Dandruff can be distressing: No one wants to leave a trail of little white flakes in their wake. But if you're shedding scalp snow onto your shoulders, you're far from alone.
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This common scalp condition (which is also characterized by itchiness) affects approximately half of adults, says Lucy Chen, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology in Miami.
So, what's the deal with dandruff and why do we develop it?
This pesky hair problem often happens when there's an overgrowth of yeast (called Malassezia globosa) that feeds on oils in the scalp, Dr. Chen says. "Some people's bodies perceive this oil breakdown as an irritant," she explains.
When this occurs, the body will increase the speed at which the skin cells renew, forming flakes of dandruff.
Because yeast makes a meal of scalp oils, people with oily skin are most prone to dandruff, Dr. Chen adds. In other words, the more oil available, the more "food" for this fungus to flourish.
In addition to excessive yeast and oily skin, other causes of dandruff include dry skin, sensitivity to hair care products (contact dermatitis) and skin conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema, according to the Mayo Clinic.
To add fuel to the flaky fire, sometimes our own habits can unintentionally inflame dandruff. Here Dr. Chen dishes on five common mistakes that make dandruff worse, plus what you should do instead to fight the flakes.
While in most cases dandruff isn’t a serious concern, see your doctor if your scalp appears red, tender, infected or unresponsive to over-the-counter treatments, according to Cedars Sinai.
1. Not Washing Your Hair Enough
Because dry skin can foster flakes, many people believe that washing their hair less often is the answer to their dandruff dilemma. But this is a major mistake.
"Not washing your hair enough can build up oil, causing more flakes," Dr. Chen says.
In addition to natural oils, hair products can also accumulate on an unclean scalp. All this scalp debris can be a feasting ground for those funky yeast that drive dandruff.
Fix it: “No matter what’s causing your dandruff, it's imperative to regularly wash your hair to consistently rinse away the flakes and any potential product build-up on your scalp,” Dr. Chen says.
Yeast also prospers in warm, moist environments (think: a sweaty scalp), so scrubbing after a gym session is especially important to deter dandruff as well.
People with oily or fine hair should shampoo daily to decrease dandruff, swapping in an anti-dandruff shampoo once or twice a week, Dr. Chen says.
2. Washing With Piping Hot Water
While hot water may feel heavenly on your head, it could be sabotaging your scalp.
"Washing your hair with hot water can strip your hair's natural moisture [read: dry it out] and also weaken your roots," Dr. Chen says.
And, as we know, dandruff may develop when you have dry, irritated skin.
Fix it: To foster flake-free hair, lather up with lukewarm water instead, Dr. Chen says.
3. Scrubbing Too Aggressively
We get it: You want to ditch the dandruff as fast as you can. But putting too much elbow grease into your lather and rinse isn't the solution.
Rubbing your scalp too hard or physically trying to remove flakes can be painful and cause bleeding, which can make your scalp susceptible to infections, Dr. Chen says.
Fix it: “Avoid scratching or aggressively scrubbing your scalp while shampooing to prevent damaging the skin,” Dr. Chen says.
Alternatively, gently “massage the shampoo into the roots, where your hair is guaranteed to get nourished,” she says.
4. Blow Drying on High Heat
When your head is wet and you're in a hurry, you might blast your strands on high heat to speed up the drying process. But this intense heat setting could be scorching your scalp.
"Blow drying your hair on high heat can cause your scalp's natural moisture to evaporate quicker," Dr. Chen says. "You could also potentially damage the scalp's outer layer, which acts as a defense to lock in essential moisture," she adds.
Fix it: Dial down your dryer to a lower setting. “For reference, it should feel comfortable on the back of your hand,” Dr. Chen says. And avoid hovering over one spot on your scalp for too long.
For an extra layer of protection, you can also apply a heat protectant to your hair before drying, Dr. Chen adds.
5. Using Harsh Hair Products
Harsh ingredients can inflame and irritate your scalp and flakes even further.
Indeed, "Products with synthetic ingredients like sulfates, parabens, synthetic fragrances and coal tar can inadvertently do more harm than good," Dr. Chen says. Here's how:
- Sulfates (chemicals used as cleansing agents): Sulfates can worsen dandruff by stripping your scalp's natural oils, increasing dryness and flaking of dead skin cells, Dr. Chen says. They're particularly damaging for curly and thin, delicate hair types.
- Synthetic fragrances and parabens (chemicals used as preservatives in cosmetic products): Both are known to cause skin irritation, Dr. Chen says.
- Coal tar (a chemical often used to treat dandruff): It can trigger allergic reactions, sun sensitivity and even skin discoloration, Dr. Chen says.
Fix it: Nix the harmful chemicals and opt for products with natural ingredients that help nourish and deeply hydrate the scalp from root to tip, Dr. Chen says.
For example, look for moisturizing ingredients like coconut oil, which helps combat dryness.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.