I am obviously not a doctor. I am, however, a very good Googler of random symptoms in search of a self-diagnosis — to the point where actual doctors are always impressed by the amount of knowledge I possess about diseases I most definitely do not have. So when I started having itchy, flaky patches of skin on my scalp last year, I didn’t head straight to the dermatologist first — I cracked open my computer and consulted the “Diseases and Conditions” tab at MayoClinic.org that I have open at all times. Turns out, I was suffering from a bit of seborrheic dermatitis: a noncontagious skin rash — kind of a turbocharged version of regular old dandruff.
Even real doctors don’t actually know the root cause of seborrheic dermatitis, though winter weather, stress, fatigue, and certain neurological conditions can cause flare-ups (a nasty little guy called Malassezia in skin’s oily secretions may also play a role). I successfully treated my flaky, itchy scalp with a medicated shampoo, but the thing that has really kicked my seborrheic dermatitis’s butt was a $6 hard-rubber shampoo brush.
After breaking a few fingernails in a desperate attempt to give my scalp a good scrubbing, I finally Googled “scalp brush,” which led to me purchasing multiple crummy, hard-plastic versions until I finally settled on this one. Its flexible vinyl bristles give just the right amount of scrubbing pressure without scraping or scratching your head. It works to break up any stubborn dandruff flakes and gets my scalp cleaner than my hands alone ever possibly could —a total luxury for the cost of two lip balms.
Here’s how I use it: I apply shampoo directly to the brush and massage it into my scalp in the mornings (it’s better for tight circles on the skin than combing through the hair). I don’t think I can properly explain via the written word how blissful the experience is. The effect is much like getting a scalp massage at the hair salon (with extremely firm fingers). I even use it while rinsing my hair, to ensure I’ve gotten all the shampoo and conditioner off my scalp. As a result, my dry, patchy flakes are now totally gone — and my scalp, a notorious grease pit, feels cleaner and squeakier than it has in years.
An arsenal of Strategist-approved dandruff-fighting stuff
When it comes to shampoos, Dr. Amy Perlmutter of New York Dermatology Group told us she always recommends starting with this Head & Shoulders formula, which contains the active ingredient pyrithione zinc to tackle dandruff. For best results, Perlmutter says to wash hair with it twice to three times a week.
If you’re dealing with thicker flakes, Perlmutter and dermatologists Harold Lancer and Howard Sobel recommend this shampoo formulated with 3 percent salicylic acid. Sobel told us that “for severe cases, start by using the dandruff shampoo every day, but do make sure to cut down to every other day or even once per week once symptoms subside.”
It’s admittedly pricier than the above options, but this top-rated shampoo on Sephora is beloved by hundreds of reviewers, one of whom called it the “Holy Grail” for taking away “my horrible itchy scalp and dandruff.” Plus, it doubles as an exfoliant that Sobel says is gentle enough not to irritate an already sensitive scalp.
When we asked hairstylists about the best scalp scrubs, this product received top marks for its ability to soothe flaky scalps. Marie Robinson, colorist and co-owner of Marie Robinson Salon, told us the pink Himalayan sea-salt scrub “works to remove dead skin cells that can block hair follicles” and contains apple cider, which “can restore scalp pH.” This is also infused with aloe vera and avocado oil, to help soothe sensitive scalps.
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