Help me find a shampoo that doesn't mess up my scalp
April 23, 2008 10:17 AM   Subscribe

My scalp seems to react badly to most shampoos. I've only been able to use one brand (Pantene) for a while now. Help me figure out why/what to do?

My sister mentioned something about having a sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate allergy, so I thought maybe that was my issue too. I checked 3 bottles of shampoo I had around, two different Pantene bottles and Bedhead one I had. First Pantene didn't have it and the Bedhead did. I thought great, I solved it! But then the 2nd bottle of Pantene had SLS in it. So I'm wondering what other ingredient(s) might cause issues? I've tried so many different brands of shampoo, from $2/bottle to $25-30/bottle and all have the same issue, though the cheaper ones seem to make it happen more quickly. I use Neutrogena T-gel when my scalp gets bad, but man, I hate smelling like it afterwards.

What happens to my scalp is it gets super itchy and sometimes I get little sores. If I keep up with the Pantene that doesn't happen, but I have another issue. If I use the same shampoo bottle after bottle, it's starts to make my hair not nice (I think it's buildup, my hair feels like it doesn't get clean clean). So if I alternate between shampoos I'm okay, but I can't find another brand to alternate with.

So, to boil this down, do you know of other ingredient(s) in shampoos that are known to cause issues? Have you had similar issues? Is this something I should ask my hair stylist about (I'm getting a haircut today), or should I see a dermatologist about this?
posted by disaster77 to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (25 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You may have folliculitis. The best shampoo to use for it, unfortunately, is Selsun Blue. The medicinal smell doesn't linger after using it, in my experience. You also should see a dermatologist.
posted by interrobang at 10:26 AM on April 23, 2008

I used to get very itchy scalp (but no dandruff), and my mom suggested I try a shampoo made for permed or color treated hair (even though my hair is neither), and it worked -- I use the Herbal Essences kind. I can then alternate with a deep cleansing shampoo (like every third day or something) to remove buildup, with no problem.
posted by Koko at 10:27 AM on April 23, 2008

p.s. I had tried dandruff shampoos (incl. Selsun Blue), and they had no effect.
posted by Koko at 10:28 AM on April 23, 2008

I suffer from this now and then (specifically the sores, not so much the itching) and also didn't find a clear link between SLS and reoccurrence. I tried a sulfate-free shampoo (by Pureology) and it helped somewhat but not totally. Right now I am using DevaCare's No-Poo, which is specifically marketed for curly hair. It has no detergents in it and my scalp seems to be pretty happy, although I still get occasional bumps. Even though it doesn't get sudsy, my hair feels and looks clean.

Have you considered if it's something in your hair styling products, and not your shampoo? I know that certain Aveda products would make my scalp break out, which stopped when I stopped using them.
posted by cabingirl at 11:02 AM on April 23, 2008

I posted a similar question a month or so back - soon after that, I found Jason Organic shampoo in my local Whole Foods - I've gone through an entire bottle of their Tea Tree shampoo and finally remembered what it was like to have a non-itchy scalp. The only time the itch has come back is when I try to use another product or smoother or leave-in conditioner.

My hair stylist, while an amazing stylist, wasn't terribly helpful on the shampoo-suggestion front, so at this point, I'll just stick with trying organic/vegetarian shampoos to see what else might work
posted by at 11:16 AM on April 23, 2008

I have (pretty annoying) allergies as well to lots of common cleaners and whatnot, although I can get away using pretty much any shampoo and conditioner as long as I'm speedy about it (short hair helps). I have to stick to what doesn't bother me (plain tide, regular dial soap, unscented shaving cream, etc), or suffer the consequences. (and do I suffer!)

The thing I have found in my experience is that the ingredients label is perfectly useless. I have never been able to reliably determine if a given product will produce a reaction. It's sort of frustrating, because brands that I know I can use sometimes change their formulations, or be discontinued, and finding products that I'm not allergic to can be painful and itchy. {insert rant about accuracy of ingredients list here} I've given up trying to find the thing(s) I am allergic to.

Which leads me to my point. The best way (IMO) to find what you aren't allergic to is to experiment, unfortunately. It also helps that name brands tend to be more consistent in their formulations than offbrands or house brands. Since they tend to cost more, look for sales and buy in bulk when possible.

As for your hair, using conditioner may help keep it from getting too much buildup (it works for me). What used to work great when I was swimming all the time was washing my hair with distilled water and shampoo - since the better swimmers hair treatments always made me break out.

