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Listerine Cured Infectious Dandruff

Is there such a thing as infectious dandruff? Is it possible to get rid of itchiness and flaking with an old-fashioned mouthwash like amber Listerine?

Flakes on the shoulder is a likely sign of dastardly dandruff. A businessman wearing a perfectly tailored suit can completely destroy his image with snowy shoulders. Ditto for a woman in a black dress. What can be done to overcome this embarrassing problem? Is there something to the idea of infectious dandruff and can it be overcome with an antifungal approach?

Q. Dandruff is caused by a yeast (fungus). Here’s how I got rid of it 40 years ago with amber Listerine. I parted my hair in the middle, soaked a cotton ball with the Listerine and saturated the exposed scalp with the Listerine. Then I parted my hair about 1/2 inch from the original part and soaked the newly exposed scalp with Listerine.

I repeated this over my entire scalp. The idea was to get Listerine in direct contact with my entire scalp to kill the yeast. It probably took at least 45 minutes to do this procedure. I used a towel over my shoulders to catch the drips. I left the Listerine on for a short while afterwards. Then I washed my hair as usual.

One week later I repeated the procedure with the Listerine. The dandruff went away and has never returned.

A. It may come as a surprise to many readers that the makers of Listerine used to advertise their antiseptic as a treatment for “infectious dandruff.” One 1930 newspaper advertisement offered this:

“Here’s an easy way of getting rid of dandruff. When your scalp itches or burns, when your hair is dull and lifeless, and when you are bothered with loose dandruff, start using full strength Listerine on the hair and see how quickly you note improvement…Being a germicide capable of killing germs in 15 seconds, it readily takes care of any infection that may be present…LISTERINE: The Safe Antiseptic–Kills germs in 15 seconds.”

Does Infectious Dandruff Really Exist?

Dermatologists used to dismiss the idea of infectious dandruff. The FDA determined that the makers of Listerine could no longer advertise their mouthwash for the scalp. Now, however, there is a growing realization that dandruff may indeed be caused in part by a yeast-like fungal infection (Malassezia). Although most of us harbor some yeast on our scalp, for reasons that are unclear, some people react to this yeastie beastie with inflammation and irritation. That leads to cellular growth and flakes, ie, dandruff.

As far as we can tell, there have been no randomized placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trials of Listerine against dandruff. Would it work? Quite possibly. There are antifungal ingredients in Listerine.

You are not the first person to tell us that old-fashioned amber Listerine was effective, though we have not heard of this treatment as a definitive “cure.”

James in Detroit offered this anecdote:

“Several years ago I found it amusing to collect old magazines, such as Life Magazine, from as far back as the 1940s. I read some of the Listerine advertisements about “infectious dandruff” and more or less laughed at them because I remembered Listerine’s claim that “gargling with Listerine would prevent colds.” I remembered that eventually the FDA forced Listerine to recant that claim and to state in their ads for a few years that “Listerine does NOT prevent colds,” in order to undo the damage they had done to public belief on that subject.

“Then when I was about 55 years old (nearly 20 years ago) I experienced itchiness and small eruptions on my scalp, mainly on the back of my head just above the neck. Shampooing my hair with my normal “dandruff remover” shampoo was effective for just a day or so, then the eruptions and itchiness returned.

“I remembered the old Listerine claim that it cured “infectious dandruff” so I gave it a try. I shampooed my hair thoroughly as usual, dried if with a hair dryer using as much heat as I could tolerate, then saturated that area of my scalp with Listerine.

“Amazing results! The itchiness and eruptions were gone the next day and stayed away for about 2 years! When the problem occurred again I repeated the treatment and it worked. The Listerine seems to kill something that causes the itchiness and tiny eruptions, and they stay away for considerable time before returning. So although Listerine deserved to be punished for its false claim that gargling with it “prevented colds,” I think the claim that it cured “infections dandruff” was true and I keep a bottle of it in my bathroom to deal with that problem whenever it occurs, which is not very often. Sometimes two or three years go by with no problem.”

Anyone who would like to read more about some other dandruff remedies, especially details on rotating different kinds of dandruff shampoos, may find our Guide to Hair and Nail Care of value.

Let us know your own experience dealing with dandruff. There is room in the comment section to share your story.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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