Unsightly flakes. Embarrassing condition. These phrases have come up again and again in my research on dandruff, and every time I read them, I give my laptop screen a serious eye roll. Why? Because dandruff isn’t “unsightly,” and it shouldn’t be a cause of shame — 50 percent of people are said to deal with dandruff at some point, making the condition more normal than, say, identifying as male (just 49.2 percent of the population, according to the Census Bureau). But I’ll admit, just because dandruff is common doesn’t make it desirable — which is why I consulted a trichologist and a hair stylist to discover the five most common dandruff causes and how to fix them.
“Dandruff is a common condition that everyone experiences at different levels,” Sophia Emmanuel, a certified trichologist, tells The Zoe Report. She explains that dandruff is a result of a natural process called keratinization, where new skin cells develop and old skins cells on the surface of the scalp begin to shed — but lifestyle and genetic factors can interrupt this process and cause buildup and flaking. “Dandruff is more chronic for some people then others because of scalp hygiene, hormones, diet, sensitivities to ingredients in hair products, and how much of the fungus malassezia furfur is present on the scalp,” Emmanuel says.
According to the trichologist, there are five main causes of dandruff — product buildup, a dry scalp, an oily scalp, dermatitis, and fungus — but luckily, four out of five can be treated in pretty much the same way. Read on to discover what’s really causing your scalp issues and how to banish your (totally normal) flakes for good.
“Oftentimes, our flakes are not dandruff but simply buildup from products that have ingredients that flake on the hair.,” Emmanuel tells us. This type of “dandruff” is the easiest to treat, since it just comes down to altering your product lineup and deep-cleaning your strands and scalp. “Common hair products that cause flakes are products with hold such as gels, sprays, and mousses,” Emmanuel says. “Simply shampooing your hair with a clarifying shampoo, and discontinuing use of the product that causes build up on the scalp, can help.”
A dry scalp can also cause flakes — but again, this condition isn’t necessarily dandruff. “A dry scalp can look like dry skin on our body — dandruff is not always present,” Emmanuel tells TZR. In this case, an excess of dry skin results in flaking and “makes the scalp feel tight and itchy,” she says. This dandruff-esque problem is more common in the wintertime, which is why you may have noticed a flakier, more itchy scalp as of late. “Just like our skin on our bodies gets dry during winter, the scalp can become dry, and the flakes can intensify,” Emmanuel says. She recommends focusing in on scalp-soothing ingredients that have anti-inflammatory properties, like lavender, tea tree, peppermint, and menthol.
“Our scalps become oily when the sebaceous oil glands secrete too much sebum,” the trichologist tells us. “This can take place when the pH of the scalp is not balanced, and can be accompanied by dandruff.” If the buildup on your scalp is more thick and oily than dry and flaky, you likely have an excess of sebum to blame. “The best way to treat this is to use pH-balanced shampoos, and limit the use of hair care products that have heavy oils,” Emmanuel says.
Traditional dandruff is classified as seborrheic dermatitis, an inflammatory skin condition similar to eczema. A telltale sign that you’re dealing with dermatitis? Yellow flakes and a red hairline. “In seborrheic dermatitis, the skin becomes red and inflamed and is accompanied by yellow, oily flakes that stick to the hair and scalp and are sometimes hard to remove,” Emmanuel explains. “For some people, this scalp condition is paired with itching and if left untreated, can cause hair loss from chronic scratching of the scalp.” The exact cause of seborrheic dermatitis isn’t known, but experts believe it can be linked to genetics, product sensitivity, hormones, diet, and stress. And while there are ways to treat it at home, this one may require a trip to the dermatologist for a prescription-strength regimen.
Finally, your flaking just might be a side-effect of excess fungus. “Yeast and malassezia furfur, two types of fungus, live on the body in small amounts,” Emmanuel tells us. “When there is too much yeast on the scalp, an infection can take place, especially if there are cuts or bruises on the scalp.” Characterized by flaking and itching, this fungal-based condition looks and feels like regular ol’ dandruff, but can but much harder to tackle. “It has to be treated by a dermatologist or doctor,” Emmanuel says. “Over-the-counter treatments are not strong enough to stop the infection.”
How To Treat Any Type of Dandruff
“Except for fungus, you can treat each one of these conditions with a four-step process,” Emmanuel shares.
First, start off with an exfoliating cream or lotion to soften the flakes and “help lift them off the scalp,” she says. She recommends Philip Kingsley Exfoliating Scalp Mask. Next, a clarifying — but not drying — shampoo is in order, like Biolage Salicylic Acid Anti-Dandruff Shampoo or Giovani Don’t Be Flaky Soothing Anti Dandruff Shampoo. “You can also follow this up with a moisturizing shampoo after your dandruff shampoo if your hair feels dry,” she says.
