Do-it-yourself projects can be fun, adventurous, and gratifying…if you’re making a bird feeder or a bike rack. But dandruff treatment? That’s another matter entirely.
Sure, there are plenty of reasons to avoid drugstore dandruff shampoo. Maybe you can’t stand the medicated smell. Or perhaps you want to dodge the harmful ingredients used in most mainstream hair care products - things like sulfates and parabens. Both of these concerns are perfectly reasonable.
But DIY treatments come with all their own problems - first and foremost that they just don’t work. Today, we’ll explore some common DIY dandruff remedies, learn where they go wrong, and see what science says about the best way to eliminate dandruff flakes and itching.
Common DIY remedies and their risks
It’s easy to find recipes for homemade dandruff shampoos and other treatments online. A big part of their appeal is the simplicity of the ingredients - usually recognizable items you might already have in your pantry, combined with natural essential oils.
But just because an ingredient is natural or familiar doesn’t mean it’s gentle or harmless - or effective in treating dandruff. Here’s a rundown of some of the most common ingredients you’ll see promoted as part of home brew treatments - and the truth about their potential benefits and risks.
Castile soap is made from olive oil, water, and lye. It can clean your skin and hair effectively but comes with some definite downsides when used as shampoo. If your home’s water has high mineral content (hard water), castile soap can react with it to leave a waxy residue in your hair. And regardless of water conditions, castile soap is significantly more alkaline than your hair and skin. This causes it to open the cuticles in your hair shaft, which can leave your hair feeling rough and tangled, or even matted, and lead to permanent damage (breakage, split ends, etc.).
Baking soda is often touted as a natural cleaning product for the home and increasingly for the body. It’s simple, cheap, and may seem harmless because it’s such a common pantry staple. However, baking soda is highly abrasive and, when used to clean the hair and scalp, can easily lead to over-drying, increased itching, and irritation of the scalp.
Ironically, baking soda is actually far harsher as a cleanser than the sulfate detergents in mainstream shampoo formulas that many people try to avoid. Baking soda is questionable at best as a shampoo ingredient for people with a healthy scalp - but for those with dandruff, it can easily make things worse.
Coconut oil has several characteristics that make it useful for hair and skin care, including scalp care. It has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, and its unique fat content (it’s rich in medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs) makes it an especially powerful moisturizer. That said, it also poses risks when used improperly or in the wrong dosage. Full-strength coconut oil can clog pores in some people and using too much can even lead to hair loss.
In a scalp already suffering from dead skin cell buildup, overproduction of oil, and microbiome imbalance - all common for dandruff sufferers - clogging hair follicles further can lead to increased irritation and ultimately more itching and flakes. While coconut oil is beneficial when properly formulated as part of a scalp care product, used on its own it can be damaging to your hair and scalp.
A bad reaction to a home remedy can leave your scalp more irritated, and this is the last thing you want if you’re trying to eliminate dandruff.
Salt is included in some homemade shampoos and dandruff remedies because the crystals can act as a natural exfoliant, removing dead skin cells, including dandruff flakes. But salt can be harsh on the scalp, causing damage to the hair shaft. It may ultimately lead to hair that is noticeably thin, brittle, and dry. Salt can also leave the scalp overly dry and itchy, or damaged from too-rough treatment.
All of this can be an unkind way to treat an already-irritated scalp, and may lead to more harm than good. It’s not worth the risk when there are ingredients proven to treat dandruff flakes without over-drying or damaging your hair or scalp (more on that below!). And if you’re trying to exfoliate, you’re much better off with a scalp brush.
Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is often recommended as part of homemade conditioners, and included in shampoo recipes to balance their pH. It’s said to leave hair silky and soft. However, even those who recommend apple cider vinegar for hair care note that it leaves behind a distinctive, undesirable fragrance until your next shampoo.
While apple cider may make your hair look good, no one is likely to notice if there’s an overpowering scent of vinegar wafting from your locks.
Lemon juice is also used in DIY hair conditioner and shampoo formulas to help balance pH, as well as for several other positive properties that can potentially help an irritated scalp. These include its antifungal action and high levels of vitamin C, which can promote collagen production in the skin, aiding in healing and healthy skin growth. Lemon juice can also be an effective cleansing ingredient for excess sebum, the natural oil produced by your sebaceous glands that is often overabundant in scalps with dandruff.
Lemon juice does carry some risks when used in a DIY dandruff treatment, though. It can lighten your hair color, especially when left in your hair and exposed to the sun, and may interact with color-treated hair. It can also be too harsh for people with sensitive skin and particularly those with conditions like seborrheic dermatitis, eczema, and psoriasis (which are conditions that are often linked to scalp irritation and flaking). The citric acid in lemon juice that helps it strip oil from your hair can go too far, leading to over-drying and irritation, inflammation, and increased itching and discomfort.
The worst case scenario if you use DIY lemon juice remedies to treat dandruff is a condition called phytophotodermatitis. This is a skin reaction some people have to certain plants that can cause blistering, dark spots, and serious inflammation of the skin. Instead of using lemon in a DIY concoction, look for dandruff care products formulated with vitamin C and the proven anti-fungal ingredient Zinc Pyrithione.
Essential oils - potent concentrates extracted from plants - are mainstays of DIY shampoos, conditioners, and skincare products. Depending on the plant they are derived from, their strength, and how they are used, these natural ingredients can offer powerful effects ranging from beneficial to downright dangerous. Many add a pleasant fragrance to DIY dandruff shampoo recipes.
Common essential oils you might see recommended to help eliminate dandruff include tea tree oil, rosemary, and lavender. These oils do have potentially helpful properties, including acting as antimicrobials and anti-inflammatories. However, essential oils on their own can be potent and should never be applied undiluted directly to the skin. They can cause significant irritation and damage when used improperly and formulated without the proper science. In addition, their potency can vary, making their effectiveness as well as their safety for use in home remedies hard to predict or control.
The bottom line on DIY dandruff treatment
Just taking a close look at some of the most common ingredients in DIY dandruff treatment makes it clear that tinkering with your scalp care - even using natural ingredients - can be risky. A bad reaction to a home remedy can leave your scalp more irritated, and this is the last thing you want if you’re trying to eliminate dandruff.
Along with making your irritated scalp situation worse, home brew shampoos and other treatments are just not likely to effectively treat dandruff. That’s because they don’t contain the important active ingredient for achieving a flake-free scalp: Zinc Pyrithione.
Volumes of scientific evidence have shown that Zinc Pyrithione is a safe and effective dandruff-fighting ingredient. Regular use of a professional dandruff shampoo with Zinc Pyrithione is key to keeping flaking and itching at bay.
Treating your scalp the safe, luxe way
You shouldn’t have to choose between DIY dandruff treatments that don’t work and drugstore brands with unsettling or unsafe ingredients. That’s why we started Jupiter.
We’re the first elevated dandruff and scalp care brand that balances safety, efficacy, and elegance. No harmful or harsh chemical ingredients, no need for test tubes in your kitchen. And with our Zinc Pyrithione-based dandruff care products, no more flakes - for good.