Many people are unaware of the causes of dandruff in their hair or scalps, as well as the most effective treatment options.
Since I was a child, dandruff has been my greatest secret. Before shampooing my hair on wash days, my mother would sit me in the living room, put on a Disney movie, and scratch the flakes from my scalp. However, I never truly understood what causes dandruff. Instead, my mother would ramble on about how I inherited the flakes from my father and grandfather, who have used Head & Shoulders since birth.
When I went to the hair salon, I always felt the need to justify myself. “I’m sorry about the snow! I would begin every trip to the shampoo bowl by stating, “I have a terrible scalp.” And throughout my years as a beauty editor, I’ve discovered numerous myths surrounding dandruff. It is a common scalp irritation that no one truly comprehends.
Therefore, we decided to debunk the myths surrounding the causes of dandruff, what it is, and how to soothe your itchy, flaky scalp.
What causes dandruff ?
Dandruff is a condition that causes the scalp to itch and flake, leaving white flakes in the hair and an inflamed scalp. Mild dandruff can be caused by various factors, including dry skin and hair product reactions.
The Mayo Clinic explains that seborrheic dermatitis, a chronic inflammatory skin condition partially driven by yeast and hormone changes, maybe the cause of severe dandruff.
Some people are sensitive to Malassezia furfur, a yeast that occurs naturally on the scalp, says Christine Choi Kim, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Santa Monica, California, in an interview with SELF. This fungus is typically a harmless component of the scalp and skin flora and feeds on skin oil. However, some experts believe that if it is allowed to overgrow, it can cause an inflammatory response resulting in a buildup of skin cells that flake off.
According to Dr. Kim, there appears to be a genetic predisposition to flaking, so dandruff tends to run in families (see mine). In addition, other conditions, such as contact dermatitis, eczema, and scalp psoriasis, can cause flaking similar to dandruff.
The best way to treat dandruff, regardless of the cause, is to determine what you’re dealing with.
Let’s dispel some misconceptions about dandruff.
1: Dandruff is always caused by a dry scalp.
If your skin is dry or has a contact dermatitis reaction that causes dry skin, you may experience flaking, itching, and even peeling.
But having an oily scalp can also be a significant factor. Malassezia yeast, associated with seborrheic dermatitis, feeds on the sebum (oil) on your skin and scalp. They thrive when more of it is present, making this condition more likely if your scalp is oilier.
To effectively treat your dandruff, it is essential to determine whether your scalp tends to be oily (or has a lot of product buildup) or dry.
2 using an oil treatment will make dandruff better.
Hot oil treatment is one of the do-it-yourself solutions for dandruff I discovered online. To see results, warm coconut or olive oil should be applied directly to the scalp. But does it work? It could assist in the moisturizing dry scalp. But if your flakes are due to an oily scalp, “applying more oil will only make your flakes stickier and greasier,” says Anabel Kingsley, trichologist at Philip Kinglsey Trichological Clinic. Additionally, massaging oils into the scalp can irritate.
3: Flakes should be removed before shampooing.
A flashback to my mother using a rattail comb to remove the flakes from my head. But after speaking with Kingsley, I realized this was not the best course of action. “If your flakes are so adherent and heavy that they must be dislodged with a comb, you likely have a different, more serious scalp condition, such as psoriasis,” says Kingsley. “Harsh or improper removal of scales may result in pain and bleeding.” Furthermore, bleeding makes the scalp susceptible to infection.
4: If you have dandruff, you should wash your hair less frequently.
If you believe a dry scalp causes your dandruff, you may be tempted to wash your hair less frequently. However, regardless of whether the cause is dryness or oiliness, you should wash your hair frequently to remove the flakes and any buildup of debris on the scalp.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), the most effective way to treat dandruff is with an over-the-counter shampoo. You should shampoo your hair daily and switch to an anti-dandruff shampoo twice weekly. However, you need only use the anti-dandruff shampoo once per week if you have natural hair.
5: It is unnecessary to exfoliate the scalp.
Exfoliating your scalp occasionally seems excessive, and for most of us, it is. But if you have dandruff, especially if you believe excessive product buildup is a factor, an occasional exfoliating treatment may be beneficial. Moreover, it simply feels good!
Dr. Kim cautions that homemade recipes for scalp scrubs may contain irritants or substances that are too harsh. So instead, opt for a salicylic acid product, such as Scalpicin ($8 on Amazon).
6: If you have dandruff, you cannot use styling products.