The third treatment step is a toner to balance the scalp’s pH and cleanse the area of excess bacteria and fungus. Emmanuel likes It's Natural Rosemary Stimulating Spray. To finish, use a moisturizing conditioner or mask, like It’s a 10 Miracle Hair Mask, to replenish your hair's hydration levels.
“Hair type or texture does not matter [for treatment],” she says. “The key is to use whatever treatment that works at controlling your dandruff often, on a weekly or twice-a-week basis.” However, Emmanuel notes that those with textured or natural hair may find shampooing more than once a week too drying; and in this case, she says, “Shampoo with a dandruff shampoo that is not drying on the hair or scalp, like Nizoral, and try using a conditioner that adds more moisture to your hair.”
“Pay attention to ingredients that claim to control dandruff as well, to make sure you are not wasting your time using products that are not working for you,” Emmanuel adds. In her opinion, the most effective ingredients include salicylic acid, zinc, ketoconazole, coal tar, sulfur, tea tree, peppermint, rosemary, lavender, and geranium.
Unfortunately, this four-step process won’t be much of a help when dealing with fungal-based dandruff; a trip to your primary care doctor or dermatologist is required. Treatment may include everything from a prescription-strength shampoo to dietary changes to balance the amount of yeast or malassezia furfur in and on your body. (As for how to tell if you dandruff is fungal before scheduling an appointment? If none of the aforementioned treatments do a damn thing.)
Styling Around Dandruff
That being said, it could take days or weeks to see improvements on your scalp. In the meantime, opt for hairstyles that minimize flaking. “If you need a quick cover-up to get out the door, I recommend pulling the hair up,” Liz Rexroat, a stylist at Bomane Salon in Beverly Hills who works with actresses Rachel Kylian and Josey Auguste, tells The Zoe Report. “It will prevent you from touching the scalp and working off any flaking onto your clothing.”
Those with darker hair can “reach for an aerosol root spray or tinted dry shampoo,” she says. “Although I wouldn't use this as a permanent solution, because excess product use can make the problem worse.” If you do decide to camouflage flakes with a tinted dry shampoo, make sure to use a clarifying shampoo at the end of the day. “I would recommend doing a good shampoo with Davines SOLU to get any product buildup off the scalp,” Rexroat tells us.
Ahead, 13 trichologist- and stylist-approved dandruff solutions to keep your scalp healthy and flake-free.
Made with zinc and dandelion root extract, Davines' scalp gel has anti-fungal and antibacterial properties to keep dandruff in check, no matter the cause. Use it once a week for three weeks in a row for best results.
Emmanuel recommends using this mask prior to shampooing your hair to loosen and lift buildup.
Massage this into your scalp every week to exfoliate, loosen product buildup, and keep your hair healthy. "If you have thicker hair, or worry about the product not reaching your scalp, you can divide your hair into four sections and apply in sub-sections using a comb, applicator brush, or old toothbrush," celebrity hairstylist Monae Everett tells us.
"Cleanse your hair with a shampoo that removes dandruff without stripping all the moisture and oils out of your hair," Emmanuel says. She suggests this one from Matrix, which includes salicylic acid to exfoliate dead skin cells.
This twice-a-week shampoo from Davines is formulated to fight bacteria and fungus with a signature blend of zinc, selenium, and dandelion root. It's powerful though, so discontinue use after three weeks — at which point, your dandruff should be a thing of the past.
A favorite of Emmanuel, Philip Kingsley's shampoo is ideal for natural hair since it removes flakes and buildup without drying out your strands.
No wonder Emmanuel swears by this shampoo: Salicylic acid gets rid of flakes; tea tree oil cools and soothes inflammation, and sunflower seed oil and oatmeal lock in hydration.
Made with ketoconazole, an anti-fungal ingredient known for treating dermatitis- and yeast-based dandruff, Nizoral's shampoo is as close as you can get to prescription-strength without visiting a derm.
"Follow shampoo with a toner to maintain the pH balance of the scalp and also to reduce bacteria and fungus that cause dandruff," Emmanuel tells TZR. Her top pick? This witch hazel-infused formula from Philip Kingsley, which works on all hair types.
This rosemary spray can be used as a pre-shampoo treatment to soothe inflammation, but Emmanuel suggests spritzing it on after shampooing to rebalance the scalp's pH levels.
Conditioners and Masks
Since dandruff shampoos tend to be drying, Emmanuel follows up with a moisturizing conditioner to keep hair healthy. Joico's, packed with algae and sea minerals, locks in hydration in one minute flat.
If your dry scalp is causing flakes, mask with It's A 10's Miracle Hair Mask daily to reap the moisture-boosting benefits of oat kernel extract (to smooth and strengthen) and apricot kernel oil (to hydrate and protect from future damage).