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Dandruff: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Dandruff: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment


What is Dandruff?

For most people, a dry scalp is nothing more than a mere inconvenience. But for those who have dandruff, that inconvenience can be more embarrassing than acceptable. Dandruff is a condition that causes dryness, itching and flaking on the scalp and the hair.

People might assume that dandruff is a result of poor hygiene, but that is not the case. However, if you are prone to it, then failing to wash your hair frequently might make dandruff more noticeable. It is not usually a serious condition. In most instances, brushing more effectively and switching hair products is enough to curb the symptoms. On the other hand, if it is severe enough, medical attention might be necessary and occasionally it may come with complications (x).

What Causes Dandruff?

Dandruff causes extreme dryness that can lead to white skin flakes in the hair. Contrary to common belief, dandruff does not have anything to do with poor hygiene habits. The causes are not exactly clear, but there are several theories about why some people experience it and others don’t (x).

Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is a condition that causes oily, irritated skin. It increases the risk of dandruff. The skin is greasy and red with either yellow or flaky white scales. It may affect the skin behind the ears, around the eyebrows, the sides of the nose and on the breastbone. Most of the time, seborrheic dermatitis is not severe, but if it becomes overactive, it irritates the scalp and it produces extra skin cells, which combine with oil in the hair and form dandruff (x).

Dry Skin

People who already have a problem with dry skin are more prone to dandruff. When the cold weather rushes in and the heat gets turned up, it is not uncommon for dry skin to get worse and lead to itching. Dandruff that results from dry skin is usually smaller and non-oily, so the flakes tend to be less noticeable (x).

Medical Conditions

Dandruff may accompany other underlying medical conditions (x). Research suggests that dandruff can be a symptom of Parkinson’s disease and other neurological conditions (x). A stroke or heart attack may increase the risk of dandruff.

Those with a weak immune system might also be at an increased risk. For example, dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis are often side effects of HIV, even though they are unrelated to the HIV diagnosis. Patients are more prone to infections and sometimes experience skin problems (x). One study concluded that 30 to 83 percent of HIV patients also have seborrheic dermatitis, compared to the general population (x).

Skin conditions may also cause dandruff symptoms (x). People with eczema, psoriasis or scalp ringworm may be more likely to have dandruff.

Yeast Sensitivity

Yeast may play a part in dandruff symptoms. The condition is usually worse when the weather is cold and tends to get better when it warms up, possibly because UVA sunlight counteracts yeast. People with a sensitivity to yeast are usually at a greater risk of developing dandruff (x).

Hair and Skin Products

Some hair care products can trigger reactions on the scalp. Shampooing too often may also irritate the scalp and cause dandruff. On the contrary, some people claim that not shampooing regularly enough can cause oil and dead skin to build up on the scalp and form dandruff. However, this theory doesn’t have sufficient evidence to support it (x).

Other Factors

Dandruff tends to be more prevalent around puberty in adolescents and young adults, which signals that it may be linked to hormone production (x, x).

Mental stress and anxiety may be a contributing factor. It doesn’t directly cause it, but it can aggravate the condition in people who already have it. Sweating and hormonal changes from stress causes can aggravate dandruff (x).

There is evidence to suggest that certain dietary deficiencies might increase the risk of dandruff. Failing to get enough essential vitamins and minerals may make skin conditions like seborrheic dermatitis worse. Deficiencies in zinc, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B7 are linked to dandruff (x).

Dandruff Causes

Treating Dandruff

Treating dandruff means slowing down skin cell growth. If yeast is causing the problem, it means counteracting it. Making lifestyle changes can help to reduce dandruff, such as managing stress, shampooing more or less often and increasing sun exposure. Brushing the hair more often may also reduce and loosen the flakes (x).

Shampoos and Scalp Preparations

Over-the-counter products might help to control seborrheic dermatitis, which can lead to dandruff, but they cannot completely cure it. Try to remove any crusty patches from the scalp before using the shampoo to make it more effective. Anti-fungal dandruff shampoos have specific ingredients to regulate oil in the skin (x).

  • Ketoconazole: an antifungal
  • Selenium sulfide: reduces oils in the scalp.
  • Zinc pyrithione: helps to slow down yeast production
  • Coal tar: a natural antifungal. However, it might stain dyed or color-treated hair after long-term use. It may also make the scalp more sensitive to direct sunlight. There is also evidence that in high doses it might be carcinogenic (x).
  • Salicylic acid: might reduce skin cells, but it may also make the scalp more dry and make the dandruff worse
  • Tea-tree oil: an antifungal agent that also works as an antiseptic and antibiotic (x).

Shampooing Tips

After you find a shampoo that works, it is best to use it every day until you notice a significant difference. Alternating between different ingredients might help target and reduce the symptoms. To gain the most from the shampoo, always let it sit on the scalp for a minimum of five minutes. The ingredients won’t have enough time to work if you rinse too soon. If dandruff is a result of dry skin, use moisturizing shampoos (x).

See Also
Acid Reflux

Supplements for Skin Health

Sometimes dandruff may be a result of nutrient deficiencies. Adding supplements to your diet can ensure that the body gets all the vitamins it needs. They may also promote healthy, moisturized skin in order to help treat or prevent dandruff (x). Consult a doctor before using any supplements.


Collagen is a natural protein in the skin, muscles and internal organs. It allows the body to move while also supporting connective tissues and muscles inside of it. It is also responsible for skin elasticity. Collagen levels decrease over time and many people use supplements derived from other mammals to promote healthy, younger looking skin (x). Take 2,500 mg of hydrolyzed bovine collagen powder two to four times a day unless a physician recommends otherwise.


Also known as vitamin B7, biotin helps break down fatty acids, amino acids and glucose. It is also a common ingredient in cosmetics because it can strengthen fingernails, keep hair healthy and clarify skin infections and conditions, such as acne. A study concluded that biotin deficiency may cause seborrheic dermatitis (x). Take 100 mg of vitamin B7 daily as a dietary supplement.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids 

Fatty acids, including omega-3, are natural lubricants. They improve hydration and regulate oil production in the skin, and deficiencies in fatty acids may cause a dry, itchy scalp. They are present in food, including salmon and walnuts, but supplements can also help boost omega-3 (x, x). As a dietary supplement, take three Omega 3-6-9 softgels one to two times a day, unless a physician advises otherwise.


Zinc is an antioxidant that promotes immune function and cell growth. It is present in proteins, nuts and whole grains. Deficiencies may result in hair loss, diarrhea and skin lesions. It may also treat dandruff because it can remove skin cells from the scalp and stop fungus from growing (x). Unless a physician advises against it, take zinc as a dietary supplement in 225 to 450 mg doses once every day.

The Bottom Line

Dandruff is a condition that causes extreme dryness in the scalp and leaves white flakes in the hair. Although it can be inconvenient, typically dandruff is not a serious or harmful condition. There is no clear cause of dandruff, but certain factors increase the risk of developing it. For example, seborrheic dermatitis, a weakened immune system, yeast sensitivity and stress may trigger dandruff symptoms.

Making lifestyle changes may reduce the symptoms and there are shampoos that can help control it. Finding the right treatment may be a trial and error process and it may mean trying different products and strategies to find one that works. They will not cure the condition altogether, but they can help manage it. Supplements may also help promote healthy skin and help with nutrient deficiencies. Consult a doctor before adding supplements to your diet.

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