Take a permanent break from dandruff and oily scalps
Beloved by many dermatologists, salicylic acid wins practically every skincare popularity contest. And since shampoos started incorporating the ingredient into their formulas, it’s garnered quite a few adoring fans in the haircare community, too. “Not only are salicylic acid shampoos good for hair, but they are a safe and effective clarifying treatment for your scalp,” says celebrity hairstylist and founder of Deeper Than Hair, Annagjid “Kee” Taylor.
How exactly? Well, the beta hydroxy acid (BHA) is an oil-soluble acid that loosens clumps of dead skin, which, yes sounds gross, but also makes it extremely effective at cleansing the scalp of dirt, dry skin, and product build-up that leads to dandruff and irritation. It’s even recommended by the National Psoriasis Foundation as a first-rate therapy for treating the itchy, red scaly patches symptomatic of this condition.
With help from a board-certified dermatologist and highly sought-after hair stylist, we conducted hours of research on the best shampoos with salicylic acid, evaluating each pick on its active ingredients to soothe inflamed skin, reduce dandruff, and treat oily scalps. We also considered any extra factors, like hydrating ingredients and hair type to land on these top-rated picks.
3% Salicylic acid
Helps with a wide range of issues related to dryness
Not the most pleasant scent
Sure, it’s not the most luxurious packaging to place on your top shelf but simply put: this no-frills therapeutic shampoo gets the job done. It “helps alleviate the scalp of buildup while nourishing follicles,” says board-certified dermatologist Mona Gohara, M.D., who adds that this shampoo is also “very effective at helping patients with psoriasis on the scalp.” Plus, we won’t deny that the affordable price is also a bit of a selling point.
The short ingredient list includes the most important one—3% salicylic acid. At this amount, the ingredient is very effective at detoxifying the scalp without feeling too stripping. Additionally, it has no added fragrance, silicones, or sulfates so it’s a safe choice for those with sensitive skin, too (though we always recommend doing a patch test before applying a new product).
Keep in mind the scent isn’t for every nose, and while it’s not going to leave you smelling like you just had a fancy blowout, we appreciate that it dissipates quickly.
Price at time of publish: $7
Ingredients: Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate | Salicylic Acid Percentage: 3% | Size: 4.5 oz | Uses: Controls the symptoms of dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis
Hydrating and strengthening ingredients
Only 2% salicylic acid
If there’s any brand that can make dandruff shampoo look sexy, it’s the supermodel-approved one Oribe. Peeking inside the shiny shell-pink bottle, you’ll find an enticing list of ingredients that sound beautiful and deliver stunning results to your hair. Orange, lemon, and sugar cane extracts help hair lock in moisture imparted by glycerin, a lightweight humectant great for quenching dry stands. Quinoa also makes an appearance—this mighty plant protein soothes itchy scalps and strengthens your hair so that over time you’ll see less raggedy ends and shinier-looking locks.
While the formula doesn’t contain a super high percentage of salicylic acid, this shampoo still does a stellar job of vanquishing flakes as it works in tandem with niacinamide to refresh skin and reduce flakiness. What’s more, thanks to its inclusion of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory ingredients such as limonene, you could finally find relief from irritated skin.
Price at time of publish: $52
Ingredients: Orange and lemon fruit extracts, sugarcane extract, glycerin | Salicylic Acid Percentage: 2% | Size: 8.5 oz | Uses: Relieve dryness and redness, eliminate flakes
Safe on color-treated hair
No added fragrance
3% salicylic acid
It’s a little drying
If you took one look at the ingredient list and balked at the idea of using sulfates, hear us out. Gohara recommends this shampoo because she says that the “BHA is steeped in a gentle shampoo surfactant,” known as SLES, which Dr. Rachel Nazarian of Schweiger Dermatology Group previously told us that this kind of sulfate has a much lower rate of irritation than an SLS like sodium lauryl sulfate. Used alongside the high percentage of salicylic acid, the ingredients work beautifully to cast away flakes, dissolve build-up, and mitigate the effects of psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis. Additionally, it’s free of fragrances, dyes, and PABA — a potentially harmful acid that could cause negative skin reactions.
If you have fine or thin hair, we recommend following this one up with a hydrating conditioner (perhaps a leave-in one), since it can be slightly drying.
Price at time of publish: $12
Ingredients: USP, Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate | Salicylic Acid Percentage: 3% | Size: 4 oz | Uses: Relieves discomfort of severe itching and inflammation
Uses almost all naturally derived ingredients
Helps with hair loss
Low percentage of salicylic acid
Taylor initially steered us toward this shampoo for those experiencing hair loss, and after seeing its natural formula and sustainable manufacturing practices, we were sold on the idea of using it. In addition to salicylic acid, the formula leans on multi-talented ingredients that simultaneously remove oil buildup and result in more voluminous hair. Ginseng and turmeric, for example, have not only been shown to promote hair growth, but they also boast anti-inflammatory properties that quell itchy skin. Lactic acid is another star player that gently breaks down pore-clogging dirt, opens the follicle up to new growth, and boosts vibrancy.
