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What Is Dandruff, Why Do You Have It And How Can You Treat It?

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If you find that it’s snowing even in July, that might be a sign that you’re suffering from dandruff. No one likes to fall victim to those white flakes drifting from the top of your head- you’re not a human snow globe! If you ever want to wear dark colors again (after all, winter is coming), you’re probably wondering what to do. And maybe you’re too embarrassed to ask someone. Even though it’s a totally natural and common condition!

Plenty of people are ashamed of their dandruff, and it’s been known to cause self-esteem problems in many. When you think you don’t look your best then you also don’t feel your best, and this can have tremendous negative implications for your mood and overall approach to life. But the truth of the matter is that dandruff should not be a reflection on the person, as it’s not even caused by poor hygiene (which many people mistakenly associate it with). There are plenty of things we’re self-conscious about, but dandruff should not have to be one of them. So if you’ve ever wondered what causes dandruff, why it suddenly pops up, and what to do about it, you’ve come to the right place. If you’ve become a flaky person recently but you don’t want to be one anymore, keep on reading to improve your hair care.

What Is Dandruff?

What is dandruff? It’s a broad term used to describe flaking and scaling of the scalp. Small amounts of flaking are a normal and natural part of the scalp’s cycle. When new skin cells arrive, the old cells die and fall out. The problems begin when excessive amounts of shedding take place and the dead cells become visible. Scientists have been studying dandruff causes for years and still have not determined a definitive cause.

Dandruff isn’t just an appearance inconvenience. Among the symptoms of dandruff is that uncomfortable itchy scalp feeling that distracts a person throughout the day. So if you’re experiencing itchiness, coupled with a flaky scalp, shoulders, or eyebrows, it’s a sign that you’re experiencing dandruff doom.

Although quite the inconvenience, dandruff isn’t anything to be too alarmed about. It’s overall harmless, and it’s not contagious.

What Causes Dandruff? Top 6 Dandruff Causes

Back of woman with short blonde hair.

Woman with short hair.

Certain factors are known to contribute to the scalp’s flaking, and understanding these can aid us with better understanding methods of dandruff treatment:

1. Dryness

If you suffer from a dry scalp, this is probably the chief cause of dandruff. While dry-skin dandruff flakes tend to be of the smaller and less noticeable variety, they are still dandruff and have the potential to be just as uncomfortable and inconveniencing as the other types.

2. Fungi

There is a yeast-like fungus named Malassezia which resides in the scalp and usually causes no problems. However, there are times when the fungus can get out of control and begin to grow. The Malassezia fungus feeds on the sebum, the body’s natural oil, which is secreted by the sebaceous glands and is filled with fatty acids. The sebaceous glands are found almost everywhere on the body, but they are most abundant in the area of the scalp and head, right by your hair follicles.

When the fungus grows, the scalp is then stimulated to produce more skin cells. The more skin cells there are, the more of them die and shed. The more they shed, the more chances they have of becoming clearly visible. The dead skin mixes with the sebum, and the result is a greasier kind of dandruff. Not life-threatening, but also not too pleasant.

Tinea capitis is a fungal infection of the scalp. Symptoms include itching, dandruff, and even hair loss resulting in bald spots.

3. Weather

Woman smiling outdoors in winter clothes surrounded by snow.

Many people notice more dandruff in the winter.

Turns out that weather can also alter your scalp condition and cause dandruff. This is especially true in winter, when temperature conditions can become polarized. If you walk into a hot, well-heated room from a very cold environment, the sudden changes in temperature can trigger itchiness and flaking. The scalp is a very sensitive area of the human body, and it is easily affected by environmental changes.

Plus, the condition can be worsened by the side effects of winter. Specifically, people often wear hats during the cold months. Doing so can encourage the production of microbes which cause dandruff, as they do best at higher temperatures. So a warmer head = more dandruff danger. Also, the heating during the wintertime doesn’t help. It makes the air both dryer and warmer, making things worse for those prone to having a dry, scaly scalp. People might wash their hair less frequently in the winter months, which can exacerbate dandruff problems. And since we tend to notice dandruff most frequently on dark clothes, our flaky foes might be more noticeable at this time of the year.

4. Age

Age is also a factor in developing dandruff. It typically starts when a person is in young adulthood, and it can then continue through middle age. The prevalence of dandruff peaks at about age 20 and lasts until about age 50, although people both younger and older can suffer from dandruff as well.

