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Glycolic Acid for Dandruff | How It Works & Best Products

If you’ve struggled with dandruff for years, you know how annoying and hard to control this scalp condition can be. Fortunately, you can get rid of stubborn flakes in your hair using glycolic acid for dandruff.

Glycolic acid isn’t a miracle solution that cures dandruff overnight, but it can help you slough off rough flakes and reveal a healthier, more hydrated scalp in no time. 

Can You Use Glycolic Acid for Dandruff?

Glycolic acid (hydroxyacetic acid) is an alpha-hydroxy acid best known for exfoliating and moisturizing the scalp. Lots of people love this ingredient for its skin benefits, but it’s also an effective way to keep dandruff at bay. It helps balance your scalp pH to break the dandruff cycle and promote cell turnover.

While dandruff won’t slow hair growth, it can lead to less healthy hair prone to breakage over time.

Dandruff causes an irritated scalp that might tempt you to scratch your scalp. If you give into the temptation and scratch, you’re more likely to break your hair. You may also damage your hair follicles and compromise healthy and good-quality hair growth.

If you’re seeing breakage in association with flakes, glycolic acid can be a great way to treat it and make your scalp healthy again.

Dandruff can also be responsible for a dry scalp and hair. Continued flaking of the skin over time destroys your scalp’s moisture barrier, leading to a dehydrated scalp and dry hair. Glycolic acid is also a great solution for this symptom! 

Most dandruff treatment products focus on getting rid of the scalp flakes. But glycolic acid eliminates dandruff’s root cause and offers your scalp what it lacks to prevent them from reoccurring.

You can use glycolic acid and other hair care products to maintain a healthy scalp and hair to stay dandruff-free. Since glycolic acid is a chemical product, it’s crucial to understand how to use it for the best results and to avoid damaging your skin further.

Read on to learn the various benefits of glycolic acid for dandruff, how to use it properly, and precautions you should take to avoid scalp and hair damage.

Benefits of Glycolic Acid for Dandruff

Chemical glycolic acid for dandruff shown with dropper bottle and dish containing the solution

chemical industry/Shutterstock

Glycolic acid is great for your hair and scalp! It works to restore your scalp health and hydration in a number of ways. Here’s how using glycolic acid for dandruff will benefit your hair and scalp.

Exfoliates the Scalp

Glycolic acid is a gentle chemical exfoliating product that dissolves dead skin cells and product buildup on the scalp. It breaks the bonds that attach dead skin cells and product buildup to the scalp. By removing dandruff and product buildup, your scalp regains good health and promotes cell turnover.

Glycolic acid works on dandruff that results from Malassezia fungus or seborrheic dermatitis.

Malassezia fungus is a common cause of dandruff. This fungus accelerates the life cycle of skin cells, making the skin shed and flake off more quickly. As the skin starts to shed, it forms dry flakes that mix with hair products creating unpleasant, itchy scalp buildup.

Dandruff may also result from seborrheic dermatitis, where overactive oil glands make the scalp oily, red and scaly.

If you don’t address the root causes, dandruff and scalp buildup can block hair follicles, dehydrate the scalp and affect the health of your hair. Exfoliating the scalp regularly with glycolic acid will reduce dandruff and prevent excess oil production over time.

People with sensitive scalps can use this product without fear of skin irritation since the chemical exfoliation is gentle. Once the product has buffed away dandruff, it hydrates the scalp to avoid irritation.

Moisturizes the Scalp

A dry scalp can also cause flaking. If you have dandruff and a dry scalp, you will likely experience itchy, flaky skin that seems to worsen the more you scratch it. What you need is deep moisture that topical products (conditioner, leave-ins, etc.) struggle to provide, but glycolic acid is great at delivering. 

Glycolic acid is a powerful moisturizer that enhances the production of plumping hyaluronic acid from the body to boost hydration in the scalp and trigger the healing process.

Applying glycolic acid to a dry, itchy scalp will promote good health and hydration if your scalp suffers from scratching injury and cracking due to dandruff. New healthy cells can begin to grow with a moisturized and healthy scalp.

Deep Cleansing

As a scalp exfoliator, glycolic acid is made up of very small molecules that easily penetrate the scalp for deep cleansing. While shampoo can be a good product for cleaning the scalp, it might not break the bonds holding together the excess sebum, dead skin cells, and product buildup.

Glycolic acid is able to penetrate the hair follicles and the walls of dead skin cells to loosen the bonds that hold them together. It sloughs away any dirt, dry and dead skin cells, bacteria, and oil, leaving your scalp clean.

As a result, your scalp becomes healthy and stimulates new, healthy skin cells.

Breaks Dandruff Cycle

When appropriately used, glycolic acid encourages the growth of newer, healthier skin cells on the scalp, breaking the dandruff cycle. These newer cells produce sebum regularly – not too much or too little – to reduce the chances of dandruff growth, product buildup, and itching.