You may believe that you should avoid applying styling products to your hair or scalp if you are experiencing a dandruff outbreak. However, it is wise to investigate your products to ensure they do not irritate them. If possible, it is also wise to reduce the number of styling products you use to reduce the risk of developing an allergic reaction or aggravating an existing one.
But that does not mean you should never use styling products! As long as you’re washing your hair frequently, ideally daily, to prevent buildup, you’re free to continue using the products you enjoy.
7: Dandruff does not affect hair growth.
There is not much research in this field. Although dandruff does not cause hair loss directly, it is associated with hair loss, particularly in individuals already experiencing hair loss or thinning. Some experts believe that dandruff may interfere with the normal hair shedding cycle, although this relationship is not completely understood. And it makes sense that a persistent itch on the scalp could weaken already fragile hair and cause hair loss. If you’re already experiencing hair loss, it’s crucial that you effectively manage your dandruff to prevent further hair problems.
8: Dandruff is more prevalent during the summer.
In reality, dandruff has no real seasonality. Some people experience it more in the winter, when the air is less humid, leading to a sweaty and dry scalp. Also, due to the cold, most people shampoo less frequently, exacerbating the accumulation of products and flakes on their scalp. Other people find that hot, humid weather in the summer exacerbates their dandruff, possibly because their scalps are oilier due to increased perspiration. So yes, some individuals experience dandruff year-round.
9: All flakes indicate dandruff.
As previously stated, numerous conditions can cause dandruff-like flaking. For example, if you observe flakes on your scalp or in your hair, the cause could be one of the following:
- Another condition that can cause dandruff and scalp flaking is seborrheic dermatitis. It frequently manifests as a red, swollen, oily rash that may contain white or yellow flakes or crust. In addition, as Dr. Kim notes, seborrheic dermatitis is not limited to the scalp; scaly patches can also be found in the brows, beard, ears, chest, and other skin folds.
- Contact dermatitis is a skin reaction to something that is either irritating to the skin or allergenic. In either case, it causes a rash that may itch, burn, and swell. In addition, it may cause the skin to become itchy and dry, leading to peeling or flaking. If you have contact dermatitis of the scalp, it may be due to shampoo, conditioner, or styling product.
- Scalp psoriasis is a dandruff-like condition with a slightly different appearance. Psoriasis is an autoimmune disorder that causes thick, silvery, scaly skin patches that can also itch and flake. According to the AAD, it can cause dryness, itching, bleeding, burning, and discomfort on the scalp.
- Eczema is an umbrella term for a variety of skin conditions. The most common form of eczema, atopic dermatitis, is characterized by dry, red, itchy, flaky skin patches. Atopic dermatitis is typically observed on the hands, ankles, feet, knees, and elbows. However, it can also affect the scalp.
What appears to be dandruff could be many different things. A board-certified dermatologist should be consulted if you are unsure of the nature of your skin condition or if you are having difficulty treating it on your own.
What is the most effective treatment for dandruff?
Depending on the cause of your scalp’s dandruff, the treatment may be straightforward or complex.
- Start with an over-the-counter anti-dandruff shampoo if you have common dandruff or mild seborrheic dermatitis. These products contain antifungal ingredients, such as ketoconazole, selenium sulfide, and pyrithione zinc, which help control the yeast that causes dandruff.
- If your flakes result from a dry scalp, you should prioritize soothing and moisturizing your scalp. This may entail switching to a mild, fragrance- and sulfate-free shampoo and using a deeply moisturizing conditioner or hair mask on occasion.
- If your flakes result from a contact dermatitis reaction, be sure to use shampoos and conditioners that will keep your scalp hydrated without aggravating the condition as it heals. (Check out the suggestions above for dry scalp.) If your scalp feels extremely sensitive, you may also need to temporarily reduce your shampooing frequency.
- Suppose your dandruff is more severe, intensely itchy, or causes oozing or bleeding when you scratch it. In that case, you may have a more serious condition such as eczema, psoriasis, or a severe case of seborrheic dermatitis. If you believe this to be the case or have tried over-the-counter treatments without success, it is essential to consult a board-certified dermatologist for a proper diagnosis. They may suggest treatments such as tar-based shampoos, salicylic acid-containing products, light therapy, or prescription medications.
Remember that dandruff is a very common problem with numerous potential causes. Once you determine the cause of your dandruff, you can control it more effectively. Consequently, consult a dermatologist without delay.