Skip to main content

These Are the Best Shampoos for an Itchy Scalp, According to Dermatologists

Itching: It’s an evolutionary function for protection, but when it doesn’t cease, it becomes torturous. Scalp itching, in particular, is a special slice of hell. Not to be confused with dandruff (though dandruff may well be one of its main root causes), scalp itch is typically caused by a number of chronic skin conditions. The good news? A variety of over-the-counter medications can help provide relief.

Below, two board-certified dermatologists — Kunal Malik of Spring Street Dermatology and Barry Goldman of Goldman Dermatology, both in NYC — weigh in on scalp itch, its key causes, and the best remedies for treating it.

The Best Shampoos for an Itchy Scalp: At a Glance

Best Overall

Nizoral 1% Ketoconazole Shampoo

Buy Now On Amazon $15.47 Jump to Details

Harry’s Shampoo-Conditioner with Pyrithione Zinc

Buy Now at harry’s $8.00 Jump to Details
best salicylic acid shampoo for scalp itch

Neutrogena T/Sal Salicylic Acid Shampoo

Buy Now On Amazon $7.32 Jump to Details
best piroctone olamine shampoo for scalp itch

Sebamed Piroctone Olamine Shampoo

Buy Now at sebamed $19.99 Jump to Details
best selenium sulfide shampoo for scalp itch

Selsun Blue Moisturizing Anti-dandruff Shampoo with Aloe, 11 fl. oz., Selenium Sulfide 1%

Buy Now On Amazon $7.48 Jump to Details

True+Real Coal Tar Shampoo (Pack of 2)

Buy Now On Amazon $16.99 Jump to Details
best tea tree oil shampoo for scalp itch

Tea Tree by Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Shampoo for Oily Scalps

Buy Now On Amazon $18.00 Jump to Details

What Causes Scalp Itch?

Most itchy scalps are caused by some sort of dermal inflammatory condition like seborrheic or contact dermatitis (dandruff), folliculitis, or a chronic skin condition like eczema or psoriasis. Allergic reactions to ingredients in certain shampoos or conditioners can cause itchiness, too, as well as unwelcome guests like scabies and head lice. “Many of my patients over-exfoliate the scalp by using multiple products such as shampoos, hair masks, scrubs, hair dyes, and more,” Malik says. “Sometimes hair growth products such as topical minoxidil can cause irritation, too.”

Scalp Itch Remedies

Over-the-Counter Remedies for Scalp Itch

The first step to treating scalp itch is identifying its cause — whether it’s a fungus, bacteria, or inflammatory agent — and finding the right active ingredient to neutralize it. They won’t all work the same way, though, so it’ll likely take some trial and error. Consult with a professional to find the right one.


What It Is: Ketoconazole is an antifungal medication used in many prescription and OTC shampoos to control yeast and fungal proliferation and treat flaking, burning, scaling, and itching.

What It Targets: While primarily used to treat seborrheic dermatitis (namely dandruff), ketoconazole is a common defense against scalp ringworm (tinea capitis), as well as other bodily fungal problems such as jock itch, ringworm, and athlete’s foot.

Best Overall

Both doctors listed Nizoral as a gold-standard shampoo for scalp itch. “Nizoral shampoo has been the most effective [anti-itch shampoo] in my experience,” says Goldman “There is a 1 percent OTC version and a 2 percent prescription version.”

Pyrithione Zinc

What It Is: This zinc complex can prevent the proliferation of bacteria and fungus, though it doesn’t always destroy them outright.

What It Targets: Use pyrithione zinc to treat seborrheic dermatitis (namely dandruff), or in smaller concentrations as a routine preventative measure.

Courtesy of Harry’s

This is just one of two scalp-soothing shampoos from Harry’s, the other of which doubles the dosage of pyrithione zinc for more severe cases. This one is formulated to be used at the first sign of itching or flaking for an easy fix, or once every week or two as a preventative measure. 

Salicylic Acid

What It Is: Salicylic acid is an oil-soluble ingredient often derived from willow bark extract. It is also known as a beta-hydroxy acid or BHA, and it can seep into the pores to temper oil levels and clear out dead skin cells.

