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What Is Dandruff? Causes, Symptoms, And Treatments

What Is Dandruff? Causes, Symptoms, And Treatments

Dandruff – those pesky, little, white flakes that appear in the hair and shoulders are a skin condition that affects up to 1 in 5 people, mostly those between the ages of 10 and 20. This suggests it may be related to puberty. However, it can affect people of all ages, even babies, in which case it appears as oily, yellow scaly patches which usually clear up in a few weeks or a couple of months, and is known as cradle cap.

But what is dandruff? Dandruff is one of the most common skin conditions, and other than the discomfort and embarrassment it can cause to those affected, it is harmless. There are many reasons dandruff can appear, from certain skin conditions, to dry skin, to environmental factors, to lifestyle choices, though one specific cause has yet to be determined. It is not, however, related to poor hygiene as many people tend to believe. Treatment also varies, and it can include home remedies, over-the-counter shampoos, or prescription medication for more severe cases.

Scroll down to have all your questions about dandruff answered, from the symptoms to causes, to the treatment options, and when you should get concerned and see a doctor.



Dandruff is pretty easy to spot by the white flakes that will appear in your hair and often times in the shoulders as well. These flakes can be small and white, but also large, yellow, and oily.

What is dandruff
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However, the flakes are only the most visible symptom of dandruff as you may also experience itching, dryness, tightness, irritation, and redness. As a matter of fact, these symptoms often precede the flaking, which means you may be experiencing dandruff but don’t know it yet because the white flakes haven’t appeared.



The dead skin cells in our scalp fall off and are replaced by new ones continuously, so that’s a completely normal process. However, dandruff is formed when those skin cells fall off and are replaced in a more accelerated and abnormal rate. Our scalp’s natural oils then combine with the skin cells, which makes them clump up and appear as white flakes all over your hair and shoulders.

There are several agents which accelerate the skin cell replacement rate and lead to flaky skin and dandruff, including the growth of a fungus in our scalp which can be caused by stress or hormone imbalance.

Other reasons include:

Skin conditions

Skin conditions like saborherric dermatitis, tinea capitis, or scalp psoriasis can all affect the health of your scalp, which can result in an irritated, flaky skin, therefore dandruff.

However, in addition to dandruff, these conditions may also be accompanied by skin that’s red and/or oily in appearance, itching, burning and soreness, hair loss, or small black dots.

Allergy to hair care products

Allergy to a certain product or ingredient, then it can cause allergic contact dermatitis, a condition that causes a red, itchy, and scaly scalp.  Other than the scalp, allergic contact dermatitis affects any part of your body that comes into contact with a substance you’re allergic to, including soaps, makeup, perfume, shampoo, conditioner and hair dyes.

Infrequent brushing

Even though there has been no link between your hair hygiene and the formation of dandruff, failing to brush it and comb it can lead to dandruff becoming more visible.

Brushing regularly (but not too frequently) especially helps because it aids the skin in replacing the dead skin cells at a normal pace, therefore reducing the risk of dandruff.

What is dandruff
Image credit: Shutterstock


Your diet

The health of your scalp, just like the health of every other part of your body, also comes down to the food you consume. If you’re not taking in enough zinc, B vitamins, proteins, iron, and healthy fats, like omega-3 fatty acids, then the risk of dandruff increases.

Dry skin

People who have dry skin are also more prone to having dandruff but in these cases, the flakes are smaller and non-greasy and the scalp does not show redness or inflammation.

Learn more about the above-mentioned skin conditions and other causes of dandruff.



Dandruff is not a difficult skin condition to be treated, and will usually do away with an over-the-counter dandruff-fighting shampoo, lifestyle changes, or different home remedies.


Shampoos with dandruff-fighting agents will usually contain one of these ingredients:

Ketoconazole: contains anti-fungal properties and can be used for people of all ages.

Selenium sulfide: works by reducing how much natural oil your scalp produces and slowing the skin cell replacement process.

Zinc pyrithoine: contains antibacterial and antifungal properties that help to diminish the growth of the fungus responsible for dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis, as well as yeast growth in the scalp.

Salicylic acids: help the skin to get rid of the dead skin cells.

Tea tree oil: contains anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties that combat the fungus responsible for seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff.

Coal tar: contains natural anti-fungal properties that help treat dandruff and skin conditions like seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis.

For more, see: Dandruff Treatment: Effective Shampoo Ingredients And Home Remedies

Anti-dandruff shampoos should not cause itching, stinging, redness or burning of any kind so if you experience any of these symptoms stop using them immediately.

What is dandruff
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Home remedies

In addition to the shampoos, or even as an alternative, all-natural method to fight dandruff, you can also look at lifestyle changes and home remedies. Try for example:

Aloe vera

Aloe vera is rich in antibacterial and antifungal properties which help fight dandruff by removing bacteria and other fatty deposits which clog hair follicles.

See The Different Benefits Of Aloe Vera For Hair Health


Coconut oil

Coconut oil can help by improving skin hydration since dry skin can also lead to dandruff. It also helps with the treatments of eczema, a condition which is thought to contribute to dandruff.

 See Best Coconut Oil Hair Masks For Every Hair Type

What is dandruff
Image credit: Shutterstock



Aspirin also contains salicylic acid, which you can find in most anti-dandruff shampoos. To make your own shampoo, just crush two aspirin tablets in your regular shampoo and apply it to your hair.


Manage your stress

While stress doesn’t directly cause dandruff, it is known to weaken your body’s immune system which. That makes it harder for your body to fight off the fungal infections and skin conditions that cause dandruff. It can also intensify dryness and itching.

Even though managing your stress is easier said than done, it’s not impossible. See: Stress Management: 6 Tips To Help Manage Stress


See more natural home remedies for dandruff here.


When should you see a doctor?

Dandruff is typically harmless and can be treated at home with any of the above-mentioned treatments and remedies. However, you do need to visit a medical professional if:

–  Your dandruff is very severe and doesn’t begin to clear up after a few weeks have passed.

–  After using a dandruff treatment, you begin noticing an allergic reaction like hives, rashes, or difficulty breathing.

–  You notice redness, tenderness, swelling, and extreme itchiness – these may be signs of a more serious medical problem.



Disclaimer: The contents of this article: text, graphics, images, and other materials contained are strictly for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional medical diagnosis, advice, or treatment. Please always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with all the questions that you have related to, or about, a medical condition. 


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