Finding flakes in your hair is an incredibly common issue, but many people don’t realize what causes dandruff in their hair or on their scalp—or the best way to deal with it.
Dandruff has been my big secret since I was a young girl. On wash days my mother would sit me down in the living room, turn on a Disney movie, and scratch the flakes out of my scalp before shampooing my hair. But I never really knew what causes dandruff. My mom would mumble on and on about how I inherited the flakes from my father and my grandfather, who have both used Head & Shoulders since before I was born.
Going to the hair salon, I always felt I needed to explain. “Sorry about the flakes! I have a really bad scalp,” is the way I would preface any trip to the shampoo bowl. And through my years as a beauty editor, I’ve found that there are a lot of misconceptions about dandruff. It’s a common scalp annoyance that no one really understands.
So we decided to bust all the myths about what causes dandruff, what it is, and how to soothe your itchy, flaky scalp.
What causes dandruff?
Dandruff is a condition in which the scalp starts to itch and flake, leaving you with white bits in your hair and an inflamed scalp. Mild dandruff can be caused by many things, including dry skin and bad reactions to hair products.
But on the more severe end, your dandruff may actually be caused by seborrheic dermatitis, the Mayo Clinic explains , a chronic inflammatory skin condition that may be partially driven by yeast and hormone changes .
Some people are sensitive to that yeast—called malassezia furfur —that naturally exists on the scalp, Christine Choi Kim, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Santa Monica, California, tells SELF. For most people, this type of fungus is a harmless part of your scalp and skin flora and feeds on the oil on your skin. But if it’s allowed to overgrow, some experts think it can cause an inflammatory response that leads to a buildup of skin cells that then flake off.
There also seems to be a genetic predisposition to flaking, Dr. Kim says, so dandruff tends to run in families (see mine). Other conditions, like contact dermatitis, eczema , and scalp psoriasis , can also lead to dandruff-like flaking.
The best way to treat your dandruff—whatever the cause—is to first know what you’re really dealing with.
Let’s clear up some myths about dandruff.
If your skin is dry or you’re dealing with a contact dermatitis reaction that results in dry skin, it can definitely cause flaking, itchiness, and even skin peeling .
But having an oily scalp can be a major factor too. That’s because Malassezia yeast—those that are linked to seborrheic dermatitis—feed on the oil (sebum) on your skin and scalp. They thrive when there’s more of it present, making this condition more likely when you have an oilier scalp.
To appropriately treat your dandruff, it’s important to know whether your scalp tends to be oily (or have a lot of product buildup on it) or on the dry side.
A hot oil treatment is one of the DIY remedies I found while searching for dandruff solutions on the internet. To see the effects, you’re supposed to apply warm coconut or olive oil directly to the scalp. But does it work? It could help moisturize your scalp if it’s dry. But if your flakes are caused by an oily scalp, “applying more oil will simply give you stickier and greasier flakes,” Anabel Kingsley, a trichologist at Philip Kinglsey Trichological Clinic, tells SELF. “Rubbing oils into the scalp can also cause irritation.”
Flashback to my mom using a rattail comb on my head to dislodge the flakes. But talking to Kingsley, I realized that this wasn’t the right strategy. “If your flakes are so adherent and heavy that they need dislodging with a comb, chances are you have a different and more serious scalp condition,” Kingsley says, such as scalp psoriasis. “Harsh or improper removal of scales can be painful and cause bleeding.” And bleeding leaves your scalp susceptible to infection.
If you assume your dandruff is due to a dry scalp, it might be tempting to cut back on washing it so often. But whether the cause is dryness or oiliness, you should actually be washing your hair pretty regularly to rinse away the flakes and any buildup of debris on your scalp.
In fact, the most effective way to treat most dandruff is to use an over-the-counter shampoo, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) explains. You should shampoo your hair daily and swap in the anti-dandruff shampoo twice a week. If you have natural hair , you only need to use the anti-dandruff shampoo once a week.
Exfoliating your scalp every once in a while seems a little extreme, and for most of us it is. But if you’re dealing with dandruff—especially if you think excessive product buildup is playing a role—then an occasional exfoliating treatment may help. Also, it just feels nice!
But beware of DIY scalp scrub recipes, Dr. Kim says, which can contain irritating ingredients or things that are just too harsh. Instead, opt for a product that contains exfoliating salicylic acid, like Scalpicin ($8, Amazon ).
