Dealing with dandruff is one of the most common, and stubborn, hair problems. And believe it or not, those embarrassing white flakes — that also seem to multiply when brushing them off clothing — can happen to every type of hair, across all seasons.
That said, dandruff is notoriously tricky to resolve. So if you're fighting the good fight, yet nothing seems to stop the flakes from falling, keep reading.
Here, we spoke with both dermatologists and scalp-savvy scientists to find out what dandruff actually is, why it happens to the best of us, how to get rid of, and prevent it from coming back.
All of their expert tips, ahead.
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What Is Dandruff?
"Dandruff is the skin's response to a naturally occurring fungus and natural oils on the scalp," explains Dr. Rolanda Wilkerson, director and principle scientist at Head & Shoulders. "About half of the population experiences dandruff, and those that do have a genetic predisposition respond to the presence of the dandruff-causing fungus on the scalp."
She adds that seborrheic dermatitis, aka dandruff, is not contagious, despite the myths. "Everyone has the naturally occurring fungus on the scalp, but not everyone's scalp responds to the irritant."
Although dandruff most commonly presents on the scalp, it is possible to develop the condition on other areas of the body as well, according to Union Square Laser Dermatology's Dr. Jennifer MacGregor. She notes that it can appear on the sides of the nose, eyebrows, chin, ears and even the center of the chest.
What’s the Difference Between Dandruff and Dry Scalp?
"Dandruff is the skin's response to a naturally occurring fungus and natural oils on the scalp," explains Dr. Wilkerson. "Dry scalp is a symptom of dandruff, and is when the scalp may feel tight and irritated. With dry scalp, the scalp's natural moisture barrier is compromised and is unable to resist dryness."
However, making the distinction between the two can be tricky.
"It can be hard to tell the difference since it's hard to see our own scalp clearly!" Stanford-educated dermatologist Dr. Laurel Geraghty shares. "Dry scalp is generally worse in the winter and feels a bit dry or flaky, and it may or may not be itchy. Dandruff tends to be redder, itchier, and flakier than mere dry scalp."
Dry scalp also has the tendency to be temporary, while dandruff is persistent through time, and like most other skin conditions, can flare up when we're stressed.
What Are the Signs of Dandruff?
"The symptoms of dandruff include itching, redness, dryness, and flakes, which can show up in various sizes," describes Dr. Wilkerson. "The condition can range from light to persistent flaking."
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What Causes Dandruff?
Dr. MacGregor explains that there are several factors that play a role in the development of dandruff, including genetics, gender (dandruff is more common in men over women) and other health conditions, like psychiatric disorders, Parkinson's Disease or HIV.
"If you generally have dry skin, itchy skin, sensitive skin, or intolerant skin on the face or body, there is a good chance your scalp will follow suit and be sensitive, dry, intolerant and itchy as well," she says, adding that most dandruff conditions begin after puberty.
But a common misconception, according to the MD, is that dandruff is a dry skin condition, when, in fact, the opposite is true. "Dandruff flakes are more of an oily skin condition associated with under-washing hair," she says. "If you go too long between washes but you have an oily scalp or scales on the scalp, there's a good chance it's dandruff."
Does Dandruff Look Different for Those With Afro-Textured Hair?
"The symptoms of dandruff are pretty much the same across all hair types," dermatologist Dr. Adeline Kikam shares. "Afro-textured hair in general is more prone to dryness — its water content is slightly lower than Caucasian hair and there is uneven distribution of sebum due to its spiral shape or coils, all of which contribute to dry hair." She also points out that any moisture loss in hair can make the condition worse.
How Do You Treat Dandruff?
There are several tips and specific steps you can take to treat dandruff. But you should always start with the simplest steps first, and work your way up the severity ladder until your scalp responds to treatment.
It's also important to note that for Afro-textured hair, treatment is mostly the same as straight hair, but it's crucial to take a hard look at the shampoos ingredients list first to ensure that you're using a gentle formulation that will not dry out the hair or scalp further, Dr. Kikam explains. Her favorite is LivSo's Moisturizing shampoo, thanks to its highly potent main ingredient, xylitol, to "control growth of skin flora, like yeast" making the shampoo "very effective at combating flakes and itching associated with dandruff."
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10 Steps for Treating Dandruff
Watch the water temperature
"Definitely do not wash your hair and scalp with hot water," warns Dr. Kikam. "It will strip it of moisture. Settle for lukewarm water."
Be mindful of seasonal temperatures
"Winter itself does not cause dandruff, but there are other factors common in colder months which can make an existing dandruff problem appear worse," advises Dr. Wilkerson. "Dandruff-causing microbes thrive in higher temperatures, so when you pull on a wooly hat and raise the temperature of your scalp, you're more at risk."
