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What Is Dandruff: Causes and Treatments

Jul 19, 2023 | By Maria

What Is Dandruff: Causes and Treatments

Dandruff is a common condition that affects the scalp, characterized by the shedding of dead excess skin cells from the scalp. It often leads to an itchy scalp and the formation of white or yellowish flakes that can be visible on the scalp, hair, and even on clothing, causing discomfort and embarrassment. It can also cause further issues if not treated properly. Other dandruff symptoms include scalp redness and oily skin or dry, scaly scalp.

Dandruff affects millions of people worldwide and is one of the most common skin conditions that can come and go. It is just something that most of us deal with depending on our scalp health, the hair products that we use, and even the changing weather.

Thankfully, dandruff is relatively easy to get rid of. Sure, it may come back once in a while, and it's a bit embarrassing if you get caught with dandruff flakes on your hair and shoulders, but once treated again, especially early on, you won't have to worry about it a lot.

We're here to answer all your questions about dandruff and tell you how you can effectively treat it.

Is Dandruff Contagious?

No, dandruff is not contagious. Although very itchy and uncomfortable at times, dandruff cannot be "caught". A contagious hair issue that also has itchiness as a symptom is lice. And people often compare the two and mistake dandruff as also infectious.

However, just as with any personal tools, hair brushes should typically not be shared if someone has dandruff. While extremely unlikely, and while dandruff itself is not contagious, it's best not to share used hair brushes with others to avoid all possibilities of fungal exposure.

What Causes Dandruff

What Causes Dandruff

There are a few factors that can cause dandruff. It's important to know what is causing your dandruff to be able to address it properly. While dandruff is fairly easy to treat, if you find that things have only made your dandruff worse, not going away, then it might be because the root cause was not addressed. To help you determine, here are a few common causes of dandruff you should know about:

Sebum overproduction on the scalp

Sebum overproduction on the scalp is a side effect of having dry hair or scalp, hormonal imbalance, and product buildup or clogged pores. When the scalp overproduces sebum, it leads to irritation, dandruff, and fungal infections.

Malassezia fungus

Malassezia is a yeast-like fungus that grows from your body's natural flora. This particular fungal infection isn't dangerous or particularly contagious. However, an overgrowth of Malassezia can cause irritation and increased skin cell turnover, resulting in dandruff. It can also lead to Malassezia folliculitis, a skin condition characterized by small, itchy, red bumps on the scalp and upper body.

This can usually be treated using an anti-dandruff shampoo or topical treatments with ingredients like salicylic acid and other anti-fungal properties. To be sure, consult a professional to determine what treatment is right for you.

Allergic reaction to hair products (contact dermatitis)

People can forget the scalp is also the same skin we have on the rest of our body. It is just as prone to allergic reactions. If you've been using a new product in your routine and have noticed itchy skin and flaky scalp, you might have contact dermatitis and have had an allergic reaction to a certain product. This can be treated by consulting a professional about allergy medication. You can also eliminate the product from your lineup and use dandruff shampoo or dandruff treatment.

Medical skin conditions

Medical skin conditions can also manifest on the scalp and cause skin infections, irritation, flaky skin, itchiness, and other symptoms of dandruff. These skin conditions include seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, fungal infections, or eczema. If you have any of these chronic skin conditions, it might be the cause of your dandruff.

Poor scalp hygiene

Every day, we encounter things that can cause buildup on the scalp. Environmental factors, hair products, and sebum. This buildup must be regularly and deeply cleansed to ensure the scalp is clean. If the buildup isn't cleansed properly, it can lead to clogged pores, sebum overproduction, skin irritation, and dandruff.

Risk factors for developing dandruff

Dandruff can lead to further issues because of the continued irritation of the scalp. Constant scratching and itching can cause painful wounds and scratches on the scalp, damaging skin cells. It can also lead to more severe skin disease.

You have increased chances of developing dandruff if you have a naturally oily scalp, an overly dry scalp, if you live in a hot and humid environment, or if you have very sensitive skin. Other risk factors can include:

  • Hormonal changes.
  • Age (dandruff is more common in adults).
  • Certain underlying health conditions like Parkinson's disease or HIV/AIDS.

Can dandruff be caused by stress?

In a way, yes. Stress is a powerful factor when it comes to health. It can affect the body in ways you could never even imagine. While stress does not directly cause dandruff, it can exacerbate existing scalp conditions like seborrheic dermatitis and make the symptoms worse. Stress weakens the immune system, making the scalp more susceptible to inflammation and irritation. Stress can also cause extreme hair fall and an imbalance of hormones which can cause sebum overproduction in the scalp. Therefore, managing stress levels through relaxation techniques, exercise, and self-care can indirectly help alleviate dandruff symptoms.

How To Treat Dandruff

Dandruff treatments are very easy to find and mostly effective if you know what the root cause of your dandruff is. Dandruff shampoos, scalp treatments, scalp scrubs, and many more are all effective ways to combat those white flakes.

Cleansing with dandruff shampoos

Cleansing with a mild dandruff shampoo is one of the easiest and best ways to treat dandruff. Several medicated shampoos are available over the counter to help control and manage dandruff. These shampoos often contain ingredients like zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide, ketoconazole, or coal tar, which target the underlying causes of dandruff. Do note that a medicated shampoo shouldn't be used like regular ones because they can be drying when used often. When you observe excess oil or start to see some flakes in your hair, you can prevent it early by cleansing with a gentle anti-dandruff shampoo with antifungal properties. Otherwise, use a regular, sulfate-free shampoo.

Natural home remedies for dandruff

There are many natural remedies for dandruff used since ancient times. Tea tree oil, aloe vera, apple cider vinegar, and probiotics are all used as traditional dandruff remedies.

Lifestyle changes

Lifestyle changes are also a great way to prevent and get rid of dandruff. This can include managing your stress better, eating better foods, practicing good hygiene, and being proactive with your medical status (knowing your allergies, taking the right meds, etc.) can all help with preventing dandruff.

Develop a hair and scalp care routine

A good hair and scalp care routine is essential to keep hair healthy and prevent dandruff. Start with the basics: a sulfate-free, regular shampoo, silicone-free moisturizing conditioner, and a styling product to finish your look.

Scalp Care - Hair Mayraki Sea Salt Scalp Scrub

Next, look for your pamper and maintenance products. Avoid anything with harsh ingredients like sulfates and silicones that can dry out hair and cause more dandruff. Include a good scalp scrub in your routine to get rid of dead skin cells and dandruff, and stimulate the scalp. Include a sulfate-free, deep-cleansing shampoo once in a while to get rid of buildup. Lastly, do a nourishing hair mask once a week if you can.

Medical treatment

It's always best to consult a medical professional if you are unsure of things. Dandruff may be caused by underlying conditions that need to be treated medically rather than just with over-the-counter products. Over-the-counter products can speed up the process but make sure to consult if it is appropriate to use them along with your medical treatment.


While dandruff is a common scalp condition, it is manageable. Understanding what factors can cause dandruff allows for easier prevention and targeted treatment that will address the issue much faster. Maintaining good hygiene, eating a healthy diet, living a healthy lifestyle, and having good hair care products are all ways you can keep yourself flake-free. However, if you do start to see them, do not fret! There are many things you can do to banish them quickly and effectively.