What is in Your Dandruff shampoo?

Grandmothers go by very different names, but when it comes to home remedies they seem to share the same handbook. These days, science is taking a few pages from that book. We now know that honey works better than antibiotic cream for burns, and homemade honey cough syrup allows children (and their parents!) to sleep better than over-the-counter meds. And when it comes to Malassezia – which despite how it sounds is NOT a tropical island – they seem to know a thing or two about that as well. If you haven’t heard of it, Malassezia is a type of fungus that causes dandruff. Usually it’s pretty harmless, but when immune defenses are down it can become an opportunistic pathogen.

Unfortunately, store-bought dandruff shampoos usually contain highly toxic ingredients. Coal tar, which carries a level 10 hazard warning from the Environmental Working Group (the highest possible), has been banned from cosmetics in Canada and the European Union. What does the FDA say about it? Why, that it’s “safe and effective,” of course! Another common ingredient – recorcinol – has been shown to cause thyroid problems (including goiter) and effects on the central nervous system. And of course, there are so many more ingredients that are thought to be toxic to us and/or the environment: polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVP), ketoconazole, formaldehyde, selenium sulfide, zinc pyrithione, sodium lauryl sulfate, detergents, artificial colors, and fragrance.

Fortunately, there are home remedies that are very effective for clearing dandruff up.


Raw honey is a natural humectant that helps hair hold onto moisture while delivering a powerful infusion of vitamins A,C,D,E, B-complex, beta-carotene and tons of minerals including iron, magnesium, potassium, manganese, calcium, and phosphorous. Grandmas have long recommended it to prevent thinning hair, which makes sense if you think about it. Dandruff can plug hair follicles and prevent new hair from growing in, and honey eliminates dandruff.

In this study thirty patients with seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff were asked to rub diluted honey on their scalp and massage for 2-3 minutes every other day, then leave it on for 3 hours. Itching was relieved and scaling disappeared within one week, while skin lesions were healed and disappeared completely within 2 weeks – those who continued the treatment once per week had no relapses. Twelve of the 15 patients who did not continue the honey regimen relapsed within 2-4 months. More on treating the root cause of dandruff at the bottom of this post.

How To Use It

Wet hair, apply diluted raw honey (90% honey and 10% water). Massage into scalp for 2-3 minutes, then let it sit for three hours while you catch up on your favorite show, read, or fold laundry. Rinse with warm water. If desired, follow with 1/4 cup vinegar and 3/4 cup water to seal the hair cuticle and make hair shiny.

Repeat every other day for about two weeks. In the study, participants reported that their dandruff was gone within two weeks. Those who continued the honey treatment once a week after that had no relapses, while those who did not relapsed in 2-4 months.

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Bonus Remedy: Apple Cider Vinegar

Though there’s not a study to explain why, grandmas have long recommended rinsing with vinegar for a healthy scalp and shiny hair. According to this article, the “acidity of apple cider vinegar changes the pH of your scalp, so it’s not an ideal environment for yeast [a type of fungus] to grow.” While that’s true, the reason it works may also have to do with the natural probiotics contained in raw apple cider vinegar, which help fight bacteria and fungi. It also contains enzymes that may help open clogged hair follicles.

Whatever the reason, the participant in this informal experiment rated apple cider vinegar as one of the most effective home remedies for dandruff. The other winner – baking soda – is not one I prefer due to the potential for causing hair breakage. (When used infrequently as part of the ‘no poo” method it may not cause a problem, when used frequently to manage dandruff it might.)

How To Use It

Mix equal parts apple cider vinegar and water together. Pour mixture into a spray bottle and apply to freshly washed scalp and hair. Make sure not to get in in your eyes – ouch! Put on a shower cap and allow the mixture to sit for 15 minutes to two hours, then rinse with warm water. Repeat twice per week until dandruff is gone, then use as needed.


While honey and apple cider vinegar are very effective at eliminating dandruff, they do not address possible imbalances that could be the cause of dandruff. In a small study, supplementation with probiotics provided a 70% reduction in dandruff after 4-5 weeks.

Heather Dessinger, aka Mommypotamus, is a wife, blogger and mom to three amazing kiddos. She delights in all things fermenty, talks to sock puppets, and loves writing about DIY beauty and home recipes, real food, and natural remedies.

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