I really wish I could tell you just what to do, but experimentation is the only thing that has worked for me. Good luck, and you have my sympathies.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:23 AM on April 23, 2008

Okay, so I know this sort of hippie-ish lady with long hair, and within the past couple of years, she found some community on the internet of people who are opposed to shampoo. So she started washing her hair with nothing but water. And of course, everyone who knew her assumed that she was going to smell terrible and look gross.

What happened instead was that, after a couple weeks of adjustment, her hair smelled just fine, and looks more beautiful and healthy than the hair of anyone else I know. If shampoos are causing you trouble, you might look into avoiding them altogether. Here's an article that talks about some mixed reactions to the practice.
posted by Greg Nog at 11:25 AM on April 23, 2008

I don't know, but the Cosmetics Database might be able to help you figure it out. You enter a product name, and it identifies potential problem ingredients using several factors, one of which is allergies / skin irritation (others include health and environmental risks). If you are averse to an ingredient, this might be a way to help you narrow it down.
posted by boomchicka at 11:27 AM on April 23, 2008

The best shampoo may be no shampoo at all.
posted by brain at 11:29 AM on April 23, 2008

I also have this problem and found that stearates like PEG-100 stearate and stearic acid were also contributing to my lumps, as well as the likely sodium laurel/laureth sulfates. From what I can tell from the technical things I read, there's no reason for this, but what can I say. I'm a freak.
posted by fiercekitten at 11:53 AM on April 23, 2008

nthing the organic angle. If you don't find the Jason brand try Avalon Organics. I use this tea tree mint shampoo but there's this one too. I got mine at a natural foods/health store. They may seem a little more expensive than grocery store brands but you use less so it's not so bad.
posted by Bunglegirl at 12:02 PM on April 23, 2008

I would say see a dermatologist if you've got sores. I had that along with some scaling and it turned out to be seborrheic dermatitis. To clear it up I used something call Nizoral shampoo and it was soon gone but I was glad I saw a doc to have it diagnosed.
posted by gfrobe at 12:45 PM on April 23, 2008

The thing that keeps my hair and scalp feeling good is still plain old Head and Shoulders, and I say this having switched between various kinds of organic/not organic tea tree/not tea tree scalp helper/not scalp helper shampoos for quite a while. (This includes various Aveda types as well as the Avalon Tea Tree Mint shampoo listed above. One nice thing about that one, though, is that it didn't smell as weird as some other tea tree stuff.)

The keys for me, though, are to use very little and go several days between shampoos. I haven't traditionally even rinsed it, though I'm starting to do so. Every time I have gone back to this method from using anything else, I have almost immediately been rewarded with gorgeous hair and a non-itchy, non-flaky scalp.

Datapoints: I'm female, live in a place with a very dry winter climate, and have a lot of generally healthy hair that is straightish and about chin-length. I brush my hair maybe once every few days because I am lazy and it does what it wants regardless of whether I brush or not.
posted by Madamina at 1:33 PM on April 23, 2008

A hair stylist once explained to me that the more expensive the shampoo, the less chance you have at getting dandruff. I have sores and foliculitus (sp?) and cannot use any shampoo you buy at the store. Instead, I typically use ginger shampoo from the body shop, and it generally solves the problem.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:41 PM on April 23, 2008

I feel like I say this in practically every shampoo/scalp thread, but if you haven't tried plain old Johnson's Baby Shampoo, give it a try. Nothing else worked for me (OTC dandruff shampoos, less frequent shampooing, etc.), and my doc suggested it as a last resort before referral to a dermatologist. Worked like a charm. And although I don't have a bottle in front of me to do an exhaustive comparison, I seem to recall the ingredient list being significantly different from regular shampoos (for obvious reasons).
posted by somanyamys at 1:53 PM on April 23, 2008

I have this problem a lot and just washing less helps. Instead of washing every day, I wash every third day (every other day when my hair is short and prone to getting oily,) and I always use a conditioner. On non-washing days, I make sure to tie my hair up in a towel so my scalp doesn't get wet.
posted by headspace at 2:02 PM on April 23, 2008

Thank you so much for the suggestions! I don't use any styling products and I only use conditioner as I need it (if my hair gets extra frizzy). I've tried not shampooing every day too. I've seen a few suggestions for organic tea tree shampoos above, so I will drop by Whole Foods tonight and see what they have. My scalp hasn't been bad recently, but next time I will certainly see if I can get into the dermatologist when I'm having an episode.
posted by disaster77 at 3:14 PM on April 23, 2008

I absolutely, wholeheartedly recommend The Purist Company's range of Alchemy "Unscented, Very Gentle" shampoos and conditioners.

