Your whole body continually sheds outer layers of dead skin. Usually the process isn’t noticeable, but when the skin cells develop an abnormal structure and function, shedding increases and becomes noticeable when the dead cells clump together and form unsightly white flakes, known as dandruff.The key symptom is dry, flaking, white skin scales on the scalp that collect in the hair and fall onto the shoulders. Depending on the severity, dandruff may also occur in the eyebrows, causing redness and flaking. Scales may be accompanied by mild itching.
A severe form of dandruff is known as seborrheic dermatitis and may require medical treatment. Mild dandruff isn’t so much a medical problem as it is a cosmetic concern.
What causes dandruff?
Dead skin cells are typically shed almost invisibly, but in some people, skin-cell turnover may increase rapidly, and the visible flakes called dandruff appear. Three factors are involved in dandruff:
- An individual predisposition to the condition
- An otherwise normal skin yeast (a type of fungus) that becomes predominant
- An overproduction of oil from the sebaceous glands
Simple dandruff typically occurs in people with dry skin, while seborrheic dermatitis is linked with an oily scalp. The same variety of yeast is associated with both of these conditions.
What if you do nothing?
Dandruff may be an unsightly nuisance, but it’s generally not a cause for alarm. Dandruff does not signal hair loss, for instance.
Home remedies for dandruff
- Start with regular shampooing. Non-medicated shampoo won’t likely help a lot, but you can start by trying this; it may at least temprarily wash away some of the scales.
- Use a dandruff shampoo. Dandruff shampoos may control the problem, usually by acting as an antifungal agent (thereby controlling the yeast) or by helping to slough off the scales. Look for these effective anti-dandruff ingredients: zinc pyrithione, salicylic acid, selenium sulfide, or ketoconazole. Coal tar solutions, an old dandruff remedy, are also effective, but they have an unpleasant odor and can stain skin and hair. Most people find relief from one of the modern anti-dandruff shampoos. If you find one shampoo isn't working so well, try alternating shampoos with different ingredients.
How to prevent dandruff
There’s no way to prevent dandruff from forming, but frequent shampooing with a medicated shampoo can remove excessive scalp buildup and keep it under control.
When to call your doctor
Contact your doctor if dandruff doesn’t improve within two weeks of following self-help measures, or if more extreme symptoms develop. Severe flaking, crusting, itching, and redness may be signs of a medically treatable problem.
What your doctor will do
After taking a careful history and performing an examination, your doctor will determine whether your dandruff may be seborrheic dermatitis or another skin condition, such as psoriasis, that triggers dandruff-like scales. Prescription medications may be recommended to treat the problem.
Also see Flatulence (Gas): Causes and Treatments.