Salicylic Acid Shampoo: Why It Works + The 7 Best To Try
There are a few ingredients so efficacious they seem to appear in everything. Vitamin C, for example, is the potent antioxidant beloved by derms; coconut oil is a multitasking hero that's been used for ages by people of all backgrounds; calendula is a classic herb that's found in soothing creams and tonics. Salicylic acid is certainly up there as far as oft-used ingredients go. However, it's normally thought of as a skin care ingredient, particularly an ingredient used if you have acne.
That's why if you see salicylic acid, or its all-natural cousin willow bark or white willow, on a shampoo's ingredient label, you might think, Huh? Well, much like it has skin-supporting benefits for your face, it actually can be quite beneficial for the scalp as well—particularly if you have certain scalp conditions.
Why salicylic acid is used in shampoos.
"Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid that helps remove excess oil and dead cells from the surface of the skin," says board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. "It is a great ingredient to use if you suffer from an oily scalp or dandruff. Salicylic acid helps dissolve connections holding dead cells to the surface of the skin. In this way, it can help improve scalp flaking. However, avoid salicylic acid if you have a dry or sensitive scalp. In these cases, it may cause more irritation than good."
It makes sense if you think about it: Since the BHA is so good at breaking down oil in your pores, of course it can do the same on your scalp and hair follicles. And since it's able to slough off dull skin cells, it can help ease flakes and dandruff (which are just dead skin anyway).
Here are some of our favorite options, if you think you'd like to try.
Shea Moisture African Black Soap Bamboo Charcoal Pre-Shampoo Scalp Scrub
We love a good scalp scrub, and this one just hits it out of the park. Not only does it contain willow bark (again, salicylic acid's natural alternative) to tend to dandruff, but it has the namesake's African Black Soap (an incredible cleaning agent) bamboo for a physical exfoliator and charcoal to help lift up impurities.
African Black Soap Bamboo Charcoal Pre-Shampoo Scalp Scrub, Shea Moisture ($11.99)
Derma-E Scalp Relief Shampoo
A doctor-developed, clinically tested formula for severely inflamed or irritated scalps (dandruff and inflammation go hand and hand). This also contains an herb blend of neem, burdock, and bearberry as well as added menthol to soothe the skin, providing instant relief as the salicylic acid gets to work.
Scalp Relief Shampoo, Derma-E ($10.99)
Collective Wellbeing Salicylic Acid Shampoo
It contains a potent blend of salicylic acid and pine bark. The additional hero ingredients in this are vitamin B and hydrolyzed proteins to moisturize and nourish the scalp and hair. This will leave strands soft, shiny, and ready for a blowout.
Salicylic Acid Shampoo, Collective Wellbeing ($8.99)
Sunday Riley Clean Rinse
Not a shampoo but a good treatment nonetheless. This micellar water rinse contains both BHAs and AHAs (which are also chemical exfoliators but tend to be more moisturizing). It also contains vitamins, minerals, and free fatty acids to condition the skin, too.
Clean Rinse, Sunday Riley ($48)
Matrix Biolage R.A.W. Scalp Care Antidandruff Shampoo
This is formulated with 2.9% active salicylic acid, the highest concentration allowed for an OTC shampoo—so it's not messing around. The rest of the formula is natural-origin, good-for-hair ingredients, too.
R.A.W. Scalp Care Antidandruff Shampoo, Matrix Biolage ($25)
Avalon Organics Anti-Dandruff Itch & Flake Shampoo
Come for the natural salicylic acid, stay for the aloe vera, tea tree, chamomile, and essential oils. Aloe vera, in particular, has incredible anti-inflammatory properties for the skin (and bonus: It's hydrating, too!)
Organics Anti-Dandruff Itch & Flake Shampoo, Avalon ($12.99)
Uncle Funky's Daughter Squeaky
This shampoo is quite the sensorial experience: It contains menthol and an herbal cocktail to stimulate the skin and imparts a refreshing scent. It also contains sea kelp and kelp extract to fortify and strengthen the hair.
Squeaky, Uncle Funky's Daughter ($12.99)
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.