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Salicylic Acid is the single most popular active ingredient in dandruff shampoos on the market today. An astonishing 24% of the shampoos we’ve reviewed contain the ingredient. That’s almost 1 in 4! And the reasons for that are – it’s effective and it’s incredibly versatile.
It’s so effective that it’s listed on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines, is an FDA-approved treatment for seb derm and psoriasis and salicylic acid shampoos are an incredibly popular option to treat dandruff caused by both seborrheic dermatitis and scalp psoriasis.
We love this ingredient when used at the right time for the right condition. And, as you’d probably expect with so many variations, some of the shampoos are best in class, whereas others have been as bad as it gets.
After completing approximately 100+ hours of research, and speaking to four board-certified dermatologists, we’re in a unique position to name the best salicylic acid shampoos on the market today.
What’s in this article:
Dead Sea Spa Magik Mineral Shampoo
Dead Sea Spa Magik Mineral Shampoo is a worthy winner of our best salicylic acid shampoo.
The shampoo is a unique formulation containing a combination of zinc pyrithione and salicylic acid.
Zinc Pyrithione is a gentle, well-tolerated, antifungal agent found in many dandruff shampoos. It’s used primarily to treat mild cases of seborrheic dermatitis.
Salicylic Acid is on the other hand used in shampoos, creams, and ointments mainly for its keratolytic effects – the ingredient causes the epidermis to shed more easily, helping to remove dry and flaky skin . You’ll often see salicylic acid referred to as an exfoliator – and it’s added to dandruff shampoos to help shift existing buildup.
Salicylic Acid and Zinc Pyrithione compliment each other so well because Salicylic Acid can soften the existing build-up on your scalp and help the Zinc Pyrithione penetrate the scalp more effectively .
Dr. Matthew Zirwas, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Bexley Dermatology in Bexley, Ohio, prefers shampoos that contain multiple active ingredients. He told us, “compounded shampoos that contain multiple active ingredients work much better than regular shampoos.”
Aside from the active ingredients, Dead Sea Spa has chosen some innovative help ingredients that really made this shampoo stand out.
The surfactants are extremely gentle. And while Dead Sea Spa isn’t sulfate-free, the sulfate used is Sodium Coceth Sulfate. The good news is that Sodium Coceth Sulfate is an extremely gentle surfactant often see it used in baby cleansers, gels, and cleaners.
In addition to Sodium Coceth Sulfate, the shampoo contains Sodium Beeswax (aka beeswax soap). This ingredient is derived from beeswax and acts as both an emulsifier and a cleaning agent. The beauty of sodium beeswax is that it provides the same antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties of beeswax while helping to moisturize and strengthen the skin defense barrier.
The shampoo also contains a number of extracts including:
- Chamomile – often used as a natural treatment for itchy skin caused by dry skin or eczema
- Linden flower – an antioxidant that locks moisture into the skin. It’s also an astringent, balancing your scalp’s natural sebum production. It can also calm an irritated, itchy scalp.
- Rooibos – an antioxidant that helps fight free radicals in the skin. These same antioxidants help soothe irritations caused by sunburn, eczema, or dryness of the skin. Rooibos also contains AHAs and zinc. AHAs are a great exfoliator that helps get rid of older layers of skin cells. Zinc is an antifungal agent.
It must also be noted that these extracts contain fragrances. Some of these fragrances may be too much for a sensitive scalp, so pay attention if you’re fragrance sensitive.
Washing with this shampoo is a pleasure. The liquid is a lightly scented thick white liquid that foams well. Our reviewer said their hair felt great after the shampooing with lots of bounce and volume. It didn’t feel like a medicated shampoo at all, and more like a high-end salon shampoo.
Aside from the fragrances, our only gripe with this shampoo is the addition Cocamidopropyl Betaine, a secondary surfactant that has the dubious distinction of being awarded the contact allergen of the year by the American Contact Dermatitis Society in 2004.
While no shampoo is perfect for everyone, Dead Sea Spa has done an outstanding job in formulating a unique, highly intelligent shampoo
We simply can’t recommend this shampoo highly enough.
Dead Sea Spa Magik Mineral shampoo is a worthy winner of our best salicylic acid shampoo. It looks and washes like a premium product but doesn't have a price tag to match. Dead Sea Spa has formulated a shampoo lacking many of the harsh chemicals you often find in dandruff shampoos. They have instead added extracts of chamomile, linden flower, rooibos, and beeswax to create one of the most innovative dandruff shampoo formulations we’ve ever seen. Just steer clear if you’re sensitive to fragrances.