According to the Mayo Clinic men are known to experience dandruff more than women, but it’s not certain if this is due to male hormones.

Adults are not the only ones who get to experience the joy (*insert eye roll here*) of dandruff. Babies can suffer from cradle cap (also known as seborrhea), which can cause redness and dandruff. Luckily, it will usually last just a few months and then go away on its own.

5. Illness

Cup of tea, tissue box, and glasses on table.

Cold essentials.

Certain diseases can make an individual more prone to suffering from dandruff. Parkinson’s disease and other diseases that affect the nervous system are examples. Specifically, an illness such as Parkinson’s disease can cause changes to one’s skin such as oily skin and flaking. HIV or a weakened immune system also seem to be linked to a higher rate of experiencing dandruff. It’s been found that as opposed to the 3% of the general public which experiences dandruff, 30% of those with HIV experience it. And individuals with HIV tend to suffer from seborrheic dermatitis, a more severe form of dandruff.

6. pH

This is a very broad generalization, but it is nonetheless relevant. pH levels range from acidic (0-7) to alkali (7-14). The pH levels in the body’s different regions are what regulate many organs and help the body’s different systems (respiratory, blood, nervous) run smoothly.

The scalp, hair, and sebum are around the pH 4.5 -- 5.5 mark. Consequently, many hair and scalp issues can be traced to a pH imbalance. The scalp’s acidic pH level helps it keep away fungal infections, bacteria, harmful chemicals, and substances. It acts as a shield, a filter of sorts. If the pH is unbalanced, it means that your scalp may be vulnerable to attacks that could cause hair and scalp problems.

Keeping the body’s pH levels in the right zone is essential for proper functionality. Many times, the body finds ways to balance itself out without requiring any outside assistance. Sometimes, however, intervention is necessary to restore the peace.

How To Get Rid Of Dandruff

For such an annoying problem, at least dermatology has come up with solutions for how to get rid of dandruff! You can opt for over-the-counter products, or you can try tweaking your routine if you prefer.

Dandruff Shampoo

Woman in shower washing brunette hair.

Using natural hair products keeps your scalp healthy.

Your first step should be washing your hair each day with a gentle shampoo, in order to decrease oil levels and remove buildup of dead skin cells. If you have no luck with this method, try a medicated dandruff shampoo instead.

You might need to sample a few products before you find the one that’s the best fit for you. And remember that if you experience any adverse effects – such as stinging, itching, burning, redness, or hives – you should stop shampooing with the product immediately and speak with a dermatologist or health care professional. It might be that the shampoo is too harsh for you or that you are allergic to it.

Did you know that there are different kinds of dandruff shampoos that include different medications? Neither did I, until recently. One type of anti-dandruff shampoo is Nizoral, which is an antifungal shampoo that can help address redness, itching, and flakes. You’re probably also familiar with Head & Shoulders, probably the most popular anti-dandruff shampoo out there, and Selsun Blue. There are shampoos that contain the antibacterial and antifungal zinc pyrithione, salicylic acid to eliminate scale or the antifungal selenium sulfide. Other shampoos also contain coal tar in order to slow the death of skin cells on your scalp or ketoconazole to kill fungi on your scalp.

Self Care

Three friends talking in field of flowers.

Friends talking.

How we take care of our minds and our bodies has an effect on every aspect of ourselves. So if you want to look for some other ways to improve your dandruff situation while also making yourself healthier overall, start with the basics. Start with self care.

Manage your stress by exercising, hanging out with friends, and making sure to get enough sleep. Anxiety can exacerbate a whole bunch of issues, and it can trigger dandruff or make your current dandruff status worse.

Go natural by using fewer hair products daily. Gels, mousse, hair sprays, etc. can all build up on your hair and scalp. This will make your hair oilier, making your dandruff issues worse.

Lastly, don’t forget to eat healthy! A diet rich in zinc, vitamin B, and certain fats are essential for hair health and helping with dandruff.

Top 4 Dandruff Home Remedies

1. Apple Cider Vinegar

apples and apple cider vinegar.

If you want a more gentle option for your hair, go for apple cider vinegar.

Apple cider vinegar is a hot new item that can also help with your dandruff woes. Simply combine a 1:1 ratio of apple cider vinegar and water. Then use this blend in place of your shampoo. This will help with your dandruff because the vinegar can kill the fungus responsible for dandruff. It can, therefore, help treat the problem as well as the symptoms.