P.S.: Aveda is a B-Corp-certified and Leaping Bunny-approved company so you can feel good while you use this product too.
Price at time of publish: $36
Ingredients: Sodium Lauroyl Methyl Isethionate, Sodium Chloride, Methyl Soyate, | Salicylic Acid Percentage: Not listed | Size: 6.7 oz | Uses: For thinning hair or hair loss
Contains BHAs and AHAs
The smell isn’t for everyone
We’ve written many love letters to Briogeo for creams and masks that give us those Meg Ryan-defined curls, but even when we seek a solution to the less glamorous problem of red, scabby scalps, the brand has us covered. Think of this formula like a pricey facial for your scalp; it takes your hair through a serious (but less invasive) detox using 3% salicylic acid, charcoal, and lactic acid. As you shed flakes away, tea tree and peppermint oil soothe inflamed skin and fight oil-causing bacteria with their antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects.
And, lucky for us, you won’t be replacing one irritating situation with another (read: residue) since coconut oil and hyaluronic acid drench dry strands without weighing them down.
Price at time of publish: $37
Ingredients: Lactic acid, binchotan charcoal, tea tree oil | Salicylic Acid Percentage: 3% | Size: 8.4 oz | Uses: Relieve dry, itchy scalps and dandruff
Requires consistent use
For everything dandruff shampoos get wrong, Ouai gets right. First, instead of dehydrating strands with sulfates, it leaves out this chemical in favor of more moisturizing ingredients like glycerin, which feels lightweight on your hair and softens it. And where many anti-dandruff shampoos have a slightly unpleasant smell, this one infuses notes of ginger, spearmint, and green fig to leave your hair with a fresh scent we’d associate with summer mornings or the ever-alluring Byredo Gypsy Water perfume. In terms of stopping flakes from falling and soothing irritation, the formula uses 2% salicylic acid, and citric acid, a gentle ingredient that breaks down build-up and imparts shine on your strands (hello, Selena Gomez- style liquid locks).
Our suggestion: Practice patience with this shampoo and it’ll reward you down the line—since it leaves out harsher ingredients it may take a couple of consistent washes to wave dandruff goodbye for good.
Price at time of publish: $36
Ingredients: Propanediol caprylate, glycerin, citric acid | Salicylic Acid Percentage: 2% | Size: 10 oz | Uses: Reduce flaking, itching, and irritation
Good for sensitive scalps
Low percentage of salicylic acid
Whether you’re combing out the remnants from the deluge of products required for a slicked-back bun or you have a dry, flaky scalp, consider this shampoo like a ginger shot for your hair: invigorating, soothing, and balancing.
Menthol and apple cider vinegar get right to work calming irritation and exfoliating the scalp, leaving behind a tingling feeling as a telltale sign that they’re working. Its other benefits—like promoting hair growth through niacinamide and red flower extract—may take a little longer to see, but we’re in it for the long run. And although it only contains 0.25% of salicylic acid (a relatively low amount), the BHA still works so well with the naturally acidic apple cider vinegar to deep-clean the hair, balance the pH of your scalp, and rid it of dandruff.
Price at time of publish: $35
Ingredients: Apple cider vinegar, red clover flower extract, menthol | Salicylic Acid Percentage: 0.25% | Size: 4 oz | Uses: Dissolve product buildup, reduce irritation, stop shedding
Takes a while to work up a lather
This shampoo and conditioner act as dual magicians to vanish irritated, red, and acne-prone scalps. Both products use salicylic acid to combat oil while fortifying strands with moisturizing ingredients like lactic acid and wheat protein. We are also thrilled to see menthol and rosemary oil listed on the bottle since these anti-inflammatory ingredients have a soothing, cooling sensation that’ll feel fantastic on aggravated skin.
The conditioner contains two super effective dandruff-fighting ingredients—climbazole and piroctone olamine—which are powerhouses in reducing flakiness and hydrating your tresses. And as a bonus for anyone who experiences scalp acne, the shampoo includes ginger root extract, an ingredient some dermatologists recommend to treat breakouts.
One suggestion: You may need to put in a little more elbow grease to work up a rich foam, but we promise the formula delivers as promised.
Price at time of publish: $67
Ingredients: Ginger root extract, lactic acid, hydrolyzed wheat protein | Salicylic Acid Percentage: Not listed | Size: 8.4 oz | Uses: Reduce tightness and dryness
It’s a little drying
We cheated—this is technically a serum but it works so well at cleaning hair you may not even need to use it alongside a shampoo. While the silky formula bathes your locks with a bevy of luscious essential oils like jasmine (that leave your hair smelling divine, FYI), it’s also nourishing it with vitamins B and F. However, what we’re most impressed with is its prowess as a clarifying shampoo.
