The Best Sodium Hydroxide Free Dandruff Shampoos

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Sodium Hydroxide is more commonly known as lye. It has a number of industrial uses and you’ve probably used it before to unblock your drains!

This stuff is pretty harsh.

Understandably there are many people reluctant to use it in their shampoos or personal care products. It’s known to cause contact dermatitis in people So we thought this was worth further study to give you the information you need to make your own informed decision on whether you want to use it.

In this article:

What is sodium hydroxide?

Sodium hydroxide or ‘lye’ is a strong alkali, used in many different industries to reduce the acidity of chemical reactions. It has many uses, from being used as a drain unblocker ‘dissolving’ grease and proteins, to adjusting the pH of injectable medicines that would otherwise damage blood vessels.

Sodium hydroxide is highly reactive and corrosive, with concentrated solutions causing: skin burns, corneal damage, chemical pneumonitis, and perforation of the gastrointestinal tract [1]. Incidents involving sodium hydroxide are among the most common workplace chemical accidents, but is also an ingredient in every commercial shampoo – why?

A brief history of sodium hydroxide

Sodium hydroxide was formally ‘invented’ in the early 1800s when Sir Humphry Davy isolated ‘sodium hydroxide’ from the crude alkali mixture of ash and rainwater [2]. For centuries before this, sodium hydroxide was used by different populations to make soap.

Soap making is a relatively simple chemical process, in which fatty triglycerides react with sodium hydroxide, to produce fatty acids – crude soap, which forms a lather when mixed with water [3]. Sodium hydroxide is still used in the industrial manufacture of modern detergents, but in more complex reactions, producing purer compounds at higher yields.

[Note: Approximately 350million tones of sodium hydroxide are produced each year, mainly through the electrolysis of sodium chloride, known as the ‘chloralkali process’ [4].]

Why is sodium hydroxide added to shampoo?

It’s difficult to imagine an industrially produced shampoo avoiding sodium hydroxide, whether it appears on the ingredient label or not. Depending on the shampoo, sodium hydroxide has three main roles:

  1. As a precursor to the main ingredients (e.g. sodium lauryl sulfate)
  2. To reduce the acidity, so the shampoo doesn’t damage hair
  3. As a ‘relaxer’, to help straighten hair

For points one and two, there is no FDA requirements for the manufacturer to add sodium hydroxide to the ingredient label, as it would be functionally undetectable, exempt under the ‘incidental ingredient’ exception §701.3(1) [5].

For shampoos labeled as ‘straightening’ or ‘hair relaxing’, sodium hydroxide is added in much higher concentrations. At a concentration of around 5-10%, the sodium hydroxide increases the pH, helping to ‘break’ the bonds that make straightening curly hair so difficult (by cleaving the disulfide bonds between cysteine molecules of keratin) [6].

What are the risks?

Concentrated solutions of sodium hydroxide can be incredibly harmful, and cause a considerable number of chemical burns each year. When used in low concentrations to neutralize acidic shampoos, there are no obvious negatives to the use of sodium hydroxide – it would be more harmful to use an acidic shampoo.

Hair relaxers pose more of a risk, as they use stronger concentrations, and are left in the hair for longer. There is a risk of chemical burns to the scalp and controversial evidence that correlates long-term use in African-American women to uterine fibroids – although the mechanism for this is unclear, and seems unrelated to the sodium hydroxide component [7].

What are the alternatives?

There are many alternative strong alkalis and buffer systems (e.g. lithium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, calcium hydroxide), but each of these is associated with the same corrosive risks as sodium hydroxide. Different alkalis also affect the characteristics of a shampoo. Soluble calcium detergents, for example, generally form less lather compared to sodium detergents.

There are several ‘no lye’ hair relaxers, which instead of using sodium hydroxide to create a strong alkaline solution, use ammonium thioglycate and a hydrogen peroxide wash to more permanently reduce the disulfide bonds of curly hair [8]. The downsides of this process include:

  • Normally only professionals carry out the procedure
  • Hair becomes more brittle
  • The process depletes natural oils

The best sodium hydroxide free dandruff shampoos on the market today

Sodium hydroxide is a strong alkali, and an essential component of many industrial processes. In shampoos, sodium hydroxide has several purposes, but mainly as a precursor and to alter the acidity. There are very few risks to low concentrations of sodium hydroxide in shampoos, but high concentration hair relaxers are generally considered more dangerous. There are several alternatives, but these can alter the characteristics of a shampoo, and are not an inherently lower risk.