The Runner Up
Vichy Dercos Anti-Dandruff Sensitive Shampoo
Vichy is a cosmetics company of some repute in the world of female skin care and not in the world of shampoos. However, this sensitive skin dandruff shampoo is simply outstanding.
The shampoo is sulfate-free, paraben-free, and colorant free but contains a combination of Piroctone Olamine and Salycic Acid to control dandruff. Piroctone Olamine is an anti-fungal ingredient that, in recent studies, has been shown to be more effective than the far more established Zinc Pyrithione when used in combination with Salicylic Acid.
Instead of sulfates, Vichy has added a number of gentle cleaning agents which our reviewer said left their hair feeling, “absolutely fantastic”.
No doubt the addition of Bisabolol helped with this. Bisabolol is an anti-inflammatory that helps to calm and soothe your skin. It can help the skin to absorb other active ingredients more effectively. It’s found in chamomile and has been used for centuries for its skin healing properties.
One of the best and mildest shampoos out there for seb derm sufferers with sensitive skin. SLS-free, paraben-free, colorant free with 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-star winner of this year's award.
Joint 3rd Place
Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo
In joint 3rd place comes two “pure” salicylic acid shampoos that we simply couldn’t separate.
Neutrogena T/Sal shampoo is a 3% salicylic acid formula that is a classic brand with a fervent following. The shampoo is free of sulfates, parabens and fragrances and as such is virtually odorless. T/Sal is a clear thick shampoo that washes extremely well. Our reviewer couldn’t believe that the formulation was so gentle without requiring any harsh sulfates. In their words, “it felt really luxurious. Certainly for a medicated shampoo.”
Along with DHA Sal Shampoo, 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-class shampoo.
This leads us to our other 3rd place salicylic acid shampoo
DHS Sal Dandruff Shampoo
This 3% salicylic acid shampoo contains few ingredients, is clear and does not contain any colorants or fragrances. It is not thick, but somewhat runny and resembles and acts much like a plain soap. The shampoo suds quite easily into a white, opaque foam and left our reviewer’s hair, “feeling fairly soft”, but they still recommend using a conditioner if you’re used to that level of softness.
The only ingredient to look out for is Sodium Laureth Sulfate, considered a gentler sulfate than SLS but worth pointing out all the same.
DHS Sal Shampoo is an outstanding 3% salicylic acid shampoo designed to treat Psoriasis and Seborrheic Dermatitis.
The shampoo 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 has produced a shampoo that we can’t recommend highly enough.
The 10 Best Salicylic Acid Shampoos
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.Read the entire review
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.Read the entire review
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.Read the entire review
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.Read the entire review
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.Read the entire review
Dandruff shampoos can wreak havoc on dry, itchy scalps. Sea Magik Mineral Shampoo is different. A calming, hydrating formula with a combination of gentler, anti-dandruff actives. With independent research to back up claims that it’s potent, powerful yet still soothing. A great overall formula that's suitable for all but the most hypersensitive or allergy-prone skin types.Read the entire review
Capasal have taken the unique step of combining 1% Coal Tar with 0.5% Salicylic Acid and added coconut oil.
It's perhaps the most original and interesting shampoo formulation we've yet seen
That aside Capasal is an excellent shampoo for those who suffer mild to moderate scalp psoriasis.Read the entire review
Denorex isn’t the gentlest shampoo, but with 3% Salicylic Acid it’s as strong as you’ll find OTC.
If you don’t use it too frequently and you suffer from mild to moderate psoriasis or seb derm, Denorex is very effective treatment.Read the entire review
La Roche Posay is a combination shampoo, combining both Piroctone Olamine and Salicylic Acid. The Salicylic Acid will help exfoliate existing dandruff build up while the Piroctone Olamine is designed to prevent any new outbreaks. It’s a match made in heaven.
I can’t let a mention of a review pass without commenting on how luxurious this shampoo feels and smells when washing – better than any medicated shampoo I have ever tried. And I’ve tried lots!
There are a couple of harsh ingredients but compared to the majority of the shampoos on the market, this is a first class Piroctone Olamine shampoo.Read the entire review
Designed to treat Seborrheic Dermatitis
Regenure DR Hair and Scalp Treatment is a 1% Ketoconazole formulation shampoo combined with Salicylic Acid. The company ave been particularly clever with their formulation and marketing – positioning the shampoo as a gentler alternative to Nizoral. The company have largely achieved that too. Adding Salicylic Acid to get rid of the dandruff and ketoconazole to remove the dandruff is an inspired combination too.
That said, it’s still a 1% ketoconazole shampoo. Given the choice I’d choose 2% every time, but this would require a prescription in Regenpures largest market – the USA.
