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, SELF talked to two pros to bust all the myths about itchy, flaky scalps. Keep reading to get down to the root of the problem and to find out what causes dandruff.
What causes dandruff?
“Skin cells on our scalp (just like those on the rest of our body) are constantly replaced and shed,” Anabel Kingsley, a trichologist at Philip Kinglsey Trichological Clinic, tells SELF. “If skin cells begin to divide too rapidly—faster than they are shed—this is what causes flakes.” The overgrowth of cells can cause buildup on the scalp that flakes off: dandruff. Some people are sensitive to a yeast called malassezia furfur that naturally exists on the scalp, explains Christine Choi Kim, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Santa Monica, CA. According to Mayo Clinic, this sensitivity can lead to the growth of extra skin cells that collect and flake off. There also seems to be a genetic predisposition to flaking, Choi says, so dandruff tends to run in families (see: mine).
Now allow us to clear up a few common misconceptions about dandruff with help from the scalp pros.
Myth #1: Dandruff comes from having a dry scalp.
Actually, having an oily scalp is more likely to lead to dandruff. Malassezia are lipophilic, meaning they love the oil (sebum) your skin produces and thrive when there’s more of it. Excessive oil production can lead to sebborheic dermatitis, which gives rise to flakes.
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? “As dandruff is usually oily already, applying more oil will simply give you stickier and greasier flakes,” says Kingsley. “Rubbing oils into the scalp can also cause irritation.”
Myth #3: You should scratch away 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,” says Kingsley. (More on that later.) “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.
You should actually shampoo daily to rinse away the flakes and debris. If this doesn’t fit into your schedule, you can apply a clarifying toner “In order to reduce the levels of this yeast, use a daily scalp toner and shampoo containing an anti-microbial agent that specifically targets it,” says Kingsley. Also look for a shampoo with active ingredients like piroctone olamineor zinc pyrithione.
Myth #5: You don’t need to exfoliate your scalp.
“Applying an exfoliating scalp mask once to twice a week will help speed up recovery from a dandruff flare-up and can also help prevent them,” says Kingsley. “Exfoliating masks gently lift away flakes and helps to return the rate of skin cell turnover on the scalp to a normal, healthy level.” But stay away from DIY scalp exfoliators with sea salt as a main ingredient since it can irritate the skin. Instead, Kim recommends using a product that has salicylic acid or hydrocortisone.
Myth #6: Your styling products are making it worse.
There are lots of things that can spur on your dandruff—genetics, stress, your diet—but your styling routine isn’t one of them. Just make sure to rinse your hair of debris as often as possible (meaning daily).
Myth #7: Dandruff does not affect hair growth.
“Research and studies have shown that a flaky scalp can cause and/or worsen hair fall in certain individuals,” says Kingsley. If your scalp is in bad shape it can adversely effect hair growth. And thick, scaly patches can also attach to the hair follicles causing fallout.
Myth #8: Dandruff is worse in the summer.
Winter is typically the time when flakes kick up. “People tend to eat more of the foods that commonly trigger dandruff during winter,” says Kinglsey. “These include full-fat dairy products, sugary and spicy foods, and champagne.” The colder months are also the time of added stress (holidays with the family). And most people cut down on shampooing due to the cold temperatures, which can also make flakes worse.
Myth #9: All flakes are a sign of dandruff.
Seborrheic dermatitis is another condition that can cause dandruff and flaking of the scalp. SD usually appears as “thick, sticky, yellow-colored flakes.” It can also be itchy and inflammatory. Kim also notes that seborrheic dermatitis is not just limited to the scalp. You can find flaky patches in your brows, beard, ears, chest, and other skin folds.
Scalp psoriasis is another dandruff-like issue, but it looks a little different. “Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition. It causes a build-up of dark plaques,” says Kingsley. “Unlike dandruff and seborrhoeic dermatitis, psoriasis is often not itchy.” Typically if you have psoriasis on the scalp, you’ll also see patches on your elbows and knees.
So, how can you get rid of dandruff?
There’s no cure for dandruff. However, there are plenty of products to help manage your flakes and control the malassezia furfur yeast that causes them. Try using a shampoo and conditioner . Used daily, these products help exfoliate the scalp and get rid of flakes. If these shampoos don’t work after a month or so, it’s best to consult your dermatologist to find out if your itchy scalp is caused by something more serious.