For those with sensitive scalps, a good hair day starts in the shower. Specifically, it starts with the hair products you're reaching for and how their formulation works with your scalp. But scalp care is an aspect of hair care that's often overlooked, according to New York-based hairstylist Anthony Dickey.
"The health of your scalp is super important for healthy hair growth, and your scalp is the most abused and neglected skin on your body," Dickey tells us. "You need to keep it healthy and free of impurities to keep it producing healthy hair on your head."
That advice sounds easy, but when you consider the sheer number of shampoos alone that are available on the market, not to mention how difficult it is to sift through their ingredients and formulas, it's tough to know where to start.
That's why we tapped several skin and scalp care experts to share their top tips on how to clean a sensitive scalp, what ingredients to avoid and other best practices. We also asked our experts and scoured scores of shopper reviews to compile this list of the eight best shampoos for sensitive scalps. To start, use the links below to browse by category.
Expert-recommends shampoos for sensitive scalps | Best shampoo bundles for sensitive scalps | More shampoos and products for sensitive scalps we recommend | How often should I wash my hair if I have a sensitive scalp? | Meet our experts
What are the signs of a sensitive scalp?
The first step? Look for the giveaway symptoms. According to Dr. Michelle Henry, a New York-based board-certified dermatologist and dermatological surgeon, you can tell you have a sensitive scalp if you experience any of the following unpleasant sensations.
"Burning, itching, skin flaking and tingling sensations are all signs of a sensitive scalp," she says, adding, "Sometimes a sensitive scalp may manifest as a new onset bout of dandruff, noticeable redness around the hairline or a feeling of tightness."
What shampoo ingredients should I avoid if I have a sensitive scalp?
If you experience any of the above symptoms, go ahead and look at the ingredients on your shampoo bottle. See the word "sulfate"? That means it's time to look for a gentler shampoo. "Sulfates are harsh for sensitive skin," says Dr. Debra Jaliman, an NYC-based board-certified dermatologist.
Henry also advised avoiding so-called harsh surfactants, which are ingredients that bind and deplete the scalp of its natural sebum. She gave examples such as sodium lauryl sulfate, parabens (e.g., methylparaben), silicone, alcohol and synthetic fragrances.
"Silicone [such as dimethicone] promotes product buildup on the scalp, resulting in greasy and dehydrated skin," she explains.
Alcohol and synthetic fragrances, for their part, "in high amounts can dry out the scalp, cause flakiness and further irritate the delicate skin," Henry adds.
What ingredients should I look for in shampoos for sensitive scalps?
Instead, several of the skin care experts we talked to advised looking for ingredients that hydrate and soothe, especially because, as Henry explains, "our goal is not to exacerbate an already-irritated scalp."
Luckily, there are many ingredients that fall under this category. The following list of ingredients includes those our experts recommends (but is not exhaustive):
- aloe vera extract (helps alleviate scalp sunburn or irritation, according to Henry)
- coconut-derived ingredients (helps cleanse hair without irritating the scalp)
- rose water (calms the scalp)
- oat (calms skin and repairs dry hair)
- grape seed oil
- argan oil (has anti-inflammatory properties)
- tea tree oil
- lavender oil (helps naturally restore balance, according to hairstylist Drew Schaefering)
- sodium hyaluronate (a humectant that draws moisture back into the scalp)
- amino acids (can help stimulate collagen and retain moisture, according to Henry)
Henry also highlighted the ingredients lecithin and glyceryl oleate: "[They] have nano emulsion properties, create a fatty acid barrier on the skin and seal in moisture," she says.
But if symptoms like intense itching don't improve after you make a shampoo switch, it may be time to visit an expert in person, says Schaefering, Brooklyn-based hairstylist and owner of Cruxe.
"Sometimes more of a medical approach is needed and should be consulted with your stylist or doctor. In these cases, ingredients like pyrithione zinc and ketoconazole can be very impactful," he explains.
Now that you've got some of the basics down, here are eight of the best shampoos for sensitive scalps, according to our experts, customer reviews and our own research.
Expert-recommends shampoos for sensitive scalps
Best for | Those with chemical allergies
Dr. Amy Wechsler, a New York-based board-certified dermatologist, says this shampoo is one of her fragrance-free favorites, especially because it aims to clean and nourish all hair types. "It is for sensitive skin but is very moisturizing and gentle," she raves.
This gentle shampoo is hypoallergenic and free of irritants like sulfate, fragrances, harsh detergents and dyes — all potential allergens for those with sensitive scalps. Dr. Debra Jaliman also highlighted that it contains glycerin, which moisturizes the scalp.
