How To Stop Seasonal Dandruff Before It Starts

Dermatologists share their secrets and the anti-dandruff shampoos and treatments that really work.
Want to beat dandruff this season? Start treating it before it even starts.
Teeramet Thanomkiat / EyeEm via Getty Images
Want to beat dandruff this season? Start treating it before it even starts.

Dandruff can strike anyone year-round, but drops in temperature and humidity can make a flare-up more likely in the fall and winter. While dandruff isn’t contagious or dangerous, those flakes can still be annoyingly embarrassing. So as you’re updating your skin care routine to be more cold weather-friendly, it’s important to make changes to your scalp care routine as well.

“Cold weather is a breeding ground for a lot of skin disorders that are worsened by dryness,” said board-certified dermatologist Anna Chacon, who specializes in hair loss and scalp conditions such as psoriasis and dandruff (also known as seborrheic dermatitis). “If you’re stressed out by seasonal changes or you’re just uncomfortable because it’s cold, that is an extra trigger to make your psoriasis or dermatitis worse.”

Luckily, your flake-free scalp regimen doesn’t have to be pricey or time-consuming, but according to experts, it will require some preparation and a little knowledge about do-it-yourself scalp care.

Erum N. Ilyas, a board-certified dermatologist based outside of Philadelphia, said she tells her patients that the most important step in fighting seasonal dandruff is to anticipate it.

“We know that dandruff will generally flare in fall and spring. Knowing this, plan to start preventative approaches four weeks in advance,” she told HuffPost, adding, “Dandruff shampoos cannot always actively treat dandruff once it flares, but are actually very good at preventing it.”

Ilyas suggested looking for shampoos containing zinc pyrithione, which contains antimicrobial qualities.

While the type of cleanser might be crucial to your regimen, the frequency doesn’t matter as much, according to Chacon. There’s a misconception that dandruff happens when your hair and scalp are too dry, and this myth sometimes influences people to unnecessarily skip shampoos.

“Don’t necessarily think washing it too much is bad,” Chacon said. “Every day or two is fine. I would not go more than a week without washing the hair, even if you have the driest hair possible.”

She does, however, recommend keeping the scalp moisturized and avoiding scratching, which might make the condition worse.

And if you think you’re immune to dandruff because you have an oily scalp, you’re wrong. You may, however, may need a different treatment than someone with a dry scalp.

Loretta Ciraldo, a board-certified dermatologist who treats many patients with scalp conditions such as dandruff and psoriasis, told HuffPost that if you have an oily scalp, “you can usually get away with almost anything” in terms of using potent treatments. She recommended that patients try coal tar, a thick, dark liquid that helps relieve the itching, and salicylic acid, which helps remove dead skin cells from the surface. These ingredients can work great on oily or normal scalps, although Ciraldo warned that “if your scalp is sensitive, don’t use it.”

When looking for the best solution, Ilyas suggested topical treatments containing ingredients that address the two major symptoms of dandruff ― itching and flaking. Consider common ingredients such as apple cider vinegar, which has anti-yeast properties and “can often be added to scalp exfoliators to help address the underlying yeast that triggers inflammation resulting in scaling,” coconut oil, which “can be beneficial for dry, flaky scalps to help hydrate and improve scaling or flaking to the scalp,” and tea tree oil, which also pairs nicely with scalp exfoliators and will likely address some of the underlying triggers for scalp inflammation that result in scaling and itching, Ilyas said.

Plenty of over-the-counter options are available to choose from.

“No matter what you’re using, you have to make sure you rub it into the scalp,” Ciraldo said. Massage the product into the scalp, leave it on for a few minutes to work its magic, then rinse and follow up with a regular shampoo, if desired.

If the problem persists, experts recommend visiting a board-certified dermatologist. But first, try these at-home shampoos and treatments to get rid of pesky flakes.

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Experts’ favorite dandruff treatments

Top, left to right: Neutrogena T/Gel, DHS SAL Shampoo — Maximum Strength, Neutrogena T/Sal. Bottom, left to right: Tarsum, Nizoral, Head & Shoulders Itchy Scalp Care.

Neutrogena T/Gel Therapeutic Shampoo

This formula, suggested by Chacon, contains coal tar extract to help with itching and calm the skin.

DHS SAL Shampoo, Maximum Strength

Chacon also recommended this potent shampoo. Made with 2% salicylic acid, it breaks down flaky buildup and relieves itching and flaking.

Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo

Ciraldo said she loves Neutrogena T/Sal because “it’s wonderful at ungluing all these dead cells from each other.”

Tarsum Medicated Shampoo/Gel

“If you’ve got an oily scalp or a full head of hair, this is a good aggressive way to treat this problem,” Ciraldo said, adding the caveat that “if your scalp is sensitive, don’t use it.”

Nizoral Anti-Dandruff Shampoo

According to Ciraldo, this formula is gentle enough for color-treated, chemically processed, and gray hair.

Head & Shoulders Itchy Scalp Care Shampoo

This simple solution can really work for mild cases, Ciraldo said.

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