Fairly recently I went through a stage where my scalp was just driving me completely nuts - I'd wake up some mornings and my scalp would actually be bleeding from where I had scratched the hell out of it during the night, and it itched so much during the day that sometimes I felt like crying, really. I used to use T-Gel Plus, a medicated tar/acid shampoo, which did the trick, but Neutrogena discontinued the line (here in Australia, at least) and only the standard T-Gel remained available, which did absolutely nothing except make me smell like a road. After shopping around and trying just about everything, including some ridiculously expensive gourmet shampoos and treatments, treating my scalp with natural oils etc., I came across the Alchemy stuff. Naturally being a vegan and a patriot (not really) it appealed to me (no animal products or testing, Australian owned and made, etc. etc.), but when I actually tried it it about knocked my face off, that's how much it rocked. Completely odourless, gentle, soothing, delicious. Plus you only need to use a tiny bit at a time, instead of great bukakke-esque globules of the stuff, so even one of the smaller bottles will last you ages. The bottles themselves are quite nice too!

I don't know where "MA" is (Massachussetts? Did I spell that correctly?) but you can get the stuff online over there at I really think you should give it a shot.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:26 PM on April 23, 2008

I'll Nth Selsun Blue. When I moved to AK, I got a bad rash breakout on my face, chest and scalp--I tried everything (including nothing) before being given prescription selsun. I was told to get a good layer on the affected areas and let it sit for five minutes before rinsing. My son has the same atopic dermatitis, and I've washed his arms with regular selsun blue when they've been very red/rashy (he says they don't bother him, they just start to look alarming at times), also to good result.

If you're sensitive to sulfates, however, this may not be your answer.
posted by Cricket at 4:09 PM on April 23, 2008

Ms. Vegetable recommends trying shampoo bars - Lush ( and Chagrin Valley soap ( carry them.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:50 PM on April 23, 2008

For the record, I have seborrheic dermatitis and although I haven't fully slain the dragon yet, the best results I've gotten so far have been with the baking soda/ACV variant no-shampoo method referenced above. And my hair is awesome.

(When I travel, I use one of LUSH's solid shampoos.)
posted by bettafish at 8:49 PM on April 23, 2008

Funny, Pantene does that same thing to me. Anyway, try using a clarifying shampoo and Head and Shoulders Dry Scalp conditioner. I had that problem for years until I hit on that combination. The clarifying shampoo gets rid of all the junk on your hair.
posted by tamitang at 9:23 PM on April 23, 2008

Pantene is absolute rubbish so I'm entirely dubious that it is 'the only thing' that works... but whatever.

Try rainwater. (If you don't live in a city.)
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 2:39 AM on April 24, 2008

I've found that heavily diluted Dr. Bronner's Soap (especially the tea tree variety) does wonders for my often icky-feeling and flaky scalp. However, if you don't have relatively dry or coarse hair it might potentially make your hair look disgusting.
posted by thisjax at 10:03 AM on April 24, 2008

I have this same issue. I also only use Pantene and Dove. Anything else seems to contribute to the problem.

When my scalp is behaving very badly, I swear by two things:
1) Tea Tree Shampoo by Paul Mitchell
2) Nizoral

I went to 3 doctors over it, none of them were helpful. The first one said I had lice (I didn't) because they can cause a rash, the second one was a dermatologist who said she couldn't find any lice but didn't want to disagree with first doctor, and the third one gave me a prescription that helped a little. It was a liquid ointment that made my scalp itch so bad I thought I'd cry and shower it all out. But, within a few hours it settled down and by the next mornings it had significantly improved. The time between the 2nd and 3rd doctors was years. Oh, there was another doctor that I asked while I was visiting for another reason. That doctor gave me a shampoo that was a stronger version of Nizoral. It worked pretty good but I'm too lazy to keep getting prescription shampoos.

I don't use products in my hair and I have very fine flat hair. I try to only condition once a week and I definitely avoid certain conditioners (coconut oil) like the plague.
posted by ick at 6:06 PM on July 7, 2008

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