In addition to exfoliating the scalp with salicylic acid, it also contains glycolic acid, an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) to slough off dead skin and help the hair retain moisture, hence your shinier tresses. Witch hazel and rose clay act similarly to how they do in your favorite toners in face masks by sopping up oil with their naturally astringent properties. And, you may even see your hair become fuller and more voluminous with the aid of niacinamide and zinc, two ingredients that have been shown to promote hair growth.
We appreciate how this formula is safe for sensitive skin, though since it’s working overtime to rid all of the dirt and grime buildup in your hair it can leave strands a little parched, so be sure to follow up with a conditioner
Price at time of publish: $48
Ingredients: Glycolic acid, niacinamide, rose clay | Salicylic Acid Percentage: Not listed | Size: 4 oz | Uses: Detoxifies, removes buildup, reduces oiliness
The shampoo with salicylic acid you choose depends on your hair type and needs, but for one that delivers amazing results at removing build-up while still being gentle, we like the Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo-Scalp Build-Up Control. Not only is it dermatologist-recommended and contains 3% salicylic acid, but it helps alleviate symptoms of more serious issues such as psoriasis. For something that’ll treat your hair to true luxury and combat dandruff, you can’t beat the Oribe Serene Scalp Anti-Dandruff Shampoo. Though on the pricier side, we think its effective formula and list of strengthening and nourishing ingredients are well worth the splurge.
It really depends on what your hair needs, says Taylor, but “in order to see improvement in the health of your hair” she recommends a formula that contains at least 3% salicylic acid. However, the best part about this ingredient is that it works really well with different exfoliators, so if you find your percentage lower than 3%, try to find a formula that contains other acidic and clarifying ingredients such as glycolic acid or apple cider vinegar, which can be found in the dpHUE Apple Cider Vinegar Exfoliating Scalp Detox.
Those with scalp disorders like seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis may want to consult with their doctor or dermatologists about finding a medicated shampoo with a higher concentration.
Hydration is key when it comes to shampoos with salicylic acid—Taylor recommends looking for moisturizing ingredients like jojoba oil or hyaluronic acid, which is featured in the Briogeo MegaStrength+ Dandruff Relief Shampoo. She also suggests sticking with formulas that don’t contain sulfates or parabens as “these will tend to dry out your strands and scalp even further.” This isn’t the case for everyone, but it’s something worth considering if your hair is particularly prone to dryness.
Gohara says you can also keep an eye out for clarifiers like kaolin clay, “an absorbing mineral-rich clay,” that works well alongside salicylic acid to gently rid your scalp of impurities.
If you’re dealing with dandruff, acne, itchiness, oily scalps, or product buildup—you name it— a salicylic acid shampoo can probably help treat it. The acid gets to the root of most problems by penetrating deep into pores and ridding them of the dirt and oil that cause these issues in the first place.
Is salicylic acid shampoo good for hair?
In some studies, scientists have found that salicylic acid prevents hair loss, but overall, Gohara says it does “more for the scalp than the hair.” Since its primary purpose is as an exfoliator, it gets rid of dead skin cells to promote a healthier scalp environment.
“The scalp skin is just as important to maintain as non-hair baring skin,” she says, adding that by using a salicylic acid shampoo you might relieve symptoms of psoriasis, and alleviate itchiness or irritation caused by product build-up.
What does salicylic acid shampoo do?
Essentially, salicylic acid is an exfoliant that sheds away dead skin cells and opens up your pores, allowing for increased hydration and hair growth. It’s a “beta hydroxy acid, which helps to cut through oils and sebum,” says Gohara, who adds that it’s beneficial in cleansing away build-up that leads to greasy, oily hair.
Why should I use a salicylic acid shampoo?
The real question is, why not? From treating oily scalps to banishing breakouts, a salicylic acid shampoo is a potential solution to many common hair concerns, says Taylor.
“Since it breaks down the layers of thick skin on your scalp, it’s great for helping to treat dandruff, scalp psoriasis, eczema, and dermatitis,” she says, adding, however, that you should always consult a doctor before use if you suffer from these conditions. Another suggestion: If you have super sensitive or broken skin, you might not want to use this ingredient in case it aggravates the situation.
How often can you use salicylic acid shampoo?
With consistent use over time, both of our experts agree that washing your hair with a salicylic acid shampoo one or two times a week should be sufficient to see your desired results. Using it any more frequently could increase scalp irritation, so be sure to monitor your skin, take note of any aggravation, and perform a patch test before applying a new product. Also, it’s a good idea to always follow up with a moisturizing conditioner or find a shampoo with hydrating ingredients like glycerin or jojoba seed oil to avoid any dryness.
Irene Richardson is a writer covering fashion and beauty trends for Byrdie. For this story, she conducted hours of research on dozens of shampoos with salicylic acid, analyzing each formula. She consulted board-certified dermatologist Dr. Mona Gohara and hair expert Annagjid “Kee” Taylor.
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