Overall a very interesting, innovative shampoo.Read the entire review
If you haven’t seen your favorite shampoo listed, chances are we have and it can be found if you check out all our salicylic acid reviews.
If there’s any we haven’t reviewed then please drop us a note and we’ll be absolutely delighted to look into it!
How we chose the winners
All our reviewers are experts in their field, be that product formulation, pharmacy or haircare.
They assess the primary purpose of the dandruff shampoo, by examining the active ingredients present in the formulation. These active ingredients are designed to control specific types of dandruff and we’ll explain what those are.
Our reviews will also assess the rest of the formulation, deconstructing the shampoos to their constituent parts and describe the key ones in detail.
In addition, we warn of the presence of any one of over 100 ingredients that can potentially itch, irritate and even cause dandruff themselves. A significant number (~90%) of these chemicals have never been tested for their effect on human health. Many of these chemicals are known to have adverse effects on our skin and one of these adverse effects is dandruff.
Unlike most review sites, our reviewers personally try every shampoo they review and they also assess how the shampoo washes, how it smells, and look at the price point in their market. These may be medicated shampoos, but that doesn’t mean we want to compromise on a little bit of luxury!
What we won’t do is tell you if the shampoo will work for you. Our responses to the ingredients are highly personal, so we just couldn’t do that.
What we will do is explain, in layman’s terms, the purpose of the shampoo and what condition it is designed to alleviate.
Salicylic acid in dandruff shampoos
What is salicylic acid?
Salicylic acid is an intriguing ingredient, being a chemical precursor to ‘acetylsalicylic acid’ – more commonly known as aspirin. The watery bark sap of the willow tree (Salix alba) contains high concentrations of salicylic acid, which can be refined to make aspirin.
For the past 120 years, aspirin has been used as a painkiller and anti-inflammatory, but now is more commonly used as an antiplatelet in the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease . The discovery of aspirin in the late 19th Century by the pharmaceutical company Bayer led to the creation of a new class of medications, the ‘non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs’ (NSAIDs). Research into the pharmacological mechanism of aspirin underpins our current understanding of inflammatory pathways, for which John Robert Vane, Sune Bergström, and Bengt Ingemar Samuelsson were awarded the 1982 Nobel Prize in Medicine .
What does salicylic acid do when added to a shampoo?
While salicylic acid is very closely related to aspirin, they don’t have the same roles in the treatment of scalp conditions. Salicylic acid is used in shampoos, creams, and ointments mainly for keratolytic effects and local anti-inflammatory action. Keratolytic agents cause cells of the epidermis to shed more easily, helping to remove dry and flaky skin . You’ll often see salicylic acid referred to as an exfoliator.
The keratolytic effects of salicylic acid are also used in certain products to increase the penetration of other ingredients. This can be necessary for dermatological conditions, where plaques and thickened skin prevent steroids from being absorbed into tissue – reducing efficacy .
And it’s this flexibility that makes it the single most widespread active ingredient on the market today. It can be combined with virtually any other active ingredient to increase the efficacy of the other active ingredient.
When should I use a salicylic acid shampoo?
Salicylic Acid is commonly used to help combat dandruff caused by scalp psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis. If you’ve been diagnosed by a medical professional to have either of these conditions, chances are they’ll recommend this or a similar treatment at some stage.
It’s such an important healthcare treatment that:
- It’s included on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines.
- It is one of only two ingredients approved by the USFDA for over the counter treatment of psoriasis.
- It is approved by the USFDA for the treatment of seborrheic dermatitis
- NICE recommend it as a first-line treatment for psoriasis in the UK.
Dr. Ben Barankin, a Toronto-based board-certified dermatologist at the Toronto Dermatology Centre, recommends its usage when he told us, “For mild-moderate dandruff, my preferred over-the-counter dandruff ingredients include: zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide, ketoconazole, tar, and salicylic acid”.
How effective is salicylic acid in treating dandruff caused by seborrheic dermatitis?
For a long time, seborrheic dermatitis was seen as a condition caused by excessive growth of skin cells (‘hyperproliferation), explaining the characteristic symptoms: flaky skin, itchiness, and greasy skin. This rationalized the use of salicylic acid in shampoos. It’s now better understood that Malassezia yeasts play a role in the underlying condition, and so antifungal treatments are more useful first-line options (e.g. ketoconazole, selenium sulfide) .
Salicylic acid does not possess any antifungal properties necessary for the treatment of seb derm, but the keratolytic effects can help to remove flaky skin. The salicylic acid softens the existing build-up while the anti-fungal can help prevent any further build-up.
