Finding flakes in your hair is an incredibly common issue, but many people don’t realize what causes dandruff in their hair or on their scalp—or the best way to deal with it.
Dandruff has been my big secret since I was a young girl. On wash days my mother would sit me down in the living room, turn on a Disney movie, and scratch the flakes out of my scalp before shampooing my hair. But I never really knew what causes dandruff. My mom would mumble on and on about how I inherited the flakes from my father and my grandfather, who have both used Head & Shoulders since before I was born.
Going to the hair salon, I always felt I needed to explain. “Sorry about the flakes! I have a really bad scalp,” is the way I would preface any trip to the shampoo bowl. And through my years as a beauty editor, I’ve found that there are a lot of misconceptions about dandruff. It’s a common scalp annoyance that no one really understands.
So we decided to bust all the myths about what causes dandruff, what it is, and how to soothe your itchy, flaky scalp.
What causes dandruff?
Dandruff is a condition in which the scalp starts to itch and flake, leaving you with white bits in your hair and an inflamed scalp. Mild dandruff can be caused by many things, including dry skin and bad reactions to hair products.
But on the more severe end, your dandruff may actually be caused by seborrheic dermatitis, the Mayo Clinic explains, a chronic inflammatory skin condition that may be partially driven by yeast and hormone changes.
Some people are sensitive to that yeast—called malassezia furfur—that naturally exists on the scalp, Christine Choi Kim, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Santa Monica, California, tells SELF. For most people, this type of fungus is a harmless part of your scalp and skin flora and feeds on the oil on your skin. But if it’s allowed to overgrow, some experts think it can cause an inflammatory response that leads to a buildup of skin cells that then flake off.
There also seems to be a genetic predisposition to flaking, Dr. Kim says, so dandruff tends to run in families (see mine). Other conditions, like contact dermatitis, eczema, and scalp psoriasis, can also lead to dandruff-like flaking.
The best way to treat your dandruff—whatever the cause—is to first know what you’re really dealing with.
Let’s clear up some myths about dandruff.
Myth #1: Dandruff always comes from having a dry scalp.
If your skin is dry or you’re dealing with a contact dermatitis reaction that results in dry skin, it can definitely cause flaking, itchiness, and even skin peeling.
But having an oily scalp can be a major factor too. That’s because Malassezia yeast—those that are linked to seborrheic dermatitis—feed on the oil (sebum) on your skin and scalp. They thrive when there’s more of it present, making this condition more likely when you have an oilier scalp.
To appropriately treat your dandruff, it’s important to know whether your scalp tends to be oily (or have a lot of product buildup on it) or on the dry side.
Myth #2: Using an oil treatment will make dandruff better.
A hot oil treatment is one of the DIY remedies I found while searching for dandruff solutions on the internet. To see the effects, you’re supposed to apply warm coconut or olive oil directly to the scalp. But does it work? It could help moisturize your scalp if it’s dry. But if your flakes are caused by an oily scalp, “applying more oil will simply give you stickier and greasier flakes,” Anabel Kingsley, a trichologist at Philip Kinglsey Trichological Clinic, tells SELF. “Rubbing oils into the scalp can also cause irritation.”
Myth #3: You should remove any flakes before shampooing.
Flashback to my mom using a rattail comb on my head to dislodge the flakes. But talking to Kingsley, I realized that this wasn’t the right strategy. “If your flakes are so adherent and heavy that they need dislodging with a comb, chances are you have a different and more serious scalp condition,” Kingsley says, such as scalp psoriasis. “Harsh or improper removal of scales can be painful and cause bleeding.” And bleeding leaves your scalp susceptible to infection.
Myth #4: You should wash your hair less often if you have dandruff.
If you assume your dandruff is due to a dry scalp, it might be tempting to cut back on washing it so often. But whether the cause is dryness or oiliness, you should actually be washing your hair pretty regularly to rinse away the flakes and any buildup of debris on your scalp.
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