Dandruff--the single most common scalp complaint among hairstylists' clients--plays no favorites. Just about everyone has the problem to some degree, and it often leads to a scratch-and-itch cycle, says Maria Hordinsky, MD. Ignoring the condition lets scaling build up. That, in turn, can cause itching and scratching, and scratching too vigorously can wound the scalp and leave it vulnerable to infection. Fortunately, some simple home remedies can end this vicious cycle.
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1) Take advantage of summer sun. "A little sun exposure is good for dandruff," says Joseph F. Fowler Jr., MD. Direct ultraviolet light has an anti-inflammatory effect on scaly skin conditions, which may explain why dandruff tends to be less severe in summer.
But by all means use sun sense, says Dr. Fowler. Limit your exposure to 30 minutes or less each day, and apply your regular sunscreen to exposed skin. "You have to balance the sun's benefit to your scalp with its harmful effects on your skin in general," he notes.
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2) Shampoo often. The experts are unanimous on this point: Wash your hair often--every day, if necessary. "Generally, the more frequently you shampoo, the easier it is to control the dandruff," says Patricia Farris, MD.
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3) Start mild. You may be able to control the problem using a nonmedicated shampoo. Dandruff is frequently caused by an overly oily scalp, says hair-care specialist Philip Kingsley. Washing daily with a mild shampoo, diluted with an equal amount of water, can control the oil without aggravating your scalp.
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4) Then get tough. If regular shampoos don't do the job, switch to a dandruff-fighting formula. Dandruff shampoos are classified by their active ingredients, which work in different ways, says Yohini Appa, PhD. Tar-based shampoos slow cell production (see the next step), while salicylic acid-based shampoos slough off dead cells before they clump. Both types have antifungal properties and help fight invading yeast microbes, which is one of dandruff's most persistent triggers. Zinc pyrithione and selenium sulfide reduce cell turnover, while sulfur is believed to cause slight skin irritation--just enough to lead to the shedding of flakes.
5) Beat the tar out of it. "For very stubborn cases, I recommend tar-based formulas," says Dr. Farris. "Lather up and leave it on for 5 to 10 minutes so that the tar has a chance to work." Most people rinse dandruff shampoos off too quickly. Two brands to try: Sebutone Tar Shampoo and MG 217 Medicated Tar Shampoo.
6) Don't mix black with blond. If you have light hair, think twice about tar-based shampoos. In rare instances, they can give white, blond, bleached, or tinted hair a temporary brownish discoloration, says Dr. Farris.
7) Lather twice. Always go two rounds with a dandruff shampoo, says R. Jeffrey Herten, MD. Work up the first lather as soon as you step into the shower. Leave it on until you're almost ready to step out, then rinse your hair very thoroughly. Follow with another quick lather and rinse. This leaves just a bit of the medication on your scalp to work until your next shampoo.
8) Cap it. To improve the effectiveness of medicated shampoos, pull on a shower cap on after you've lathered up once or twice a week. Leave it on for an hour, then rinse as usual.
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9) Sleep off flakes. For people with especially stubborn scaling and crusting, Dr. Fowler recommends a particular OTC product called Psoriasin Scalp Multi- Symptom Psoriasis Relief. Apply it to your scalp at bedtime and cover your hair with a shower cap. Wash it out in the morning. You can do this every night, but Dr. Fowler recommends once-a-week treatments: "It's just too messy for daily use."
10) Get into condition. Although dandruff shampoos are effective on your scalp, they can be a little harsh on your hair, says Dr. Farris. Apply conditioner after every shampoo to counteract their effects.
11) Try thyme. This common kitchen herb is reputed to have mild antiseptic properties that can help alleviate dandruff. Make an effective rinse by boiling 4 heaping tablespoons of dried thyme in 2 cups of water for 10 minutes. Strain the brew and allow it to cool. Pour half of the mixture over clean, damp hair, making sure the liquid covers the scalp. Massage in gently. Do not rinse. Save the remainder for another day.
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12) Add some olive oil. Although excess scalp oil can cause problems, an occasional warm-oil treatment actually helps loosen and soften dandruff scales, says Dr. Herten. Heat a few ounces of olive oil on the stove until just warm. Wet your hair (otherwise the oil will soak into your strands), then apply the oil directly to your scalp with a brush or cotton ball. Section your hair as you go so that you treat just the scalp. Put on a shower cap and leave it on for 30 minutes. Then wash out the oil with a dandruff shampoo.
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