinberg.
Home and lifestyle remedies for dandruff
According to The American Academy of Dermatology, lifestyle changes can also help alleviate symptoms of dandruff. Here are some lifestyle changes and home remedies you can try:
- Reduce stress: Stress has been linked to increased inflammation and may contribute to seborrheic dermatitis. “Reduction of stress may provide some improvement,” Weinberg says.
- Olive oil soak: For very dry-feeling scalps, Marchese Johnson recommends massaging olive oil onto your scalp once a week. Let it sit for 30 minutes. Then, shampoo with an anti-dandruff shampoo. For added benefit, incorporate a few drops of tea tree oil, a known antifungal that can help control yeast on the scalp.
- Probiotics: Probiotics are good bacteria that can keep your microbiome healthy — including by controlling excess yeast that can contribute to dandruff. Taking an oral probiotic containing the bacteria Lactobacillus paracasei can reduce symptoms of dandruff, according to a 2011 study.
- Diet: The science is mixed about whether or not diet can affect your dandruff. A 2019 study found that women — but not men — who ate a typical Western diet had a 47% increased risk of having seborrheic dermatitis. Eating a diet high in fruit reduced risk for seborrheic dermatitis by 25% for both men and women, the same study found. However, Weinberg says there are more direct ways to address dandruff than by changing your diet.
It’s generally accepted that some nutritional groups are good for skin and scalp health. Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats that contribute to skin health. They’re found in fish, avocados, and nuts and seeds, such as flaxseeds and walnuts. Zinc can be used to treat dandruff topically, but there’s little evidence that eating foods rich in zinc — like red meat or poultry — will help control dandruff.
Dandruff might not seem like the most serious medical condition, but it can be physically uncomfortable, unsightly, and embarrassing. No matter how annoying the condition is, resist the urge to pick at your scalp.
“The most important thing is not to pick at it or remove the scales manually, as this can worsen the condition,” Weinberg says. If you’ve made a habit of picking your scalp, distractions such as using fidget spinners can help.
Although it’s common, doctors don’t fully understand why dandruff happens, or how to cure the condition. Sometimes the condition will go into remission on its own, but there’s no way to kickstart remission with medications or treatment, Weinberg says. Instead, treatments are focused on controlling symptoms.
Still, doctors are often able to work with patients to find solutions to their dandruff issues, so if you don’t get results with an over-the-counter shampoo, reach out to a doctor.
“See your health professional such as a dermatologist,” says Weinberg. “Try to get a regimen that helps to get it under control.”