Whether your dandruff is caused by fungus, overactive oil glands, or chronic dryness, glycolic acid is a great ingredient that breaks the cycle by solving the core issues. 

Balances pH

A healthy scalp has a proper pH balance around 5.5 that helps in minimizing dandruff. If your scalp has buildup containing oils, dirt, and other substances, you will likely experience dandruff flakes.

These substances continue to destabilize the scalp pH as long as they’re hanging out in your hair, creating a suitable ground for dandruff.

Glycolic acid strips away all these substances, leaving a clean scalp with a well-balanced pH. As a result, the skin encourages the growth of new, healthy cells and minimizes the chances of dandruff regrowth.

How to Use Glycolic Acid for Dandruff

Before and after photo depicting how scalp might look after using glycolic acid for dandruff and flakes on dark hair


While glycolic acid is an effective product for eliminating dandruff, it’s still a powerful chemical exfoliant. Misusing it can harm your scalp and hair, so taking proper care is essential!

There are several composition and strength options for glycolic acid, so it’s best to use it as your dermatologist recommends. Here are the key things to consider when using glycolic acid to eliminate dandruff.

Use the Right Glycolic Acid Product

Glycolic acid can be used to treat various skin conditions, not just dandruff. Since it’s a product with a wide range of use, you’ll find it in different compositions and strengths meant to treat specific conditions. Using the wrong product to treat dandruff on your scalp may cause your scalp and hair to deteriorate further.

For example, using a product with 25% glycolic acid can be unsuitable for your scalp and hair. If you’re unsure which product to buy, consult your dermatologist for the appropriate glycolic acid for dandruff.

Typically, the best product for applying on the scalp should have a 5%-10% concentration of glycolic acid. We’ll link some of our favorite products below for you to try. 

Follow the Application Directions

Like any other skin care product, following application directions is vital when using glycolic acid for dandruff. Although it’s a natural product, glycolic acid is a chemical exfoliator and it can have adverse side effects with improper application.

Daily application can harm your skin and hair – it’s definitely possible to use too much of this good stuff.

Use this treatment product once or twice weekly on your scalp to ensure it is effective enough. After applying, allow it to remain on your scalp for about 15-30 minutes before washing it.

The amount of time you leave glycolic acid on your scalp will depend on the concentration of glycolic acid. Stronger concentrations shouldn’t be allowed to sit as long as a weaker scalp scrub or low concentration product.

Leaving glycolic acid too long on your scalp or applying it too often can damage your hair and dry out your scalp. Be sure to closely follow the product instructions and ask your dermatologist if you’re unsure! 

Other vital aspects you may want to consider when applying glycolic acid on your scalp include:

  • Shake the bottle before applying
  • Apply directly from the nozzle
  • Rub in the product using your fingertips
  • Apply enough glycolic acid to cover the entire scalp

Conduct a Patch Test First

People with sensitive skin should be extra cautious when using new products on their scalps. Conducting a patch test before applying glycolic acid to treat dandruff is always advisable.

A patch test involves treating a small section of your scalp and monitoring the outcome. You can apply it at the back of your neck or behind the ear and wait at least 24 hours to see how your scalp responds.

Note that glycolic acid can take up to 72 hours before presenting any side effects. Some common reactions to observe include itchiness, burning, and/or redness.

If glycolic acid causes reactions or side effects during your patch test, it’s not an ideal treatment product for you. Rinse it off and discontinue using it.

On the other hand, if the product works perfectly, you can go ahead and apply it to the entire scalp. You can also look for a suitable nourishing shampoo and conditioner to remove any excess glycolic acid on your scalp after each use.

Best Glycolic Acid for Dandruff: Top 3 Products

Some of the best glycolic acid products for dandruff you can use are listed below. We especially love The Ordinary’s product most because it hits the right price point while demonstrating effectiveness on many different hair types!

1. The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Exfoliating Toning Solution

Our Top Pick for Dandruff
The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution
  • 7% strength is ideal for scalp
  • Vegan, cruelty free, clean ingredients
  • Contains Tasmanian pepper berry
  • Should be used at night only
  • Can't use with other acids
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The Ordinary makes a ton of great skincare products, but this one is great to use on your scalp. Their 7% glycolic acid for dandruff helps buff away flakes and soothe irritation by boosting scalp hydration and increasing the turnover rate of cells. 

This formula can be used not only on your scalp, but also your face to reveal brighter, exfoliated skin that’s radiant! 

2. The Inkey List Glycolic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Scrub

Our Pick
The Inkey List Glycolic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Scrub
  • Made specifically for scalps
  • Scrub formula makes application easy
  • Works for all hair types
  • Must be washed out after use
  • Results may take 1-4 weeks to notice
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For a gentler product with a lower glycolic acid concentration, try The Inkey List’s Glycolic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Scrub. This product is a powerful exfoliator that remains gentle on your scalp to avoid causing irritation. It’s made just for scalps, so you can be sure it won’t cause damage if you use too much.