If you want to avoid this ingredient – these are our favorite sodium hydroxide free dandruff shampoos on the market today.

Pharmaceutical Specialities Free & Clear Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis, Dry Scalp and Psoriasis

Pharmaceutical Specialties formed in 1974 to “start a company to make better products than were commercially available for people with sensitive skin”. And boy, have they achieved it with this Free and Clear shampoo.

What is perhaps surprising on a website dedicated to dandruff treatments is that this isn’t a dandruff shampoo at all.

It’s rather a "a non-medicated, mild shampoo for sensitive skin and scalp.”

That said, we can’t use a medicated shampoo all the time, and this is my go to shampoo for those “between” washes.

BIOM8 Skin Conditioning Oil

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis, Dry Scalp

BIOM8 Skin Conditioning Oil is now part of my daily skin care routine. It’s as simple as that. I have lost count of the number of products I’ve reviewed over the years and I can count on one hand the number of products that have impacted me on this level.

If you suffer from dry skin, facial seb derm or rosacea I simply can’t recommend this product highly enough.

It even makes a good beard oil!

Maple Holistics Hydrate Shampoo

Designed to treat Dry Scalp

Maple Holistics Hydrate Shampoo has been superbly formulated to soothe and moisturize the scalp and hair. The ingredients have been carefully selected to decrease the chance that the product will irritate the skin. Using multiple low dose surfactants is a stroke of genius and only the fact the shampoo contains only one potential contact allergen says it all.

This is as close to perfection as you get in the commercial shampoo world.

I simply can't recommend this highly enough.

Nurture My Body Everyday Fragrance Free Shampoo

Designed to treat Dry Scalp

Nurture My Body Everyday Fragrance-Free Shampoo is an excellent gentle option for sufferers of a dry irritated scalp. The absence of any noteworthy irritants or allergens combined with the expert formulation of anti-inflammatory moisturizing ingredients makes an excellent change from the usual harsh surfactants and other toxins that lead to a vicious cycle of irritation and inflammation.

They've managed all of this in a shampoo that foams and washes well.

It's not particularly cheap, but this is simply one of the finest dry scalp shampoos out there.

Sebclair Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis, Dry Scalp

Calling all sensitive scalp sufferers, if you haven’t yet found an anti-dandruff shampoo your scalp can tolerate, you haven’t yet found Sebclair shampoo. A piroctone olamine, Malassezia yeast quelling formula with extremely mild yet highly effective cleansers, accompanying scalp hydrators, flake fighters and natural anti-inflammatories. No fragrance, no essentials oils, no allergens. Sebclair shampoo really does stand out in our anti-dandruff crowd.

Bioderma ABCDerm Babysquam

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis and Cradle Cap

If your babe’s crusty cradle cap’s only getting worse, it’s time to try a leave on treatment – one which doesn’t leave your baby’s scalp looking like a grease ball. Enter Bioderma’s ABDderm Babysquam keratoregulating cream a 14 ingredient formula made from sensitive, hypoallergenic, moisturising, soothing and barrier building ingredients.

Useable 7 days a week with no fragrance or harsh preservatives Bioderma’s ABDderm Babysquam keratoregulating cream respects, repairs and conditions away crusty cradle cap.

Dead Sea Spa MAGIK Mineral Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis, Dry Scalp and Psoriasis

Dead Sea Spa MAGIK Mineral Shampoo is a combination shampoo containing both salicylic acid and zinc pyrithione.  The thinking behind this shampoo is that the salicylic acid will soften and exfoliate existing build up and the zinc pyrithione will help prevent new build up from forming.

I’m generally a big fan of combination shampoos and this is no exception.  The shampoo feels great, has a nice light smell and leaves the hair feeling extremely soft.  It only contains one known contact allergen too - cocamidopropyl betaine.

If you suffer from mild seb derm I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Vichy Dercos Anti-Dandruff Sensitive Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis

One of the best and mildest shampoos out there for seb derm sufferers with sensitive skin.

Containing both Piroctone Olamine and Salicylic Acid as well as being SLS free, paraben free, artificial color free this shampoo has an absolutely outstanding choice of active and inactive ingredients.

There are still two or three chemicals in there that some may find irritating. Otherwise this would have been a five out of five performer.

Sebamed Anti-Dandruff Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis

Sebamed is one of the gentle yet most effective seb derm shampoos available.

The active ingredient is Piroctine Olamine - an excellent anti-fungal agent.

The rest of the shampoo has been formulated with panache.