Best for | Those with dandruff
For those who suffer from dandruff and need a shampoo with a medicated boost, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rebecca Baxt, who's based in New Jersey, recommends the Jupiter brand. The Balancing Shampoo is formulated with 1 percent pyrithione zinc to help tackle the condition, as well as coconut oil to help moisturize the scalp. It's also free of common irritants like sulfates and parabens.
One reviewer (echoed by many) raves, "I decided to give Jupiter a try and after a few weeks started noticing that I had no more flakes and constant itching!"
Best for | All hair types with sensitive scalps
If you don't want the hassle of sifting through the ingredients on dozens of bottles, all in the effort of looking for something fragrance- and sulfate-free, go straight for the baby shampoo, Baxt recommends. We like this bestseller, a "tear-free" gentle formula tailored to babies' delicate hair and scalp — that means it's unscented and free of things like dyes, phthalates, sulfates and parabens. But the brand even claims it's suitable for kids and adults, too.
"I started using Johnson’s baby shampoo when my children were babies. It is a great product that my grown family continues to use today," says one reviewer.
Best for | Color-treated hair, damaged or frizzy hair
Our hair covers our scalp, which can make it hard to keep track of its health. But New York City-based dermatologist Brendan Camp says just because it's "out of sight" doesn't mean it should be out of mind. Camp considers this shampoo safe to use on color-treated hair because of its lack of sulfates.
Best for | Itchy and/or oily scalps
An itchy and flaky head can be irritating, so Camp suggested this shampoo for its soothing aloe leaf juice. He also advised that you maintain healthy habits, such as getting a haircut and shampooing regularly.
"Maintaining regular habits, such as getting a haircut, shampooing, conditioning and styling keeps you in tune with the health of your scalp so that new problems can be identified and treated early," Camp says.
Best for | Itchy scalps prone to dryness
If you're looking for a shampoo that combines natural ingredients with modern technological advancements in hair care, then Schaefering recommends this shampoo that aims to calm and soothe. The key, according to the Davines website, are the phytoceuticals extracted from blueberries, which contain polyphenols and sugar with high anti-inflammatory benefits.
The brand recommends gently massaging the product into the hair and letting it sit for a few minutes before rinsing.
Best for | Color-treated or fine hair
New York-based dermatologist Marisa Garshick likes this shampoo by Aveeno because of its natural ingredients.
"This oat-based shampoo is a great option for those with sensitive scalps," Garshick says. "It also incorporates rose water and chamomile, so it is soothing and soft on the scalp. Free of sulfates, dyes and parabens, it is gentle on the scalp and is also a good option for those with color-treated hair."
Best shampoo bundles for sensitive scalps
Best for | Dry scalp with buildup
"I approach scalp and hair health the way I think of dietary needs," Schaefering tells us. "We may need more of something specific that will benefit us; however, if we only give our body that one thing for long periods of time, we will have an abundance of x, and then need more of y."
So, if you're looking to treat your scalp to all the essentials at one time, this may be the kit for you. This bundle from Act and Acre is made without any harmful chemicals and includes a shampoo, conditioner and scalp detox treatment.
Editor's Note: We also linked directly to Act + Acre's site if you want to purchase a set with only the Cleanse Shampoo and Cleanse Conditioner.
Best for | Those with fine or thinning hair, easily irritated scalps
If you have fine or thinning hair, especially close to the roots, Shop TODAY associate editor Fran Sales recommends this bundle by Necessaire. "The hair close to my scalp has always been thinner than the rest for as long as I can remember, and the top of it, especially, is very sensitive," Sales, who also suffers from hand eczema, explains. She likes that the shampoo and conditioner feel both cleansing and hydrating without any tingling or irritation.
Not only are these products free of irritants like sulfates and phthalates, but they're also formulated with hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, panthenol and celery seed, which, the brand claims, helps to "reverse dryness, minimize irritation and buildup."
The serum is Sales' favorite part of her hair regimen. "It feels so good and nourishing to rub it in my scalp," she says. Its secret ingredient is a 5 percent biomimetic peptide blend, which helps "support hair growth and visibly minimize thinning," the brand says on its website.
More shampoos and products for sensitive scalps we recommend
Best for | Those with fine, thin hair
"This is my absolute favorite shampoo, hands down," says Sales, who likes to look for ways to cut down on her carbon footprint. This one is packaged in paper, not single-use plastic; one of the bars, the brand claims, is equivalent to two bottles of shampoo. (Talk about saving both money and the planet.) But her favorite things about the bar are its pleasantly mild fragrance and how it's made the thin hair close to her scalp feel healthier and look thicker. The best part is, that fragrance isn't artificial; plus, it's free from the usual suspects, like sulfates, silicones and parabens.