Apple cider vinegar is not the top pick when it comes to dandruff treatments, but it is effective. Furthermore, it’s much more gentle on your hair, so it’s worth a try if your dandruff problem isn’t too severe.

2. Tea Tree Oil

Tea tree oil is used for many things relating to skin care, from helping with acne to treating infections to relieving athlete’s foot. But one of the major benefits of tea tree oil is -- yup, you guessed it -- treating dandruff. This is due to its antifungal as well as its antibacterial properties. It can fight the Malassezia fungus in order to reduce itching and flaking.

To reap the benefits of tea tree oil, there are a couple of options. First, you can add a few drops of the oil to your regular shampoo. Alternatively, you can mix tea tree oil with some carrier oils. Then massage the blend into your scalp and leave it in overnight in order to treat the dryness and itchiness. Don’t forget to wash it off when you wake up in the morning!

3. Green Tea

Tea being poured into a mug.

Pouring tea.

Research has shown that green tea might just do the trick when it comes to getting rid of dandruff (and psoriasis!). A study found that treating animals experiencing inflammatory skin conditions with green tea helped slow the growth of skin cells and the presence of a gene that regulates a cell’s life cycle.

Green tea is jam-packed with healthy things. The theanine in it, as well as vitamin B, are good for your hair because, among other things, they help to strengthen roots. Additionally, green tea has anti-inflammatory properties which can promote healthy hair too. So, whether you drink green tea or want to apply it directly to your hair in a rinse, it’s definitely worth giving it a try.

4. Lemon Juice

Woman biting into a lemon.

Use lemons to eliminate dandruff.

Fresh lemon juice contains acids that can break down the fungus that leads to dandruff. Plus, it doesn’t include harsh chemicals that would damage your hair and your scalp.

In order to try this for yourself at home, massage 2 tablespoons of the juice into your scalp and let it rest for a minute. Then, combine 1 teaspoon of lemon juice and a cup of water. Rinse your hair with the lemon juice/water combo. It’s best to do this right before you hop into the shower.

Alternatively, you can try mixing lemon juice with amla, also known as Indian gooseberry. Because both of these ingredients are citrusy, they help minimize the formation of dead cells. They can also nourish your roots and make your hair shine. Simply combine 2 tablespoons of lemon juice with 2 tablespoons of amla juice. Then apply it to a cotton ball and delicately press it onto your scalp. Leave the mixture on for a half-hour before rinsing it off with water.

Dandruff Or Dry Scalp?

Ah, the ever-common question: Do I have dandruff because my scalp is dry? Well, you should know that a dry scalp and dandruff are not the same thing. So how can you tell if you’re suffering from dandruff or a dry scalp?

A dry scalp happens when the scalp does not create or hold enough moisture. Specifically, it means that there is not enough oil on the scalp for the skin to be properly hydrated. Think about when your hands or legs are dry in the winter and you start itching. Well, the same can happen to the skin on your scalp. As a result, you can experience flaking and irritation. Also, it’s likely that your hair will look dry since it is lacking oil to condition it. Some reasons for experiencing a dry scalp include over-washing your hair, certain skin conditions like eczema, and dry air.

Dandruff, on the other hand, is dead skin cells, but it can be caused by different factors. It can be due to a fungal or other scalp infection, the oils which your scalp secretes, or a sensitivity to certain hair products. The faster your dead skin cells shed, the worse your dandruff will be.

When you suffer from a dry scalp, the flakes you notice will be smaller and whiter than dandruff flakes. Dandruff flakes, in addition to being on the larger side, will likely have an oily or yellowish look. A dry scalp may get better over time with a mild changing of conditions such as shampooing less frequently, but dandruff typically needs proper treatment in order to stop.

Learn more about dandruff in comprehensive Natural Hair Care Guide

Conclusion

Dandruff can be rough. It’s annoying, uncomfortable, and potentially embarrassing. It’s an easy way to have a bad hair day, and no one wants that!

There are plenty of things that can cause troublesome dandruff to surface or worsen. But luckily, there are also things you can do to make it better. Each person is different, and as such everyone’s dandruff needs are different. But don’t let that stop you from playing around with different products and methods in order to get your dandruff under control once and for all. Once you find the right one, pair it with a conditioner for the ultimate great-hair look.