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Salicylic acid: how it fights dandruff & boosts scalp health

Written by Ross Goodhart

Reviewed by Dr. Julie Karen, MD

If you’re trying to heal a pimple overnight, salicylic acid is your best friend. So hey, rubbing it into your scalp could maybe cure your dandruff… right?

That may sound like a strange leap of logic to you, but the uses of salicylic acid for skin health go well beyond treating acne. In fact, it’s a proven, powerful ingredient for fighting dandruff - but only if you know how to use it. 

We’ll get into all the details about why and how you can use this powerful skincare ingredient to manage dandruff (along with how not to). But first, a quick primer on itchy, flaky scalps and their causes. 

What causes dandruff?

Dandruff is simply the flaking that results from irritation of the scalp. Those little white flakes that end up in your hair and on your shoulders? Those are simply dead skin cells - the result of an unhealthy scalp.

But what causes the scalp to get irritated in the first place? It turns out that many different issues can be a factor. These include skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and seborrheic dermatitis, as well as genetic skin sensitivities, dry skin caused by low humidity climates and cold weather, air pollution, food allergies, nutrition issues, and more. 

Even stress can be a factor. Just as some people get headaches, neck cramps, or stomach issues during difficult periods in their lives, other people’s skin can show signs of stress. Some people experience acne breakouts. Others are plagued by an itchy, irritated scalp. (Just what you need when you’re already stressed-out, right?)

Dandruff, which often first shows up during puberty (and lessens with older age), is also thought to be impacted by hormone levels. 

Dandruff can be managed, whatever the cause

Some lifestyle factors - like eating a healthy diet and trying to manage stress - can improve dandruff symptoms somewhat. Others, like your genes and the weather, are out of your control. In either case, dandruff can’t be cured.

Fortunately, there is a proven solution: regular use of professionally formulated, evidence-based dandruff treatments will help manage your flakes for good. Whether your genes, the climate, or your high-stress job (or all three) are to blame for your itchy, flaky scalp, effective dandruff treatments are almost always the same.

That’s because all cases of dandruff generally involve the same runaway process on your scalp. This involves irritation, excess sebum, and too much Malassezia. Sebum is a substance your body naturally produces to moisturize your skin and hair. Malassezia is a fungus that’s part of your skin’s natural microbiome. It consumes sebum and leaves waste products behind, to which some people are especially sensitive. This leads to skin irritation and those annoying flakes. 

An effective dandruff treatment will stop this process in its tracks. The goal is to clear the scalp of excess sebum and Malassezia, reducing irritation, and ridding your hair and clothing of embarrassing flakes. Regular use and a proven, science-based formulation are key. 

So what about salicylic acid? How exactly does it help stop dandruff?

Salicylic acid helps promote healthier skin sloughing, the process by which the outer layer of the skin normally sheds.

Salicylic acid for skin & scalp

Salicylic acid is a chemical that is found naturally in plants, and which we regularly consume small amounts of in a normal diet. People have used salicylic acid as part of traditional medicine for thousands of years, first recognizing its usefulness in the power of willow bark to reduce fevers and relieve pain. (Aspirin is in the same category of drugs - salicylates) 

These days, it’s manufactured in labs and found in over-the-counter acne treatments, callus and wart removers, and professional-strength chemical peels your dermatologist might offer to reduce the appearance of melasma (discoloration), sunspots, and other blemishes.

So why is salicylic acid so beneficial to scalp health? Here are four special properties that make it a high-power ingredient in dandruff-fighting formulas:

Pore-penetrating power

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid, and this is part of what makes its role in skin care so valuable. You might have heard of a related category of chemicals - alpha-hydroxy acids - being touted as important skin care ingredients. Alpha-hydroxy acids (like citric acid and glycolic acid) are known for their ability to gently exfoliate the skin. 

Beta-hydroxy acids like salicylic acid are also great for exfoliating skin cells, but because their chemical structure is slightly different, they are oil-soluble, making them more effective at penetrating deep into the pores (another word for this is lipophilic). Essentially, salicylic acid can cut through oily layers in the skin that alpha-hydroxy acids can’t reach. This is what makes salicylic acid so good at removing blackheads and whiteheads in acne treatment. 

Because dandruff involves the buildup of skin oils and Malassezia wastes, salicylic acid can also be a powerful aid in clearing away both the buildup that Malassezia feeds on and the waste the fungus produces that can contribute to irritation (which leads to flaking). This kind of deep cleaning can help keep the population of Malassezia on your scalp under control.

Promotes normal skin sloughing

Salicylic acid helps promote healthier skin sloughing, the process by which the outer layer of the skin normally sheds.

In a healthy scalp, outer, dead skin cells shed as new skin grows without us even noticing - we don’t feel or see this process. But in scalps with dandruff, the outer layer of skin often sticks together in larger, visible flakes or scales.

Salicylic acid is keratolytic - meaning it might help break apart and remove dead skin and unclog pores to speed along and normalize the sloughing process. And in case you’re curious, the cool-sounding technical term for this skin sloughing process is “desquamation,” which comes from a Latin root that refers to removing scales from a fish.

Calms pain and inflammation

Like its cousin aspirin (which is also a salicylic drug), salicylic acid also helps to reduce inflammation and pain. Reducing inflammation can be key to promoting healthier skin. 

That’s because soothing swelling is part of breaking the cycle of clogged pores, excess oil, and dead skin buildup. Salicylic acid also helps relieve pain directly through its analgesic properties. 

Antimicrobial powers

Salicylates are known for their ability to control or kill microbes. Salicylic acid fights fungus and bacteria. 

Since people experiencing dandruff tend to have too much Malassezia fungus on their scalps, salicylic acid can help handle the overpopulation. 

Don't DIY. Here's why.

Salicylic acid has powerful properties for skin and scalp care. But don’t try to do it yourself! It’s only safe to use as part of a science-driven, lab-tested, chemist-created anti-dandruff formula. 

There are three major reasons for this:

First, salicylic acid is strong stuff. Using it directly in high concentrations on the skin can actually make your irritation issues worse and overdry your skin, creating more peeling and damage. People vary in their sensitivity to the acid, and it’s not always clear how your skin will react to direct application until it’s too late.

Second, applying salicylic acid to large portions of the body can cause salicylate poisoning. Salicylic acid can also interact with certain drugs, especially blood thinners, when used improperly or in large amounts. Salicylate toxicity is no joke!  

And finally, the third risk of DIY salicylic acid treatment for dandruff: ineffectiveness. 

Salicylic acid is a proven ingredient for fighting dandruff. Other elements to aid in scalp care should provide essential moisture, strengthen and repair hair, promote growth, and make your locks smell and look fabulous. You also need a uniquely powerful, proven dandruff-fighting ingredient, Zinc Pyrithione. All of these compounds should work together with salicylic acid in a balanced formula - without risking unpleasant side effects or ongoing flakiness. 

In other words, hair and scalp chemistry is hard. Tinkering with your own scalp microbiome almost certainly won’t fix your problems for good - so why waste your time and energy? Just use a science-based formula that works and say goodbye to the flakes forever.

Give flakes the cold shoulder

Ready for a real anti-dandruff solution, but dreading the conventional drugstore options that all scream “medicated” - from their scents to their feel to their packaging? It’s time for dandruff care products that are expertly formulated to fight flaking, paired with equally luxe scalp care products to leave your hair and scalp feeling great. Learn more about us.

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