If you’re battling a dandruff flare, you might think that you should steer clear from adding any styling products to your hair or scalp. And in general it is a good idea to investigate the products you’re using to make sure they aren’t irritating. If you can, it’s also smart to cut back on the amount of styling products you’re using to minimize the chance of a bad reaction or exacerbating the one you’re currently dealing with.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t use any styling products ever! As long as you’re washing your hair regularly—ideally, daily—to prevent buildup, then you can go ahead and keep styling your hair with the products you enjoy.
There isn’t a ton of research in this area. But what we have suggests that, while dandruff doesn’t cause hair loss directly, it is associated with hair loss —especially in people who are already dealing with some level of hair loss or thinning. The link isn’t totally understood, but some experts think that dandruff may interfere with the normal hair shedding cycle. And it makes sense that constantly itching your scalp could disrupt your already fragile hair and lead to hair loss. If you’re already dealing with some hair loss, it’s especially important to effectively manage your dandruff to prevent further hair issues.
In truth, there’s no real seasonality to dandruff. Some people get it more in the winter, when the air is less humid, causing a sweaty yet dry scalp. And most people cut down on shampooing due to the cold temperatures, which can also make the buildup of products and flakes on their scalp worse. Other people find that hot, humid weather in the summer makes their dandruff worse, possible because their scalps are oilier with sweat. And yes, some people deal with dandruff year-round.
As we mentioned, there are many conditions that can cause dandruff-like flaking. If you notice flakes on your scalp or in your hair, it could be due to one of the following:
Seborrheic dermatitis is another condition that can cause dandruff and flaking of the scalp. It often appears as red, swollen, greasy rash that may have white or yellow flakes or crust . Also, as Dr. Kim notes, seborrheic dermatitis is not just limited to the scalp; you can find flaky patches in your brows, beard, ears, chest, and other skin folds.
Contact dermatitis is a reaction to something that’s either irritating to your skin or something that you’re allergic to. In either case it typically causes a red rash that may itch, burn, and swell. It can also cause the skin to become itchy and dry, possibly resulting in peeling or flaking. If you’re experiencing contact dermatitis on your scalp, it could be due to a reaction to a shampoo, conditioner, or styling product.
Scalp psoriasis is another dandruff-like issue, but it looks a little different. Psoriasis an autoimmune condition that results in thick, scaly, silvery patches of skin that can also itch and flake. When it’s on your scalp, it can cause dryness, itching, bleeding, burning, and soreness, the AAD says .
Eczema is a general term that describes a few different conditions. The most common form of eczema, atopic dermatitis, causes dry, red, itchy patches of skin that can flake. Atopic dermatitis is most often seen on places like your hands, ankles, feet, knees, and elbows. But it can definitely also affect the scalp .
Essentially, what looks like dandruff could be many different things. If you’re not sure what yours is, or if you’re having trouble treating it on your own, it’s important to get properly diagnosed by a board-certified dermatologist.
So what’s the best way to treat dandruff?
Depending on what’s causing the dandruff on your scalp, the treatment may be straightforward or more complicated.
If you have run-of-the-mill dandruff or mild seborrheic dermatitis , you should start with an over-the-counter anti-dandruff shampoo. These contain antifungal ingredients like ketoconazole, selenium sulfide, or pyrithione zinc, which can help manage the yeast that drives dandruff.
Products to try:
If your flakes are caused by a dry scalp, you’ll want to make calming and moisturizing your scalp a top priority. That might mean switching to a gentle, fragrance- and sulfate-free shampoo and possibly using an occasional deeply moisturizing conditioner or hair mask.
Products to try:
If your flakes are caused by a contact dermatitis reaction, be sure to use gentle shampoos and conditioners that will keep your scalp moisturized without aggravating it while it heals. (Check out the above recommendations for a dry scalp.) If your scalp feels really sensitive, you might also need to reduce the frequency of your shampooing for the time being.
If your dandruff is more severe, intensely itchy, or causes oozing or bleeding when you scratch at it, those are signs it may be due to a more serious condition, like eczema, psoriasis, or a severe case of seborrheic dermatitis. If you think that’s the case, or you’ve tried over-the-counter products without success, it’s important to talk to a board-certified dermatologist to get a proper diagnosis. They may recommend using treatments like a tar-based shampoo, products containing salicylic acid, light therapy, or prescription medications.
Ultimately, remember that dandruff is a very common issue with many possible causes. Once you do the detective work of figuring out what’s causing your dandruff, you’ll be able to more effectively manage those flakes. So don’t hesitate to get a dermatologist’s opinion.
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