DHS Fragrance Free Tar Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis and Psoriasis

DHS Coal Tar Shampoo is an expertly formulated shampoo containing 0.5% coal tar and is the gentlest coal tar shampoo we’ve yet reviewed

We can't recommend this product or this company highly enough.

Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis and Psoriasis

Quite simply the best pure Salicylic Acid shampoo we’ve yet reviewed. The shampoo contains 3% Salicylic Acid combined with a fragrance free, sulfate free and virtually every other nasty ingredient free formulation. It does this and still feels luxurious when washing.

Neutrogena should be exceptionally proud of this top top class shampoo.

Tru Moroccan Repair Shampoo

Designed to treat Dry Scalp

An impressive dry scalp treatment shampoo with an innovative formulation.

I have to applaud any company that can formulate a shampoo with so few allergens. The fact that it washes so well is marvelous. For those not sensitive to Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Phenoxyethanol or fragrances - this is an excellent shampoo.

Eucerin Dermocapillaire Calming Urea Scalp Treatment

Designed to treat Dry Scalp

This dry scalp treatment isn’t a shampoo at all, but rather a leave on moisturizer that you apply to your hair after washing.

The advantage of this approach is that, while shampoos are designed to clean (and all the sensitizing issues that come with that) this treatment is designed to moisturize and nothing else.

You’re free to use the shampoo of your choice and us this treatment in combination.

It’s an excellent approach that I hope other manufacturers take notice of.

Scalp 18 Coal Tar Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis and Psoriasis

Scalp 18 Coal Tar shampoo is a 2% coal tar formulation that has a number of added essential oils to further nourish and soothe the scalp.

These essential oils do contain fragrance but if you're not sensitive to fragrances then this is a superb shampoo.

It is extremely gentle and washes like a high end salon shampoo.

If you’re not sensitive to fragrances then I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this shampoo.

Maple Holistics Tea Tree Oil Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis, Dry Scalp

Maple Holistics Tea Tree Shampoo is an outstanding Tea Tree shampoo for treating Dry Scalp or Seb Derm. It doesn’t contain any artificial coloring or fragrance, sulfates, parabens, or carcinogens. It contains only three potential contact allergens, with two of the three being tea tree and rosemary essential oils.

The combination of cleansing agents used are gentle, effective and innovative while the shampoo smells ace and washes even better.

If you're looking for a tea tree shampoo, I can't recommend this highly enough.

DHS Sal Dandruff Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis and Psoriasis

DHS Sal Shampoo is a 3% salicylic acid shampoo designed to treat Psoriasis and Seborrheic Dermatitis.

It’s an outstanding shampoo that washes well, contains relatively few ingredients, is gentle and won’t break the bank.

If you’re not sensitive to sulfates and are looking for a good salicylic acid shampoo, this is an excellent performer.

Yet again, DHS have produced a shampoo that we can't recommend highly enough.

Cleure Volumizing Shampoo

Designed to treat Dry Scalp

Cleure Volumizing uses only a handful of skin conditioning agents and gentle cleansers to treat a dry scalp.

It contains only two potential irritants that should be considered low to moderate concerns, compared to other much harsher alternatives. This shampoo doesn’t use any sulfates, parabens, artificial fragrances, dyes, alcohol, salicylates, formaldehyde, or SLS, making it a good option for those with sensitive scalps who typically react to less gentle, conventional shampoo and other personal care products.

Unless you have severely sensitive skin and are highly reactive to any potential irritants, we suggest trying this shampoo from Cleure and seeing if it calms your sensitive skin, and helps to clear up any dryness and itchiness on your scalp.

Puracy Natural Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis, Dry Scalp and Psoriasis

Puracy Citrus Mint Natural Shampoo offers a great natural alternative to the many sulfate laden shampoos on the market today. Whether you are looking for an everyday use shampoo, or one that you can rotate your medicated dandruff shampoo with, we’d recommend trying the Natural Shampoo.

Because there are essential oils in the formula, we recommend caution to anyone who is sensitive to fragrances, or sensitive or allergic to any of the ingredients.

Otherwise, you’re looking at an expertly formulated shampoo that, for once, lives up to the manufacturer’s promises.

Sebclair Non-Steroidal Cream

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis, Dry Scalp

Sebclair Non-Steroidal Cream is an anti-fungal, piroctone olamine based treatment partnered with a trophy cabinet of natural anti-inflammatory actives. If you have a mild to moderate case of seb derm, hate steroids and love naturals Sebclair is for you. Best bit – there’s only two known allergens or irritants.

