What Causes Dandruff?

Woman brushing her hair in front of the mirror, wondering what causes dandruff.

At a Glance

  • Dandruff is a combination of dead skin cells and oil produced by the scalp along with the dust and dirt we accumulate in everyday life
  • Scientists don’t fully understand the cause of dandruff, though studies have uncovered some predisposing factors
  • Dandruff is not caused by poor hygiene, however there are a few things you can do to reduce or avoid dandruff.

Whether you class dandruff as annoying, embarrassing, or both, one thing’s for sure: it sucks. It’s not a life threatening condition, but it’s also not a condition most of us are very happy about having!

Itchy scalp, constantly checking your shoulders for stray flakes…it’s not your idea of sexy and sophisticated, is it?

So what causes dandruff and what can be done about it? Read on to find out the answers to these questions and more.

What Is Dandruff?

As part of our skin’s normal cycle, we discard dead skin cells from all parts of our body on a regular basis with no issues; it’s healthy for our skin to get rid of the cells we no longer need.

Dandruff is the product of redundant skin cells on the scalp mixed with the naturally produced hair oils from the glands on the surface with a bit of dust and dirt thrown in for good measure!

To date, scientists don’t fully understand the root cause of dandruff, but we do know some contributing factors which are associated with dandruff and can make it more likely to occur. On the flipside, avoiding these things can help keep dandruff at bay.

Who Gets Dandruff?

Those clever folk at The Mayo Clinic tell us that anyone can suffer with dandruff, although it’s more likely to appear from adolescence to middle age. Men are generally affected more than women, and people who produce excessive scalp oil are also more likely to experience dandruff. (source)

Poor Hygiene is NOT Responsible

When you notice a condition like dandruff, a lot of people think that they’ve done something wrong to cause the problem, for example not washing your hair enough.

This is simply not the case with dandruff. Using a regular (not an anti dandruff) shampoo is not sufficient to eliminate the microorganism which usually causes dandruff. Although scrubbing your head in the shower may relieve dandruff symptoms for a few hours, in severe cases it will make no difference at all. Rest assured that dandruff is not a hygiene issue.

Factors Associated with Dandruff

These are some of the common elements which have been associated with increased incidence of dandruff:

Dry Skin Conditions

Some experts have identified a link between dry skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis and the increased likelihood of dandruff. That said, not all people who have these conditions suffer with dandruff.

The skin condition seborrheic dermatitis can cause an irritated scalp and excess oil production, although it tends to affect many areas of the body rather than the scalp alone.

Yeasts and Fungus

Yeast and fungal infections such as ringworm have also been proven to be a factor in scalp irritation which can lead to dandruff. In one study, researchers identified that the scalp dwelling yeast-like fungus malassezia consumes scalp oil for food.

Research studies have shown that when a person has dandruff, the levels of malassezia on the scalp increase by between 50 and 100% compared to normal levels.

The more scalp oil we produce and the longer it’s left on the scalp, the more food we leave for the malassezia fungus, making it easier for them to reproduce quickly and cause problems. (source)

Is Dandruff Linked to Diet?

A mason jar full of water with ice.

This is a tough one to answer because we generally eat a wide variety of foods, and most of us have a slightly different diet to the next person.

While it’s quite reasonable to suppose that the nutrients we give or deny our body can affect what happens to our skin, including the scalp, linking diet to many skin conditions is a challenge for even the most experienced researchers.

That said, scientists have proven a link between a deficiency of some vitamins and minerals and increased risk of dry skin, which can increase the likelihood of dandruff.

Vitamin B6 and omega-3 fatty acids have both been associated with dry skin, so there’s no harm in anyone who has dandruff making sure they get their RDA of these two nutrients every day.

The skin is one of the first parts of the body affected when we are dehydrated, so it’s very important to keep up on water intake. Drinks high in caffeine like tea, coffee and energy drinks have a dehydrating effect since they increase urine output, so it’s worth cutting back on those in the event of any skin problems to see if this helps improve symptoms.

Oils in the body originate – at least in part – from the fat we consume, so a high fat diet means that the body makes more oils, including the oils on the scalp. A high fat diet can contribute to an oily scalp which means more food for fungi present such as malassezia. (source)

Dandruff and Stress

Studies to date have been unable to categorically state a link between stress and dandruff. There is, however, circumstantial evidence to suggest that stress might well have a role to play.

It is our immune system which is responsible for providing us with protection from the bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms that are naturally present on the skin, as well as those we come into contact with in everyday life.

If our immune system isn’t in top form, these organisms can multiply to levels which may well increase the likelihood of all kinds of health conditions, including dandruff.

Research tells us that one of the effects of stress on the body is to reduce the effectiveness of the immune system. So when you look at the bigger picture, it’s possible that by inhibiting the immune system, stress could potentially contribute to dandruff. (source)

What Can Be Done About Dandruff?

The good news is that according to The American Academy of Dermatology, dandruff responds well to medicated shampoos. When used regularly, the majority of people find that their symptoms dramatically improve, and in most cases resolve.

Personal Grooming

Regular hair washing, including stimulation of the scalp with the fingertips (not the fingernails) helps temporarily relieve symptoms of dandruff by avoiding an accumulation of excess oil on the scalp; regular hair brushing helps to remove the skin cells and dandruff flakes. This can help to reduce the amount of dandruff and make it less visible.

Take Care with Hair Products

It’s possible for the scalp to react to some skin and hair products. Not all products will cause irritation in everyone, but if they’re not right for you it can result in a scaly, itchy scalp.

If you’ve been trying out a new product and notice dandruff symptoms, it’s a good idea to stop using it and see if the condition of your scalp improves. It’s also possible that a combination of one or more products could be contributing to the problem.

Not All Dandruff Shampoos are the Same

Man shaking his hair outdoors, with an attempt to dry it.

If one shampoo isn’t working, take a note of the active ingredients and try an alternative which includes different chemicals. One preparation might contain salicylic acid which helps remove scaly skin whereas zinc pyrithione helps reduce the numbers of yeast on the scalp and helps slow down skin cell production.

Ketoconazole is a very common ingredient which kills fungi and yeasts. Sulfur helps to reduce the number of microbes and slow cell production.

Tea tree oil can help to kill off fungi and bacteria, and reduces irritation and inflammation. Selenium sulphide has been highlighted as being a very effective ingredient against the malassezia fungus. (source)

If after several weeks of regular anti-dandruff shampooing, you still have dandruff, it’s a good idea to see your doctor to discuss the problem.

They may be able to get an analysis of the skin cells to see if there’s an unusually high number of any particular organisms and check your general health to see if there’s an underlying problem.

In Summary

Dandruff is a common problem which affects most people at some time in their lives. The symptoms including large flakes of skin often visible on the shoulders can be uncomfortable and embarrassing, even though dandruff is not due to poor hygiene.

Dry skin condition as well as excess scalp oil production can contribute to dandruff. There is a definite link to the fungus malassazia, and possibly with other microorganisms.

Dietary factors, such as hydration and daily doses of vitamin B6 and omega-3 oils, as well as stress levels are also factors worth considering.

The best news is that anti-dandruff shampoos do work as a rule, but the various products available use various different active ingredients, so switch brands if one doesn’t clear up the problem.

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