Combat the dry air from central heating with a humidifier, and maybe reach for earmuffs rather than a heat-trapping hat. And on the flip side, a hot summer can mean a sweaty scalp, triggering build-up and eventual flare-up, so always be mindful of that.
Add another wash day or two into your routine
"Across different ethnicities, women have different wash frequencies, but for scalp health, infrequent washing can be problematic, especially for someone who experiences a dry, flaking, or itchy scalp," explains Dr. Wilkerson. "At minimum, women should wash their hair once when their scalp starts to itch." Head & Shoulders Dandruff Defense Intensive Itch Relief shampoo is an extra-strength formulation that the scientist recommends. It works wonders on even the most stubborn dandruff by pulling double duty to relieve itch and leave the scalp refreshed.
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But don’t overwash your hair root or scalp, either
"It can also contribute to more dryness," says Dr. Kikam, which is enemy number one for recurring dandruff.
Getting your number of weekly wash days right is a little bit trial and error, admits Dr. MacGregor. But as a general rule of thumb, the wash sweet spot for dandruff-prone type 1 or 2 hair is every one to two days, whereas types 3 and 4 only need to wash once or twice a week.
Swap your shampoo
Kikam recommends medicated shampoos, like Neutrogena T/Sal that are filled with flake and itch-preventing ingredients like selenium sulfide, ketoconazole, zinc pyrithione, salicylic acid, and coal tar. As a bonus, she advises "leaving shampoo on the scalp for five minutes before rinsing off" to let the scalp soak up all the goodness.
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Jury’s still out on dry shampoo
As long as you're not replacing several suds days with dry shampoo, it shouldn't affect dandruff too much one way or the other, but a good old fashioned wash is still your best bet. If you're a dry shampoo die-hard fan and prone to dandruff, Dr. Wilkerson recommends using the dry shampoo only on the hair mid-strand and tips over focusing on the roots, which can contribute to scalp build up.
Take care of yourself and your health
"Dandruff is a lot like acne, it's one of the first conditions that riles up whenever we're run-down, overworked, under-rested, under the weather or just stressed out," explains Dr. Geraghty. "If we can make a point to exercise, sleep well, and do the things that reduce stress and make us feel better, dandruff often improves! Taking care of our bodies and our well being can absolutely help our skin and our scalps."
So, seriously, don't underestimate the power of daily self-care — your scalp, perspective, and mental health will thank you.
Focus treatment on the scalp — but do it with care
You'll want to make sure that you're applying products directly to the scalp.
"Some people feel their scalp can benefit from a scalp scrub because of the manual removal or exfoliation of flakes," says Dr. Wilkerson. "For any scalp product, inclusive of scrubs, it is important to get the product onto the scalp and gently massage the product on the scalp with the finger tips, not fingernails. Be careful not to scratch the scalp or the hair as this can cause hair breakage and further irritation on the scalp."
Boost Afro-textured hair with a leave-in
"Dryness, itching and flaking, or dandruff, are common scalp concerns for Black women," explains Dr. Wilkerson, adding that relaxers, chemical treatments and heating tools trigger even more scalp dryness, while the traction from braids or tight ponytails can cause scalp irritation. "For protective styles, women can use leave-in treatments, like Royal Oils Instant Soothe Scalp Elixir, which provides instant relief of dry, itchy scalp and protection for up to 24 hours."
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When in doubt, see a dermatologist
"If dandruff seems severe, or if it's causing hair loss or a ton of itching or flaking, it's important to see a board-certified dermatologist," says Dr. Geraghty. "You might actually have psoriasis or another condition that would benefit from a different medical treatment."
What should I do if the dandruff still won’t go away?
For serious or persistent dandruff conditions, dermatologists can prescribe Nizoral, a topical steroid within a 2% shampoo or solution as well as usage frequency. An OTC version of Nizoral is available at a lower concentration, 1%, which is still very powerful.
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Can I Use Medicated Dandruff Treatments on Color-Treated Hair?
Proceed with caution.
Dandruff products generally aren't color-safe. I repeat: they will almost certainly strip or fade hair color. However, if you have persistent dandruff, you can drop the usage down to once a week, says Dr. MacGregor, to treat the scalp but also preserve color.
How Can I Prevent Dandruff From Coming Back?
Managing diet, stress, and lifestyle are huge factors to keep dandruff under control, and once you find a wash routine and shampoo formulation that works for you, keep at it. Consistency is key.
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