Free and Clear Medicated Anti-Dandruff Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis

Do you have an extremely sensitive scalp in need of anti-dandruff help? Do you suffer from mild to moderate seb derm?  Meet your new best friend.  Free & Clear’s Medicated Anti-Dandruff Shampoo contains zero allergens, zero irritants, zero sensitizers formula based on 2% zinc pyrithione. An active ingredient able to improve the health of dandruff affected skin while also helping pacify dandruff causing overgrowths of the Malassezia yeast.

I simply can't recommend this shampoo highly enough.

Vanicream Z-Bar

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis

If you’re currently considering using dandruff shampoo to treat your body-wide seb derm, eczema, itchy skin, psoriasis, dermatitis and more – stop right now and grab yourself a Vanicream Z-bar. Free from common irritants, allergens and sensitizers, the 2% zinc pyrithione formula not only cleanses sensitivity but may also help provide relief from your symptoms. A clean, effective formula able to pacify and protect against seb derm and dandruff-like skin conditions.

Dentinox Cradle Cap Baby Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis and Cradle Cap

Did you know using natural oils could be making your baby’s cradle cap last for longer? Instead, we recommend placing your trust in clinically trialed baby-friendly formulas able to effectively tackle the cause of your baby’s cradle cap – excess scalp oil. Case and point, ultra-mild Dentinox Cradle Cap Treatment Shampoo, an 8 ingredient formula proven safe and effective for everyday use.

Babe Laboratorios Paediatric Cradle Cap Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis and Cradle Cap

Tired of testing out cradle cap shampoos which just don’t budge your babe’s crusty dry scalp? Then you need a cradle cap shampoo with active ingredients proven to work. Enter Babe Laboratorios Paediatric Cradle Cap Shampoo a 4 active ingredient formula including 0.5% scalp softening salicylic acid plus a boosting active able to make your 0.5% dose work harder than its quantity would usually dictate. For use 2 to 3 times a week, the gentle shampoo formula cleanses carefully, treats sensitively and works simply.

Bella B, Bee Gone Cradle Cap, Baby Shampoo

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis and Cradle Cap

Are you looking for a natural solution to your baby’s crusty cradle cap? Want a formula that works with your skin to help restore a healthy scalp? Then look no further than Bella B’s Bee Gone Cradle Cap Baby Shampoo with oatmeal, tea tree oil, shea butter and more for helping restore what makes your baby's scalp healthy. Free of parabens, animal by-products, harsh cleansers and preservatives, the hypoallergenic formula makes Bella B’s bee gone cradle cap baby shampoo a great solution for the everyday care of your baby's scalp.

Mustela Cradle Cap Foam Shampoo For Newborns

Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis and Cradle Cap

Anti-cradle cap shampoos designed to be used from the very first day of your babe’s life are hard to come by. And in the promise of finding one, you want to be 100% sure of its safety. Mustela foam shampoo for newborns is a diamond in the rough, featuring well proven anti-cradle cap/anti-dandruff actives with above and beyond safety testing in a daily use formula.

It is worth bearing in mind that it isn't fragrance-free, and salicylic acid can cause dryness after prolonged usage.  But as a treatment to combat established doses of cradle cap - you'll struggle to find a more effective treatment on the market.


[1] BASF. (2012). Chemical Emergency Medical Guidelines: Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH). [Accessed: 13/10/17]

[2] Banks, A. (1990). Sodium. J. Chem. Educ, 67(12), 1046.

[3] Glass, R. L. (1971). Alcoholysis, saponification and the preparation of fatty acid methyl esters. Lipids, 6(12), 919-925.

[4] Sojitz Corporation. (2014). Global Production of Sodium Hydroxide. [Accessed: 13/10/17]

[5] FDA. (2016). Cosmetic Labeling Guide. [Accessed: 13/10/17]

[6] Draelos, Z. D. (2008). Hair cosmetics. In Hair growth and disorders (pp. 499-513). Springer Berlin.

[7] Wise, L. A., Palmer, J. R., Reich, D., Cozier, Y. C., & Rosenberg, L. (2012). Hair relaxer use and risk of uterine leiomyomata in African-American women. American journal of epidemiology, 175(5), 432-440.

[8] Dias, M. F. R. G. (2015). Hair cosmetics: An overview. International journal of trichology, 7(1), 2.

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Master of Pharmacy

Ethan graduated a number of years ago after studying pharmacy in the UK, and is now a practicing pharmacist by day.

By night he writes the most stunning articles on a whole range of pharmaceutical subjects both here, and on our sister site at

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