What It Targets: When used to target scalps, salicylic acid is a terrific quick-fix and short term solution, says Goldman. It can help free up any flakes and dry skin from the scalp while reducing the oil buildup that abets dandruff.

Courtesy of Amazon
best salicylic acid shampoo for scalp itch

Kunal cites Neutrogena’s salicylic acid shampoo as a go-to for excessively oily scalps, which inherently become prone to itching and flaking. It has a higher concentration of salicylic acid than most facial products (3 percent compared to the usual 2 percent), so it works especially well at removing dead skin cells and balancing oil levels.

Piroctone Olamine

What It Is: Often positioned as a gentler alternative for pyrithione zinc and ketoconazole, piroctone olamine is an antifungal chemical compound that can also temper oil levels. 

What It Targets: Seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff) and other fungal concerns, specifically for people with sensitive skin.

Courtesy of Amazon
best piroctone olamine shampoo for scalp itch

This shampoo is optimal for anyone with a sensitive or easily-irritated scalp. It uses piroctone olamine for gentle, routine defense against fungal outbreaks, and keeps the scalp’s pH levels balanced so that it never leaves skin dry or irritated. It is also formulated in Germany, which means it passes the EU’s stricter standards for skin-safe formulations.

Selenium Sulfide

What It Is: An antifungal chemical compound (of selenium and sulfur) with exfoliating and oil-tempering abilities. It draws many comparisons to salicylic acid in that both target acne, oil, and dandruff. Sulfur does tend to be more drying to the skin, though, so those with dry or sensitive skin should consult with a professional before trying it. 

What It Targets: Seborrheic dermatitis/dandruff, as well as scalp ringworm (tinea capitis). 

Courtesy of Amazon
best selenium sulfide shampoo for scalp itch

Of the many shampoos on scalp-savior Selsun Blue’s roster, this one pairs the maximum-strength OTC concentration of 1 percent selenium sulfide with the cooling and anti-inflammatory powers of aloe vera to keep the scalp cleansed, balanced, and nourished.

Coal Tar

What It Is: Yes, it’s a byproduct of coal gas production, but it’s also been deemed an effective treatment for psoriasis by the American Academy of Dermatology

What It Targets: In shampoos, coal tar is optimal for countering seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis.

Courtesy of Amazon

Most coal tar shampoos don’t go above 0.5-percent grades, but this one offers a 1-percent concentration to give people with psoriasis, and those with persistent itching and dandruff, a big leg up. 

Tea Tree Oil

What It Is: An essential oil with antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.

What It Targets: Tea tree oil can help temper oil production while also neutralizing bacteria and fungus that often lead to dandruff. It can also calm itching and inflammation on contact, but should only be used in carefully formulated products, since standalone tea tree oil can be irritating to the skin.

Courtesy of Amazon
best tea tree oil shampoo for scalp itch

Goldman calls out this shampoo for its oil-balancing prowess. While it may not pack the same punch as an anti-dandruff remedy compared to the more active ingredients above, it’s exceptional as an anti-itch solution and for preventing oil buildup in the first place (which in turn stifles things like itching and flaking). 

Prescriptions Remedies for Scalp Itch

A board-certified dermatologist should examine any persistent or extremely intolerable itching. If OTC remedies aren’t working — Goldman suggests drawing the line at a month — and then getting in to see the doctor. Anything with scabbing, constant peeling, or pain should be treated immediately.

There’s a good chance the doctor will prescribe something with a higher concentration of the above ingredients. “For example, prescription Nizoral shampoo contains 2 percent ketoconazole, while over-the-counter contains 1 percent,” he explains. 

Goldman adds that prescription steroid solutions are another common remedy. Don’t be fooled by the percentage attached to each, though, since the prescriptions usually use more potent molecules in their formulas. “Instead of over-the-counter hydrocortisone 1 percent drops for scalp irritation, a  prescription solution of 0.01% fluocinolone is still a more effective steroid despite a lower concentration.”