Dandruff: Causes, Types, Symptoms, and Treatment

The dry flakes on the scalp are termed Dandruff. It is very common and happens to a lot of people. The shedding dry skin from the scalp is the dead skin. It often leads to the appearance of white or gray flakes in the hair and on the shoulders.

The exact cause of dandruff is not fully understood, but several factors are believed to contribute to its formation such as Malassezia, seborrheic dermatitis, dry skin, chemical hair products, etc.


Dandruff is not a serious condition; it can be persistent and cause discomfort or embarrassment. It can usually be managed and controlled through regular hair washing with a gentle shampoo, avoiding harsh hair care products, maintaining good scalp hygiene, and using over-the-counter anti-dandruff shampoos containing ingredients like zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide, ketoconazole, or salicylic acid. If dandruff persists or becomes severe, it is advisable to consult a dermatologist for further evaluation and treatment options.

What are the various types of dandruff?

Here are the various types of dandruff explained in points along with their characteristics:

Dry Skin Dandruff:

  • Small, dry flakes that are white or grayish in color.
  • The scalp may feel itchy or tight.
  • Flakes are loosely scattered on the scalp and hair.
  • Common in individuals with dry skin.
  • Often worsens in cold weather or low humidity conditions.
  • Frequent washing with harsh shampoos can exacerbate dryness.

Oily Scalp Dandruff:

  • Large, yellowish, or greasy flakes.
  • The scalp appears oily and may feel greasy to the touch.
  • Flakes tend to stick together and may be more prominent near the roots.
  • Often associated with seborrheic dermatitis, a condition characterized by oily, red, and irritated skin.
  • Excessive sebum production by the scalp glands contributes to the oily appearance.
  • Certain factors, such as hormonal changes or stress, can worsen oily scalp dandruff.

Fungal Dandruff (Malassezia):

  • Small, white, or yellowish flakes accompanied by scalp redness and irritation.
  • The scalp may feel itchy or inflamed.
  • Associated with an overgrowth of the fungus Malassezia on the scalp.
  • Malassezia is naturally present on the scalp, but overgrowth can cause dandruff.
  • The fungus feeds on the oils secreted by the scalp, leading to increased cell turnover and flaking.
  • Factors like hormonal changes, excess sweating, and a weakened immune system can contribute to fungal dandruff.

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Allergic Contact Dermatitis:

  • Flakes are accompanied by redness, itching, and scalp irritation.
  • Often caused by an allergic reaction to certain hair care products or ingredients.
  • Flakes may vary in color depending on the reaction and the specific product used.
  • Allergic reactions can be triggered by preservatives, fragrances, dyes, or other additives in hair care products.
  • The immune system reacts to these substances, leading to scalp inflammation and dandruff-like symptoms.
  • People with sensitive skin or a history of allergies are more prone to allergic contact dermatitis.
Dandruff: Causes, Types, Symptoms, and Treatment

What are some general symptoms of dandruff?

Some common symptoms of dandruff are:

  • White or Grayish Flakes: Dandruff typically presents as white or grayish flakes that are visible in the hair, on the scalp, and often on the shoulders or clothing. These flakes may vary in size and can range from small and fine to larger and more noticeable.
  • Itchy Scalp: Dandruff is often accompanied by scalp itchiness. The itchiness can vary in intensity and may be more pronounced when the scalp is dry or irritated. Scratching the scalp can lead to further flaking and potential scalp damage.
  • Scalp Redness: In some cases, dandruff can cause redness and inflammation on the scalp. The scalp may appear irritated, and the skin may feel sensitive or tender to the touch.
  • Oily or Dry Scalp: The type of dandruff can influence the scalp’s oiliness. Dry skin dandruff is associated with a dry scalp, while conditions like seborrheic dermatitis or fungal dandruff can result in an oily scalp due to excessive sebum production.
  • Flaking and Shedding: Dandruff involves the excessive shedding of dead skin cells from the scalp. Flakes can be easily dislodged from the scalp and may be visible on the hair, shoulders, or clothing. The severity of flaking can vary, with some individuals experiencing mild flaking while others have more significant shedding.
  • Scalp Irritation or Tenderness: Dandruff can cause scalp irritation, which may manifest as discomfort, tenderness, or a sensation of tightness on the scalp. Scratching the irritated scalp can further exacerbate these symptoms.
  • Unpleasant Odor: In some cases, dandruff can be associated with an unpleasant odor. The combination of excess oil, dead skin cells, and the presence of certain microorganisms can contribute to this odor.

What are the multiple causes of dandruff?

