What to Do When Dandruff Shampoo Is Not Working?

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The first line of defense used in the fight against a dandruff problem is normally an over the counter shampoo. These may be medicated shampoos which use active chemical ingredients or a natural homeopathic formula that employ some of nature’s botanicals that combat dandruff.

The world’s top selling shampoo is an anti-dandruff shampoo (made by guess who? It begins with Head, and ends with Shoulders) which sells 110 bottles every minute, totally 29 million units a year. Obviously dandruff shampoos work for many people.

But often a shampoo can stop working or may even add to the problem of dandruff with the build up it leaves behind. Shampoos may not work due to other underlying medical conditions that display dandruff-like symptoms, your scalp may build up a resistance or maybe you’re simply using the wrong shampoo.

Problems with Dandruff Shampoos

The first reaction by many people when they find recurring little flakes of skin in their hair or on their clothes is to go out and buy a dandruff shampoo from the local store. At first they may seem to work, showing immediate effects and can also soothe the irritation of your scalp that accompanies dandruff. Unfortunately many people see no significant results after several weeks of continuous use or a shampoo that’s previously been effective can stop working.

Panic may set in and looking up dandruff symptoms on Google has you convinced you have everything from a dry scalp to eczema or psoriasis. If your dandruff seems persistent it can be helpful to visit a healthcare specialist or dermatologist who can rule out any other possible causes of flaking skin on the scalp. If it’s a more chronic condition, a doctor can prescribe remedies which may be stronger than over the counter shampoos, including steroid-based topical lotions, when used short term can help put you back on the right track.

Another option could be to look at the shampoo you’re using. Medicated shampoos contain chemical agents that irritate many sensitive scalps and cause more flaking which can be mistaken for dandruff. And sometimes your scalp develops a resistance to the active agents used in various dandruff shampoos. Changing the product you use or looking at home-DIY solutions using natural ingredients can be all it takes to eliminate that stubborn dandruff.

Is It Really Dandruff?

To decide whether your dandruff shampoo isn’t working, you first of all need to determine if you’re experiencing dandruff or another condition like dry scalp. To many people these both look the same, but they’re two different conditions with different treatment needed to get rid of each. Using a dandruff shampoo can initially eradicate the dandruff but continued use of the shampoo may strip oils and moisture from the scalp resulting in flaking often mistaken for dandruff.

Dandruff is caused by a fungus, Malassezia, which lives naturally on the scalp and feeds on the oils or sebum produced by the scalp. An abundance of dead skin cells on the scalp trap oils, which in turn feed the fungus allowing it to grow at a quicker pace. A buildup of hair care products or shampoos, not washing the hair enough or well enough and leaving the hair damp (i.e. going to bed with damp hair) all create an environment where dandruff can grow.

Dry scalp simply refers to the dry skin on your scalp caused by many factors including climate and cold weather, harsh chemicals found in shampoos, residues left behind by styling products or even shampooing too often. Although flakes caused by dry scalp are mistaken for dandruff, they’re normally smaller, have more of a white color than the yellowish tint of dandruff and don’t feel greasy when rubbed between the fingers. Scratching a dry scalp results in a snow fall around the shoulders whereas running your hand through a scalp with dandruff will usually end up with flakes of dandruff stuck under your fingernails and they’ll feel oily too.

Dandruff Shampoo Vs Dry Scalp Treatment

What starts off as dandruff sometimes develops into a dry scalp through the overtreatment of dandruff. Medicated shampoos for dandruff aim to create a hostile environment for the fungus that cause it by removing natural oils from the scalp and starving the fungus. Shampoos that clarify and cleanse the hair of natural oils should be used as directed, often daily until the dandruff disappears.

Ingredients like zinc pyrithione (the active compound found in Head and Shoulders) and ketoconazole combat and reduce the dandruff-causing fungi. Anti-dandruff shampoos are designed to eliminate dandruff and once it has gone you should stop using it and switch to a shampoo that can nourish the scalp and hair. Using a medicated dandruff shampoo all the time can result in severe cases of dry scalp as it continues to remove natural oils and moisture needed by the hair and scalp in the moderate quantities.

You may think the dandruff shampoo has stopped working when the flakiness returns but this can often be fixed by changing to a shampoo that nourishes and moisturizes the scalp and hair. There are many gentle shampoos that use natural moisturizers like Aloe vera or essential oils specifically designed to treat a dry scalp which can often be used for underlying conditions too like eczema or psoriasis. Using a good balanced shampoo and conditioner every two to three days can quickly relieve the flakiness and irritation of a dry scalp. Washing your hair too often can make your dry scalp worse and washing too little may result in a return of dandruff.

Has Your Scalp Developed a Resistance?

Medicated dandruff shampoos typically use one of four active ingredients to combat dandruff.

Zinc pyrithione works by reducing the Malassezia fungus and is found in many popular leading shampoos, with ketoconazole found in other shampoos working against a broad array of fungi. Selenium sulfide limits cell reproduction and even reduces the amount of fungi while salicylic acid acts as a scrub to remove dead skin and flakes from the scalp.

The scalp, over time, builds up a resistance to many of these ingredients, just as the body does with medicines. If a shampoo, which has previously been effective, slowly stops working and the dandruff reappears it may be time to change shampoos. Try to select a shampoo which uses a different active ingredient as the main dandruff-fighting agent.

Other alternatives include using a holistic or homeopathic shampoo which employs botanicals for their natural properties of eradicating dandruff. Natural ingredients like tea tree oil have been proven to fight dandruff-causing fungi and can be found in many holistic shampoos. Other essentials oils used in many of the more popular natural shampoos include sage oil, lavender oil, eucalyptus, lemon and citrus oils, lemongrass, peppermint oil and myrrh, as carried by the three wise men.

Natural Remedies for When Dandruff Shampoo Is Not Working

Herbal or botanical essences are very effective in cleansing the scalp, controlling irritation and dandruff and are generally much gentler on the skin with less chance of a dry scalp. Many botanical ingredients also have natural anti-inflammatory, antiviral or antioxidant properties that can help with the symptoms of more chronic conditions like psoriasis.

DIY scalp masks, essential oils and even that humble bottle of olive oil in the kitchen can all be used as alternative treatments for relieving the symptoms of dandruff and other scalp conditions. Lemon juice or apple cider vinegar can be used to balance the pH of the scalp helping keep dandruff at bay and removes the build up of dandruff shampoos.

It’s not just mumbo jumbo either! Scientific research has found that some compounds occurring naturally can have anti-inflammatory benefits, like oleocanthal in olive oil which has similar properties to ibuprofen. Using natural ingredients will not only attack the cause of the dandruff but also help soothe and relieve itchiness and flaking caused by dandruff. Constant scratching may lead to breaking the skin and bleeding which often results in further inflammation or infection.

The following YouTube video looks at three of the top natural home remedies for dandruff.

If Everything Else Fails, Try an Aspirin!

Although not really a natural ingredient, aspirin is found in most homes as commonly as many other natural solutions. The main active ingredient of aspirin is salicylic acid which is found in many medicated dandruff shampoos. By simply crushing a couple of aspirins to a fine powder and adding them to the normal amount of shampoo you use to wash your hair, you can significantly reduce the flaking.


There can be many reasons why your dandruff shampoo appears not to be working but fortunately most of them are reversible. By simply changing your shampoo or trying alternative treatments you’ll hopefully regain control over the dandruff on your scalp. If the dandruff remains persistent and nothing seems to work, it may be time to visit the doctor and see if there’s a more serious complaint causing your scalp problems and that snowfall around your collar.

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