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Why Dandruff Occurs and How to Treat it

Dandruff can be a seriously annoying and frustrating condition: you're dealing with a flaky, greasy scalp, white flakes in your strands and on your clothes and the pain and discomfort of an inflamed, itchy scalp. But dandruff is incredibly common and can happen to anyone at any time in their life. If you’re experiencing scalp sensitivity and flaking, rest assured, we’re here to help. Below is everything you need to know about treating dandruff, including the best dandruff products and dandruff shampoo. This is the complete guide to understanding and treating dandruff.

What is dandruff?

Dandruff is a chronic condition that can come and go over time. It’s an anti-inflammatory reaction to an excess of yeast that normally lives on the skin’s surface. Dandruff is the bi-product of the body's immune system reacting to this overgrowth of yeast. In its most obvious form, dandruff appears as noticeable white flakes. But symptoms can also include itching, burning, redness, and a greasy crust-like rash. Dandruff is a common skin condition that will affect almost half of the population at some point in their lifetime. It’s most often found on the scalp, but can also show up behind the ears, in the eyebrows, and in the folds of the face.

What are the symptoms of dandruff?

1. Flakes

Flakes are the most obvious sign of dandruff. They typically appear as the irritated scalp sheds skin cells faster than usual. 

2. Itching

With dandruff flakes often comes itching. The itchy feeling can even occur before the condition is visible.

3. Redness

Like any part of your body, if your scalp is irritated it will appear red. This can be an early indicator of dandruff.

4. Low self-esteem

Dandruff can lead to low self-esteem. White flakes that show up in your hair and on your clothes can be hard to hide. And although dandruff has nothing to do with poor hygiene, many sufferers fear it being seen this way. This can affect self-image and even cause some people to avoid social situations. 

Davines Purifying Anti-Dandruff Gel

photo by @goldandglowco

What are the causes of dandruff?

1. Seborrheic dermatitis

Dandruff is often considered to be a mild form of seborrheic dermatitis. Seborrheic dermatitis is a skin condition that turns the skin oily, red, and scaly. The white or yellow scales flake off, creating dandruff. You can get seborrheic dermatitis anywhere you have oil glands, including your eyebrows, groin, armpits, and along the sides of your nose

2. A yeast infection

Your skin normally has a small amount of yeast (called Malassezia) that doesn’t cause any problems. But an excess of this yeast causes skin cells to multiply more quickly than usual, resulting in an infection. A yeast infection on the scalp can cause dandruff.

3. Dry skin

Dryness on your scalp can cause dandruff, but dandruff doesn’t necessarily mean you have dry skin. Dandruff and dry skin have the same main symptoms- falling flakes and an itchy scalp- but they’re different conditions. If your scalp is dry, the skin gets irritated and flakes off. With dandruff, the cause is too much oil on the scalp. That excess oil causes skin cells to build up and then shed. If you have dry skin, start by adding a shampoo for dry scalp into your hair care routine.

4. Contact dermatitis

Irritation from your hair care products can cause dandruff. Contact dermatitis on your scalp from a reaction to products like shampoo, styling gel, and hairspray can cause your scalp to become inflamed. In some cases, this can lead to burning, itching, and flaking.

5. Shampooing incorrectly

By now you’ve heard that washing your hair too often is bad for your hair health. But the opposite is true, as well. If you don’t shampoo enough, oils from your skin accumulate and build up on your scalp. Or if the shampoo you use isn’t strong enough to break down the oil barrier that is contributing to your dandruff.

6. Not brushing your hair

Brushing your hair regularly reduces the risk of dandruff. Brushing helps exfoliate your scalp of dead skin cell buildup that may lead to flaking. But be gentle when you brush. Pulling at your scalp can cause more irritation and you guessed it, more dandruff.

Davines hair brush headband

7. Stress

Stress can aggravate or even worsen dandruff for some. While Malassezia yeast is not introduced to your scalp by stress, it can thrive if your immune system is compromised, which is exactly what stress does to your body

Scalp psoriasis vs. dandruff 

Dandruff is easily confused with scalp psoriasis because both conditions produce flaking skin.

Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that can affect your scalp. It appears as red, scaly patches that can flake off as dandruff does. But here are a few differences.

  • It’s chronic. Psoriasis is long-lasting, while dandruff can come and go.
  • It’s more scaly than flaky. If it’s mild, scalp psoriasis looks like scaly or powdery patches in tiny pieces. More serious outbreaks can be red and painful.
  • It may spread. Psoriasis patches can spread past your hairline to your forehead, the back of your neck, or the skin around your ears. Psoriasis patches may also appear on your elbows, legs, feet, palms, or back.
  • It’s an autoimmune disease. Psoriasis is caused by your body’s immune system: White blood cells that should fight off diseases attack your skin cells instead.

How to treat dandruff

Address your diet

Poor nutrition can lead to dandruff. Eating high-carb sugary foods can result in the buildup of glycogen (sugar) on the skin. Yeast feeds on sugar. Similarly, sugary foods and dairy stimulate the sebaceous glands, which produce more oil on the skin. If you’re noticing flakes and scalp sensitivity try cutting out (or at least cutting down on) sugary foods and dairy products.

Shampoo more often

While we know you love your dry shampoo, because obviously so do we, skipping too many shampoos can lead to flakes. It’s a common belief that you need to let your hair’s natural oils sit on your scalp for healthy hair. But the longer that oil and dead skin cells sit, the more they accumulate and lead to dandruff. Wash your hair at least every other day to reduce buildup if you’re prone to dandruff. See our previous post for more on how often you should wash your hair.

Davines Purifying anti dandruff products

photo by @goldandglowco

Use a dandruff shampoo

Swapping your regular shampoo with a dandruff shampoo will clarify and detoxify your scalp. An antibacterial dandruff shampoo is made specifically for scalps with dry or greasy flakes. These shampoos contain antimicrobial ingredients like tea tree, coal tar or salicylic acid to help establish a healthy environment for your strands. For more on what a dandruff shampoo does, see our previous post “What is a clarifying shampoo?

Exfoliate your scalp

Exfoliating your scalp helps to break down the dead skin cells that accumulate on the scalp and lead to flaking. Use a scalp scrub in place of your shampoo once a week, followed by a moisturizing conditioner on your ends. Regular scalp exfoliation supports your circulation while simultaneously exfoliating oil and skin cell buildup, for healthier hair follicles.

Try an oil treatment

Oil-based hair treatments can help to balance excessive oil production on the scalp. Applying oil to the scalp helps draw oil out and remove it. Try slathering your scalp with some coconut oil, then massage it in, wrap your hair and let it sit for half an hour. Then wash it out as you normally would wash your hair.

Do an apple cider vinegar rinse

Because of its anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties, apple cider vinegar is the basis for many home remedies, including dandruff. Apple-cider vinegar lowers levels of yeast on the skin and calms inflammation. Mix a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar with water. After shampooing and conditioning, pour the mixture over your hair evenly, working into your scalp. Let it sit for a couple of minutes before rinsing it out.

Only wash your scalp

Since dandruff shampoo should be a targeted treatment, try to avoid your your lengths and ends as you massage your scalp. Massage it in for at least five minutes to give the active ingredients in the shampoo time to work.

Don't scratch!

It can be hard not to do, but scratching can exacerbate inflammation and irritation. Scratching can cause open wounds which can lead to infections.

Put your hair up

One last tip to help hide those flakes while you’re waiting for your dandruff to heal is to put your hair up! Throw your strands into a ponytail, braid, or updo. This will keep the flakes hidden and from falling onto your clothes. 

Final thoughts on treating dandruff

If you’re experiencing an itchy, sensitive scalp and white flakes in your hair or on your clothes, load up on dandruff products and use this guide. And if you’re still experiencing the symptoms of dandruff, it may be time for a dermatology intervention — so make an appointment to see a dermatologist as soon as possible.

by Jaclyn LaBadia, featured contributor
cover photo by @goldandglowco

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