You need to use this scrub before you shampoo and it has to be washed out. That can be inconvenient, but it can quickly become a habit and part of your shower routine for a dandruff-free scalp!

3. Oribe Serene Scalp Exfoliating Scrub

Our Pick
Oribe Serene Scalp Exfoliating Scrub
  • Contains a blend of AHAs and fruit extracts
  • Special lid makes application simple
  • Scrub formula lifts away flakes and buildup
  • Pricier at $52/bottle
  • More gentle than others, so results may take longer
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Oribe makes lots of great products, but they can really be pricey! This Serene Scalp Exfoliating Scrub is no exception, but reviewers say it’s amazing stuff. It’s really gentle with a lower glycolic acid concentration, so it’s great if you’re worried about overdoing it. 

The scent is raved about and the bottle features an applicator lid to make pinpointed scalp application easier. If you can swing the price, this one’s great to have on hand! 

Safety Tips to Consider When Using Glycolic Acid for Dandruff

Glycolic acid is a safe skin care product when used correctly. However, there are some precautions you should take when using it to avoid damage to your scalp and hair.

  1. Avoid using glycolic acid if you’ve recently received a scalp treatment. Glycolic acid has an exfoliating factor that may irritate people who’ve undergone scalp treatments such as straightening, perms, or re-bonding.
  2. Avoid overusing glycolic acid on your scalp. As an exfoliating agent, glycolic acid might leave your scalp sore if applied too often (such as daily). Consult your dermatologist to know how often you should use it on your scalp.
  3. Use glycolic acid in the correct percentage. The ideal strength of this product should be 5%-7%. However, you may be able to use slightly stronger glycolic acid concentrations up to 10% on your scalp for dandruff.
  4. Avoid using glycolic acid if you have a dry scalp. The exfoliating factor in this treatment product can irritate a dry scalp. For glycolic acid to work effectively, your scalp must be normal, oily, or a combination of oily and dry scalp. Visit your dermatologist for a scalp assessment to know if the product is safe.
  5. Avoid exposing your scalp to direct sunlight after application. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) says that glycolic acid makes the skin sensitive to UV radiation. To avoid scalp irritation or redness due to UV radiation, apply sunscreen after applying glycolic acid and try to stay out of the sun.
  6. Don’t allow glycolic acid to get into your eyes. Like most chemicals, glycolic acid can be hazardous to your eyes. If it gets into your eyes, flush clean, lukewarm water into your eyes for at least 15 minutes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Blonde woman looks at her scalp in the mirror inspecting it for flakes and dandruff

Nina Buday/Shutterstock

Didn’t find the answers you were looking for? Let’s take a look at some common questions regarding glycolic acid for dandruff. 

Which glycolic acid is best for dandruff?

The best glycolic acid for dandruff is The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution. When applied before shampooing and conditioning, this product can reduce dandruff and mitigate its reappearance. It’s safe for sensitive skin as it’s made of products that soothe and minimize skin irritation.

What happens if you use excess glycolic acid?

As a chemical exfoliant, glycolic acid can result in scalp irritation or damage if used frequently or in a high concentration. Besides scalp irritation, you may experience severe redness, dryness, and breakouts. Use glycolic acid with the right concentration and as your dermatologist recommends.

What should you not mix with glycolic acid?

You should not mix glycolic acid with Vitamin C serum when applying it on the scalp. Vitamin C is an acid, and combining it with glycolic acid can destabilize the pH balance. Mixing them will also render glycolic acid useless, and in the end, the destabilized pH might cause scalp irritation.

What are the disadvantages of glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid is a safe product when used correctly. However, it might cause a burning sensation, dry scalp, irritation, redness, and itching. It can also cause the scalp to be more sensitive to sunlight, hence the need for sunscreen application before stepping outdoors.

How do you know if glycolic acid is working?

Once glycolic acid is applied, your scalp may feel rough after the first 24 hours. This is a normal sign that the product is working to eliminate dandruff. Other symptoms, such as irritation and redness, indicate that the product is not ideal for your scalp.

So, Is Glycolic Acid for Dandruff Worth It?

Glycolic acid is a very effective ingredient for treating dandruff. It does have some risks if it’s used improperly, but as long as you use the correct concentration and follow the product instructions closely, it’s very unlikely to damage your scalp or hair. 

You can use it as an exfoliating agent to remove dry and dead skin cells that lead to flaking. It helps take care of excess sebum by increasing cell turnover that keeps oil glands clear and free from oil buildup on your scalp. It even sloughs away old product buildup on your scalp that can lead to flaky dandruff and irritation over time.

Glycolic acid also offers additional benefits beyond nixing dandruff and flakes! It can naturally moisturize your scalp by introducing deep hydration and removing dry top layers to reveal healthy scalp skin underneath.

It’s also a great way to balance your scalp pH and promote the growth of newer, healthier cells. Overall, glycolic acid for dandruff should be one of your first lines of defense against flakes. Say hello to a clear, clean, and healthy scalp!