Treating dandruff 

If you have mild dandruff, the condition can be easy to get rid of. 

You could:

  • try washing your hair daily with a mild shampoo until the dandruff clears; shampoos containing tea tree oil are particularly effective
  • try not to scratch your scalp when using shampoo; instead, gently massage your scalp without scratching, as this will not damage your hair or scalp
  • avoid using hair products such as hairspray and gel until the dandruff clears

Spending time outdoors in the sun can help reduce dandruff. However, make sure you protect yourself with sunscreen with the appropriate sun protection factor (SPF) for your skin type.

Anti-dandruff shampoo

If your dandruff is more severe, you'll probably need to use an anti-dandruff shampoo. These are available over the counter from most supermarkets and pharmacists.

Some of the most widely used anti-dandruff shampoos include:

  • zinc pyrithione – which works by killing the malassezia fungi thought partially responsible for dandruff
  • salicylic acid – which helps soften and shed dead skin cells on your scalp (some people experience dryness of their scalp after using salicylic acid; using a conditioner after the shampoo can often help)
  • selenium sulfide – this works by slowing production of skin cells while also killing the fungi
  • ketoconazole shampoo – which has a powerful antifungal effect
  • coal tar shampoo – this again can help slow production of dead skin cells

Not every shampoo is suitable for everyone. For example, selenium sulfide may not be recommended for people with blonde or chemically treated hair, as it can discolour the hair.

As a precaution, the use of certain types of anti-dandruff shampoo may not be recommended if pregnant or breastfeeding. Therefore, it is always important to carefully read the instructions that come with the shampoo.

If in doubt, ask your GP or pharmacist for advice.

Applying the shampoo

It is normally recommended that you apply whatever anti-dandruff shampoo you decide to use daily or every other day. Ketoconazole shampoo is an exception and usually only needs to be applied twice a week.

Once your symptoms improve, you may only need to use the shampoo two or three times a week.

Gently massage the shampoo into your hair. It's important to leave for at least five minutes to allow it to work.

If one type of shampoo does not prove effective or starts to lose its effectiveness, try another type.

If you do not experience an improvement in symptoms after a few weeks of using a shampoo, contact your GP for advice.

Seborrhoeic dermatitis

If you also develop symptoms of seborrhoeic dermatitis, where you have scaling of skin in other parts of the body, your GP may recommend you use a cream or lotion containing ketoconazole.

If you have a flare-up of symptoms, you may be prescribed a short course of a steroid cream or lotion (topical corticosteroids). These are also used if the condition is itchy.

The long-term use of topical corticosteroids is not usually recommended, as it can lead to side effects such as thinning of the skin. However, they can be used over short periods of time (intermittently) to control the condition.

Page last reviewed: 04/09/2014

Next review due: 04/09/2016