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The Complete Guide to Understanding Dandruff

By Krista Elliott

It's a staple of the advertising industry: A well-dressed man in a dark suit is beaming broadly and shaking the hand of the poor sap he just cozened into a bad deal, when — oh, the horror! — a sprinkling of white flakes is shown on the shoulders of the expensive suit. Shamefaced, the dark-suited man sells his business, retreats from society, and joins a monastery, never to be seen again.

OK, so that might be a slightly loose interpretation of those ads. But the principle still stands: Dandruff is not a pleasant thing to have.

What is Dandruff?

Dandruff is a common scalp condition, characterized by the skin on a person's scalp flaking. While not serious or contagious, dandruff can be pretty embarrassing. As well, it can be accompanied by an itchy, irritated scalp, which can be painful and distracting. 

What Causes It? 

Dandruff can actually be caused by a few different things, some of which are preventable and some not. Besides the root (no pun intended) causes, risk factors like young to middle adulthood, being male, having oily hair and scalp, and certain diseases can all increase your odds of having dandruff.

Seborrheic Dermatitis - No, I'm not going to try to pronounce it. Basically, it's irritated and oily skin that produces white or yellow flakes. If you've ever seen a baby with cradle cap, you've seen seborrheic dermatitis up close. This is actually the most common cause of dandruff, and contrary to myth, does not indicate a lack of hygiene.

Washing Woes - If you shampoo too often, you can dry out the hair and scalp, leading to a tight itchy scalp and dry flaking. However, going too far in the opposite direction can lead to a buildup of product, oils, and dead skin cells on your scalp, which can then clump and flake off. (I really hope you're not eating while reading this.) 

Malassezia - This might sound like something that would be amazing with marinara sauce and a sprinkle of Parmigiano. But ... no. Instead, Malassezia globosa is a fungus that normally lives harmlessly on the skin and scalp. Sometimes, however, it prefers to dig down into the hair follicle. And the skin cells react to M. globosa much the way I do to telemarketers: With extreme irritation (and maybe a bit of weeping). 

How to Get Rid of Dandruff

Unfortunately, there is no one foolproof way to get rid of dandruff as it depends entirely on the cause of your dandruff and how your scalp reacts to certain ingredients. 

Commercial and prescription dandruff shampoos can contain any of the following active ingredients: 

  • Pyrithione zinc, which is an antibacterial/antifungal agent
  • Coal tar, which slows skin cell turnover
  • Salicylic acid, which chemically exfoliates the skin, reducing flakiness
  • Selenium sulfide, which also slows cell turnover and may help combat Malassezia globosa
  • Ketoconazole, which is a broad antifungal agent
  • Tea tree oil, an alternative medicine traditionally used as an antifungal/antibacterial

No matter what treatment you choose, be sure to give it time to work unless it causes a serious negative reaction. Hopefully before too long, your scalp flakes will be a thing of the past! 

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