What are the best active ingredients for my dandruff?

There are a number of active ingredients that can help control and prevent dandruff.

They all act differently from one another and are geared towards eradicating different types of dandruff.

Without knowing what these active ingredients were designed to combat it is almost impossible to make an informed decision on what dandruff shampoo is best for you. Most shampoos contain only one active ingredient, although there is a definite trend in combining two or more active ingredients in a shampoo to combat a particular type of dandruff.

Coal Tar

Coal tar, as the name suggests, is a by-product of coal, formed when the coal is converted to coke or gas. Don’t let this put you off though, coal tar has been in use for skin conditions for over a hundred years – before the FDA even existed. Due to its many active properties, it would unlikely be FDA approved if submitted to the body today. However, it is still a recommended treatment for psoriasis and seb derm as it helps slow down the regeneration of cells.

There has been cancer scares with coal tar in the past but the FDA and National Psoriasis Foundation have stated that “coal tar is a valuable, safe and inexpensive treatment option for millions of people with psoriasis and other scalp or skin conditions”. So hopefully that puts that one to bed! It is worth noting that using a coal tar shampoo, cream or lotion can cause increased sensitivity to sunlight.

Finally, this stuff stinks. The chemically smell is unbelievably pungent.

Use for:

Mild/Moderate Psoriasis

Mild Seborrheic Dermatitis

Salicylic Acid

Salicylic Acid is one of the most common and oldest active ingredients found in a dandruff shampoo. Rather than get to the root cause of the shampoo, Salicylic Acid exfoliates the skin by softening and stripping the flakes on your scalp. The correct term for this is Keratolytic therapy, which involves using an acid to remove legions from the skin. It’s often used for wart removal or acne treatments as well as for dandruff control. As it’s a relatively harsh chemical, it can dry the skin out is used too much. In addition Salicylic Acid can cause irritation to some people, can increase sensitivity to the sun and shouldn’t be taken by those allergic to aspirin.

As it softens and strips the flakes from the scalp, is can be used to get rid of the dry crust of skin you get on your scalp with psoriasis. It is a recommended product by the FDA for psoriasis and often used in combination with e.g. coal tar for sufferers of this condition. The manufacturers have cottoned on to this and there are a number of combination shampoos on the market now for psoriasis sufferers.

It can also be used to get rid of the crust of flakes you get with seborrheic dermatitis but there are far more sophisticated anti-fungal ingredients on the market these days to actually treat the condition. It can still be useful to get rid of the crust before using a more modern medicine. A number of new combination shampoos have appeared in recent times to help combat seborrheic dermatitis. Ingredients such as sulfur have been added to help kill the fungus associated with seborrheic dermatitis.

Use for:

Zinc Pyrithione

Zinc Pyrithione has been used for decades as an anti-fungal treatment in dandruff shampoos. It works by inhibiting the growth of the yeast Malassezia that is thought to cause seborrheic dermatitis. As such, it regulates the yeast and oiliness thought to be responsible for seborrheic dermatitis. There are other more powerful treatments on the market, however, this is a mainstay for many and will be for many years to come as it’s used in so many shampoos including the likes of Head and Shoulders.

Use for

Selenium Sulfide

Selenium Sulfide controls dandruff in two ways. First, like Zinc Pyrithione, it is an anti-fungal agent effective at killing and controlling the Malassezia yeast. In addition, like coal tar, it inhibits skin cell regeneration. As such, it can be effective in fighting both seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis induced dandruff. Which may explain why it’s the active ingredient in the Head and Shoulders clinical brand. The ingredient can also relieve the itching associated with both of these conditions.

People who have used this ingredient excessively have complained of a really oily scalp and hair.

Use for


Ketoconazole is probably the most powerful anti-fungal treatment you can buy in shampoo over the counter. It’s used in a number of antifungal creams for athletes foot and thrush. As well as being a powerful anti-fungal agent, Ketoconazole is also effective at relieving the itch you often get with dandruff. In many countries, this is still only available by prescription, but in the US and UK it is possible to buy a 1% strength shampoo over the counter in pharmacies. As it is such a powerful ingredient it can be used for quite severe outbreaks of seborrheic dermatitis

Use for:

Nizoral is the only shampoo we know of that contains Ketoconazole and I personally can’t recommend it highly enough.


Sulfur is a mineral you may have worked with in school chemistry. I always remember it as it smells of rotten eggs. It has many medicinal purposes, but for dandruff control is relieves the skin of itching while inhibiting the reservation of skin cells.

Sulfur is rarely seen as the sole active ingredient in shampoos but is often seen in combination with salicylic acid to exfoliate the skin, soothe the skin and slow down the regeneration of skin cells, JASON being a prime example of this.

Use for:


Climbazole is a mild anti-fungal ingredient I’ve rarely come across in shampoos. It is sometimes paired with Zinc Pyrithione to provide extra anti-fungal medications. There are other, much more powerful medications available on the market but if you have a mild condition then E45 Dry Scalp Treatment is one of the best shampoos out there.

Ciclopirox Olamine

Another topical anti-fungal agent, Ciclopirox Olamine works by preventing bacterial build up on your scalp. For many with this is a very effective treatment but some have complained about itching and redness after prolonged usage. I wouldn’t use this continuously and use a very mild shampoo in between washes with this.

Oilatum Scalp Treatment Shampoo is an excellent shampoo containing Ciclopirox Olamine and there are others

Use for:

Mild to moderate Serborrheic Dermatitis

Author Profile

The site owner. I founded, and have ran this site for too many years now.
I have extremely sensitive skin, have suffered from seb derm for all my adult life and this site is my way of doing something about it.

Check out my sister site at safehouseholdcleaning.com

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