The key to the thickening aspect, according to Kitsch, is the rice water protein and amino acids in the ingredient list, which are says to help with hair growth, regeneration and conditioning.
Best for | Color-treated hair, dry scalps
There's a reason "super hydrating" is in the name of this shampoo, which incorporates moisturizing hyaluronic acid in its formula. It's also free from drying sulfates and silicones and blended with Balinese botanicals, which, combined with the active ingredients, help to both strengthen hair and boost its vibrancy, the brand claims.
One reviewer who had hair damage from frequent coloring and hair styling says, "After the first treatment, I felt like I had walked out of the hairdressers'; my hair was so smooth and silky. I can finally wear my hair out again."
Best for | All hair and scalp types that are dry
This paraben-, sulfate- and silicone-free formula is designed to intensely hydrate a parched and uncomfortable scalp. It does this with a formulation that consists of an amino acid blend and coconut triglycerides. Furthermore, it also protects the scalp and hair from those harsh external stressors like heat, hardwater and color styling.
Despite the deep hydration it offers, however, it won't weigh your hair down, according to the brand. One reviewer with sensitive skin says, "[I] needed a lightweight scalp mask that would moisturize my scalp, especially during these Winter months. The smell is light and lovely. The cream goes on smoothly and goes to the scalp without making it oily."
Editor's Note: Dr. Michelle Henry is Kiehl's consulting U.S dermatologist. This pick was chosen independently based on our research and product reviews.
Already using a great shampoo? Then Camp suggests incorporating a scalp massager into your shampoo routine, like this one that's also a Shop TODAY staff favorite.
"While not a shampoo, this massager helps to gently apply shampoo or conditioner throughout the scalp and remove scale," Camp says.
With an average rating nearing five stars, this device is well-loved by thousands of reviewers. Made of silicone, the massager was designed to help ease scalp itchiness while promoting blood circulation.
How often should I wash my hair if I have a sensitive scalp?
"Your scalp should be treated with care and kept healthy," Wechsler tells us. "This means being gentle and avoiding overly scrubbing the scalp," especially if you have sensitive skin.
This is because our scalp produces natural oils and sebum that protects the surface of the skin, Henry explains.
"Washing hair every day can aid in the depletion of these essential oils. It’s better to wash a sensitive scalp once every few days so the scalp has enough time to regenerate its barrier," she says.
Dr. Jaliman agrees: "Every three to four days is fine," she says.
If you do have a few extra minutes in the shower, Henry also recommends using a lightweight scalp treatment before shampooing — ideally something that is infused with one of the expert-recommends hair care ingredients above, and one that is safe for all hair types. Doing so, she explains, "promotes a healthy scalp environment, leaving hair looking and feeling healthier."
Meet our experts
- Dr. Rebecca Baxt, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist at Baxt CosMedical. She is based in New Jersey, but also has an office in New York City. Her practice's focus is on cosmetic dermatology and non-invasive cosmetic procedures.
- Dr. Brendan Camp, MD, is a double board-certified dermatologist and dermatopathologist based in New York. His expertise is in both medical conditions like acne, rosacea and eczema, as well as cosmetic concerns involving fillers, lasers and other skin rejuvenation devices.
- Anthony Dickey, known professionally as Dickey, is a New York-based hair stylist known for specializing in all hair textures, especially wavy, curly and kinky. He found and runs the multi-textural salon Hair Rules in New York City.
- Dr. Marisa Garshick, MD, is a board-certified NYC-based dermatologist who specializes in both cosmetic and medical dermatology. Her services include treatments for acne, eczema, hyperhidrosis, signs of aging, skin tags, vitiligo and more.
- Dr. Michelle Henry, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon based in New York City. She specializes in skin rejuvenation, skin of color, high-risk skin cancer treatments and more. She is also the Consulting U.S. Dermatologist for Kiehl’s.
- Dr. Debra Jaliman, MD, is a board-certified NYC dermatologist and author of the book, “Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist," by St. Martin’s Press. Her private practice focuses on general and cosmetic dermatology.
- Drew Schaefering is a Brooklyn-based hairstylist and owner of Cruxe, a luxury hair care, skin care and lifstyle brand.
- Dr. Amy Wechsler, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and psychiatrist based in New York. Her approach to skin care draws from both of those medical disciplines. She is the author of the book "The Mind-Beauty Connection."