In addition, a recent study suggests that the presence of salicylic acid with an anti-fungal can help amplify the power of that anti-fungal agent. 
How effective is salicylic acid at treating scalp psoriasis?
Scalp Psoriasis is an auto-immune condition causing the hyperproliferation growth of skin cells. In a regular skin cycle skin, the turnover of skin cells takes about a month. If you have psoriasis, it can happen within a few days.
As a result, a number of raised plaques or patches of thick, scaly skin appear on various parts of your body.
The keratolytic properties of salicylic acid can help to soften and remove flaky skin.
In severe cases of psoriasis, treatment is often combined with a topical steroid – the salicylic acid added to help penetration of the steroid – the scaly build-up can prevent the steroid from entering the skin efficiently.
What is a safe amount of salicylic acid?
The USFDA mandate that it can be considered a medicine is used in 1.8 to 3 percent concentrations in a shampoo.
How often should I wash with a salicylic acid shampoo?
To use a dandruff shampoo, or any shampoo for that matter, shampoo, you should always follow the instructions on the label.
This isn’t always as straightforward as it sounds. For example, Dead Sea Spa provides no guidance on frequency but instead recommends that you, “Apply to wet hair, massaging into scalp and hair. Rinse well. For best results follow with Spa Magik Hair Magic serum or Conditioning Scalp Mud.”
Neutrogena, on the other hand, recommends, “For best results, use at least twice a week or as directed by a doctor.”
So we asked a doctor for guidance.
Dr. Matthew Zirwas recommended trying a shampoo for, “at least a month because if your old shampoo had ingredients that were causing a dandruff-like rash of their own, it will take 4-8 weeks for that ingredient to work its way out of your body after you start the new stuff.”
For some further clarity, Dr. Ben Barankin, told us, “For mild-moderate dandruff, I recommend daily shampooing, and ideally alternating 3 shampoos, each with active anti-dandruff ingredients.”
And if it doesn’t work, board-certified dermatologist Adam J. Friedman, MD, FAAD, assistant professor of dermatology and director of dermatologic research, Albert Einstein College of Medicine explains via the AAD, “For most people, dandruff does not require medical attention. However, sometimes the flaking and itching that appears like dandruff is actually a medical condition, such as seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, fungal infections of the scalp, or eczema. If you continue to have symptoms after using a dandruff shampoo, consult a board-certified dermatologist.”
By visiting a board-certified dermatologist, you can be properly diagnosed and be prescribed stronger medication than you can pick up at the pharmacy. As Dr. Ben Barankin says, “for moderate to severe cases of dandruff, a steroid shampoo or leave-in lotion can be prescribed. A prescription ciclopirox olamine lotion is often a nice option.”
How long should I leave a salicylic acid shampoo on my scalp?
Again, you should always follow the manufacturer’s recommended guidelines. For example, Neutrogena recommends that you leave T-Sal on your scalp for a few minutes. Any shorter than a few minutes and you may not receive the full benefit of the keratolytic effects. Much longer and you can dry your skin.
What are the risks of using salicylic acid?
Salicylic acid shampoos are generally well-tolerated but should be avoided in those with a history of aspirin allergy. Only a very small amount of salicylic acid is absorbed into the bloodstream when applied to healthy skin. But this figure increases around 150 times when the skin is damaged (although this figure is for creams, and so will be lower for rinse-off shampoos). Toxicity has been reported, but these cases are typically associated with other contributory factors .
Systemic absorption is unlikely to result in any harm but reinforces that the lowest effective quantity should be used for the least amount of time. Typically in scalp conditions, this means using a medicated shampoo for two to four weeks, but exact recommendations vary by formulation and brand. Prolonged use of a keratolytic agent can also cause dry skin – worsening symptoms – so excessive use should be avoided.
Can I use salicylic acid when pregnant?
Although there have been no large-scale studies of using salicylic acid when pregnant, there have been a number of sizable studies published that looked at the outcomes of pregnant women who had taken low doses of acetylsalicylic acid. None of them found an increase in the baseline risk of adverse effects. Regarding topical use, so little is actually absorbed into the skin its unlikely to pose any risk to a developing baby.
Perhaps due to the lack of large-scale studies, the FDA does recommend only using salicylic acid during pregnancy if clearly needed.
Can I use salicylic acid when breastfeeding?
The FDA recommends that salicylic acid use topically in shampoo is considered acceptable during pregnancy as significant absorption or appearance in breast milk is unlikely.
What shampoos contain salicylic acid?
Our ten favorites are listed on this page. However, we have reviewed many others which you can find on our salicylic acid category page.
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