Multiple factors can contribute to dandruff, and it may be a combination of these underlying causes rather than a single factor:

  • Malassezia Fungus Overgrowth: The overgrowth of a yeast-like fungus called Malassezia on the scalp is a common cause of dandruff. Malassezia is naturally present on the scalp but can multiply rapidly, leading to increased skin cell turnover and flaking.
  • Seborrheic Dermatitis: This medical condition is mostly associated with oil glands, therefore affects areas with a high concentration of oil glands, such as the scalp, face, and chest. It can cause redness, itching, and flaking, including dandruff on the scalp.
  • Dry Skin: Dry skin on the scalp can contribute to dandruff. When the scalp lacks moisture, it becomes more prone to flaking and shedding of dead skin cells. Cold weather, low humidity, and excessive washing with harsh shampoos can exacerbate dryness.
  • Sensitivity to Hair Care Products: Some individuals may have a sensitivity or allergy to certain hair care products. Ingredients such as fragrances, preservatives, sulfates, or other additives can cause scalp irritation and dandruff-like symptoms.
  • Oily Scalp: Excessive sebum (oil) production by the sebaceous glands can contribute to dandruff. An oily scalp creates an environment where Malassezia fungus thrives, leading to increased flaking and dandruff formation.
  • Improper Hair Hygiene: Infrequent or inadequate hair washing can result in the buildup of oils, dead skin cells, and product residues on the scalp. This buildup can contribute to dandruff formation.
  • Hormonal Changes: Hormonal changes, particularly during puberty, pregnancy, or certain medical conditions, can influence sebaceous gland activity and lead to dandruff. Fluctuating hormone levels can affect the scalp’s oil production and contribute to dandruff development.
  • Stress: Chronic or excessive stress can trigger or worsen dandruff symptoms. Stress affects the immune system and hormonal balance, potentially impacting the scalp’s health and contributing to dandruff.
  • Diet and Nutritional Factors: Poor nutrition, particularly diets lacking in essential nutrients like zinc, B vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids, can affect the health of the scalp and contribute to dandruff.
  • Genetic Predisposition: There is evidence to suggest that dandruff can have a genetic component. If dandruff runs in your family, you may be more prone to developing it.

What are the risk and complications of dandruff?

Dandruff is generally a harmless condition. However, in some cases, it can lead to certain risks and complications. Here are some potential risks and complications associated with dandruff:

  • Scalp Irritation: Dandruff can cause itching and irritation of the scalp, leading to discomfort and a constant urge to scratch. Scratching the scalp vigorously can damage the skin, cause redness, and increase the risk of infection.
  • Secondary Infections: Intense scratching of the scalp due to dandruff can create small wounds or breaks in the skin. This can provide an entry point for bacteria or fungi, leading to secondary infections such as folliculitis or impetigo. These infections may require medical treatment to resolve.
  • Psychological Impact: Dandruff can have a negative impact on a person’s self-esteem and confidence. The visible flakes and constant itching may cause embarrassment and social discomfort, leading to reduced quality of life and psychological distress.
  • Acne or Worsening of Skin Conditions: Dandruff is often associated with seborrheic dermatitis, a condition that affects areas rich in oil glands, including the face and chest. If dandruff is left untreated or poorly managed, it may contribute to acne breakouts or worsen existing skin conditions like acne or rosacea.
  • Hair and Scalp Damage: Constant scratching and aggressive brushing to remove dandruff flakes can lead to hair breakage, thinning, or damage to the scalp. It’s important to handle the scalp and hair gently to minimize any potential damage.
  • Persistent or Chronic Dandruff: While dandruff is a common and manageable condition for most people, in some cases, it can become chronic or resistant to treatment. If dandruff persists despite appropriate measures, it may be necessary to consult a dermatologist for further evaluation and management.

What is the treatment and management for dandruff?

Several treatment and management options for dandruff are:

  • Regular Hair Washing: Keeping the scalp clean is crucial in managing dandruff. Regularly wash your hair with a gentle, pH-balanced shampoo. Frequent washing helps remove excess oil, dead skin cells, and dandruff flakes from the scalp.
  • Anti-Dandruff Shampoos: Over-the-counter anti-dandruff shampoos can be effective in controlling dandruff. The shampoo must contain the following as active ingredients:
    • Zinc pyrithione: Helps reduce the growth of yeast-like fungus on the scalp.
    • Selenium sulfide: Controls the growth of Malassezia fungus and slows down skin cell turnover.
    • Ketoconazole: Has antifungal properties and helps reduce yeast on the scalp.
    • Salicylic acid: It helps in removing the dead skin from the scalp.
  • Follow the instructions on the shampoo bottle and use it as directed. Leave the shampoo on the scalp for a few minutes before rinsing for maximum effectiveness.
  • Scalp Exfoliation: Gently exfoliating the scalp can help remove dead skin cells and reduce dandruff. You can use a soft brush, a scalp scrub, or a natural exfoliating agent like baking soda mixed with water.
  • Moisturizing the Scalp: If dry skin is a contributing factor to your dandruff, regularly moisturizing the scalp can help alleviate dryness. Use a moisturizing conditioner after shampooing or apply a small amount of natural oils like coconut oil, olive oil, or jojoba oil to the scalp and massage it in.
  • Avoiding Harsh Hair Care Products: Certain hair care products, such as harsh shampoos, styling gels, hairsprays, and dyes, can irritate the scalp and worsen dandruff. Opt for gentle, fragrance-free, and hypoallergenic hair care products.
  • Stress Management: Since stress can exacerbate dandruff, finding effective stress management techniques can be beneficial. Engage in relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or hobbies that help you unwind.
  • Healthy Lifestyle and Diet: Eating a balanced diet, rich in essential nutrients like zinc, B vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids, can contribute to scalp health. Stay hydrated and minimizes excessive alcohol consumption and smoking, as they can worsen dandruff symptoms.
  • Avoiding Scratching: Although the itchiness associated with dandruff can be bothersome, scratching can further irritate the scalp and worsen the condition. Try to resist scratching and instead use a cool compress or anti-itch creams to soothe the itchiness.
  • Consultation with a Dermatologist: If over-the-counter treatments and management strategies do not effectively control your dandruff or if it becomes severe, it is advisable to consult a dermatologist. They can provide a thorough evaluation, identify the underlying cause of your dandruff, and recommend appropriate prescription medications or treatments tailored to your specific condition.

How dandruff can be prevented?

Here are some prevention measures that can help reduce the occurrence and severity of dandruff:

  • Maintain Good Scalp Hygiene: Keeping your scalp clean is crucial in preventing dandruff. Regularly wash your hair with a gentle, pH-balanced shampoo to remove excess oil, dead skin cells, and dandruff flakes. Avoid using hot water, as it can strip the scalp of its natural oils and worsen dryness.
  • Use Anti-Dandruff Shampoos: Even if you don’t currently have dandruff, using anti-dandruff shampoos as a preventive measure can help keep the scalp balanced. Look for shampoos containing active ingredients like zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide, ketoconazole, or salicylic acid.
  • Avoid Harsh Hair Care Products: Harsh hair care products, such as strong shampoos, hair dyes, and styling products, can irritate the scalp and contribute to dandruff formation. Opt for mild, fragrance-free, and hypoallergenic products that are gentle on the scalp.
  • Maintain a Balanced Diet: A healthy diet can promote scalp health and reduce the likelihood of dandruff. Include foods rich in essential nutrients like zinc, B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants. Examples include fish, nuts, seeds, leafy greens, whole grains, and fruits.
  • Manage Stress Levels: Stress can worsen dandruff symptoms, so it’s important to manage stress effectively. Engage in stress-reducing activities like exercise, meditation, deep breathing, yoga, or hobbies that help you relax and unwind.
  • Avoid Over washing or Under washing: Both overwashing and under washing can disrupt the scalp’s natural balance. Overwashing can strip the scalp of its natural oils, leading to dryness, while underwashing can allow oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria to accumulate. Find a balance that works for you and your scalp type.
  • Protect Your Scalp from Extreme Weather: Extreme weather conditions, such as very cold or very hot temperatures, can impact the scalp’s health and contribute to dandruff. Protect your scalp by wearing a hat or using appropriate headwear when exposed to extreme weather conditions.
  • Limit the Use of Heat Styling Tools: Excessive use of heat-styling tools like hair dryers, straighteners, and curling irons can dry out the scalp and contribute to dandruff. Minimize their use or use them on a low heat setting.
  • Avoid Scratching the Scalp: Scratching the scalp can damage the skin barrier and worsen dandruff. If you feel the urge to scratch, use a cool compress or anti-itch creams to soothe the scalp instead.
  • Seek Professional Help: If you have persistent or severe dandruff that doesn’t respond to home remedies or over-the-counter treatments, it’s advisable to consult a dermatologist. They can assess your scalp condition, identify any underlying causes, and provide appropriate treatment and preventive measures tailored to your specific needs.
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FAQs Related to Dandruff

Is dandruff contagious?

No, dandruff is not contagious. It is a harmless condition and cannot be passed from one person to another through direct contact.

Can dandruff only occur on the scalp?

While dandruff commonly affects the scalp, it can also occur on other parts of the body that have a high concentration of oil glands, such as the eyebrows, face, ears, and chest.

Can dandruff cause hair loss?

Dandruff itself does not directly cause hair loss. However, if the scalp is severely inflamed or irritated due to conditions like seborrheic dermatitis, excessive scratching or rubbing of the scalp may contribute to hair breakage.

Can changing shampoos frequently prevent dandruff?

Frequent shampoo changes may not necessarily prevent dandruff. In fact, it can sometimes exacerbate the condition as the scalp needs time to adjust to new products. It’s best to find a gentle, anti-dandruff shampoo that works for you and stick with it consistently.

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