How many times have you ditched dark-colored clothes and avoided combing your hair when you’re out, just so you won’t have to deal with visible flakes? Or maybe you’ve dreaded winter dinner parties because you tend to arrive looking like it’s been snowing outside, even though—spoiler alert—it’s really just your dandruff?
Despite it being an extremely common scalp condition, dandruff can be physically irritating, socially embarrassing, and difficult to treat.
There are anti-dandruff shampoos and hair products with active ingredients such as ketoconazole and salicylic acid, which can help ease some of the symptoms. But these treatments aren’t effective for everybody, and if you’re struggling to find a solution or simply feel more comfortable with natural remedies, you might want to give essential oils a shot.
Which Essential Oils Can Help Dandruff?
Studies have shown that essential oils such as tea tree, lemongrass, and eucalyptus can help address the underlying causes of dandruff and ease some of its symptoms.
So If you’re not keen on using over-the-counter products or find them ineffective in treating your dandruff, you might look to essential oils. Here are the essential oils with the most supporting research for dandruff treatment.
Tea Tree Oil
Undoubtedly one of the most well-known essential oils, tea tree oil has been used for centuries as an antifungal and antibacterial agent. This oil comes from the leaves of Melaleuca alternifolia (Australian tea tree) and is now commonly found in hair products marketed to alleviate itchiness, dandruff, and dry scalp.
In 2006, a clinical microbiology review found that a 5% tea tree oil shampoo is effective in treating mild to moderate dandruff, with patients also reporting improvements in scalp itchiness and greasiness.
Most of us are familiar with lemongrass as it’s used in cooking and food preparation, but it’s also widely used as an ancient medicine for its antioxidant properties. Lemongrass oil can also act as an astringent and help regulate the amount of sebum (oil) produced by our skin and scalp, making us less prone to grease and the growth of Malassezia.
A small, randomized trial in 2015 tested the efficacy of this essential oil in treating dandruff. They found that the hair tonic containing 10% lemongrass oil significantly reduced dandruff by the 7th day of use and had a further increased effect by the 14-day mark.
Eucalyptus oil comes from the Australia-native eucalyptus tree and is touted for its anti-inflammatory and natural healing properties for colds, wounds, and infections. Its main ingredient is cineole or eucalyptol, which can kill bacteria and help ease a dry, itchy scalp.
A comparative study found that the essential oil extracts from three eucalyptus species had analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects, making it a potentially effective agent in addressing dandruff and scalp dryness and irritation. When diluted with coconut oil, it was also found effective in treating Malassezia, the fungus that causes dandruff.
Jojoba isn’t actually an oil; it’s a wax ester. It’s derived from the jojoba shrub, with a consistency that closely resembles the sebum that our skin naturally produces. As such, it’s a perfect carrier oil for essential oils.
As they’re similar in structure and consistency, jojoba oil is able to dissolve the scalp’s excess sebum. It also acts as a humectant, locking moisture in so that your skin stays hydrated.
The combination of jojoba oil’s anti-inflammatory and moisturizing effects make it an ideal treatment for dry, itchy scalps and skin conditions that lead to redness and flakiness.
DIY Essential Oil Solutions for Treating Your Dandruff
The cardinal rule for using essential oils on your scalp is to always dilute it with another substance such as water, shampoo, or another type of oil (known as carrier oils). This is because essential oils can be potent and cause irritation and allergic reactions when applied directly on the scalp. Examples of carrier oils that you can mix with drops of your chosen essential oil include:
- jojoba oil
- olive oil
- coconut oil
- argan oil
- sesame seed oil
These carrier oils also have their respective beneficial properties but are called carrier oils here, as they’re typically used as diluents for essential oils.
Looking for the best way to make essential oils part of your routine? Here are our top 3 treatment ideas.
Add your chosen essential oil to a carrier oil in a 1:5 ratio. Part your hair and gently massage the solution into your scalp using short circular motions. Repeat for a few minutes, then let the solution soak for an additional 10 minutes before rinsing out.
Shampoo & Conditioning
Simply add a squirt of shampoo/conditioner to the palm of your hand, then add a few drops of your chosen essential oil, and apply as per your regular routine. Apply and rinse through thoroughly.
Frequency: Daily or as needed
Hair Mist Spray
Fill a spray bottle with cool water. Add two drops of essential oil for every cup of water. When your scalp itches, or whenever you need a little pick-me-up, spritz 2-3 pumps of the solution over your hair.
Frequency: As needed
PRO-TIP: If you have sensitive skin, start with 1-2 drops of essential oil. Over time, you can work your way up to a more balanced ratio depending on your scalp’s reaction and the observed effects on the severity of your dandruff.
Warnings and Precautions
When making your own essential oil solution to treat dandruff and a dry, itchy scalp, always make sure you check the manufacturer’s instructions and formulation suggestions.
Although using essential oils for dandruff control and treatment has been proven effective and continues to show promise, we should note that home remedies and experimenting with substances can upset your hair and scalp’s natural pH balance.
Human hair and the natural oil of the scalp typically has a pH balance of 4.5-5.5, but excessive use of essential oils or using formulas that are too concentrated can cause disruption to this natural balance.
How to Rebalance Scalp pH
After using essential oil treatments, if you notice that your hair is itchy, feels irritated, or looks visibly red and sore, we suggest that you stop the use of all essential oils. We also advise you to replace your regular shampoo and conditioner with a gentle, pH-balanced option – such as Giovanni Eco Chic 50:50.
What Causes Dandruff?
While essential oils can help control dandruff flares, it can also be useful to know what’s causing them in the first place.
Dandruff is a very common condition. It’s not life-threatening or contagious, and most cases do not require medical attention. Mild cases of dandruff can be caused by nothing more than product buildup combined with infrequent hair washing.
However, for those who have severe and chronic cases of dandruff, it’s possible that what appears as dandruff is actually a symptom of a medical condition affecting the skin and scalp such as:
- Eczema – dry, flaky, and itchy skin
- Contact Dermatitis – an allergic reaction to products and chemicals that leads to a red, itchy, and flaky scalp
- Tinea Capitis or Ringworm – appears as dry, red rashes which can be itchy, scaly, and swollen and lead to patchy hair loss
- Malassezia – a yeast-like fungus that feeds off of sebum or the oils produced by the scalp and thrives in warm, humid environments
- Seborrheic Dermatitis – a common skin disease that leads to scaly patches where the skin is oily and makes your scalp especially prone to dandruff
- Psoriasis – a condition where the skin cells regenerate too quickly, leading to red patches and scales. When the affected area is the scalp, this leads to increased itchiness and flaking, which then appears as dandruff
Other Contributing Factors
Beyond the core causes above, there are also additional circumstances that can trigger or worsen flares of dandruff.
- Poor Hygiene: Poor hygiene can worsen existing dandruff and make it more visible if you don’t wash your hair regularly.
- Cold Weather: Most people who suffer from dandruff dread winters because their symptoms tend to flare up around this time of the year. Cold air can dry out your scalp and lead to flaking (especially if you tend to have oily skin).
- Stress: Many report their dandruff getting worse when they’re stressed, but stress alone does not cause dandruff. In some cases, stress appears to worsen the scalp’s itchiness and dryness because of underlying skin conditions like psoriasis of the scalp.
Tea tree, lemongrass, and eucalyptus oil all have proven benefits for dandruff. Each of these oils represents a simple, DIY option to help alleviate your dandruff and itchy scalp.
Still, if after weeks of use your symptoms don’t improve—or worse, become more severe—please consult a dermatologist to check for any underlying conditions that need to be addressed and to find an effective treatment for your symptoms.