Dandruff: What Your Mom Never Told You About Dandruff

dandruffDid you know that an abnormal amount of natural hair and scalp disorders are misdiagnosed each year? One of the most common misdiagnosed conditions is dandruff.

For example, often we overlook symptoms that are more accurately associated with seborrheic dermatitis, writing it off as dandruff and deciding to move forward with a self-diagnosis.

Do you remember the old Head and Shoulders commercials from yesteryear?

The premise of those commercials was very simple. Use Head and Shoulders shampoo, and you would wash away the often-embarrassing dandruff flakes. I am not bashing Head and Shoulders because I imagine that they have good products.

However, like many commercials, they play on the emotional appeal of the individual watching the commercial, which is actually good marketing.

The product appears to solve a problem that you have, so you give it a chance to live up to the claims.

What is Dandruff?

Dandruff is not contagious, and most of the time it is not a serious condition.

It is a very common scalp condition that causes the skin on your scalp to itch and flake away. In simple terms, dandruff is a scalp reaction that causes the natural cycle of skin replenishment to occur more quickly on your scalp.

Obviously, it can be embarrassing to have noticeable dandruff flakes present in your hair and on your shoulders, but typically it can be controlled.

If you only have a mild case of dandruff, you will probably be just fine by shampooing your hair regularly with a gentle shampoo.

However, if you have a more severe case of dandruff, medicated shampoos or physician assistance may be necessary.

microscopic picture of dandruff
The photo represents a microscopic view of a human dandruff sample. This photo (by Horoporo) has been reused under creative commons license CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Identifying Dandruff and Potential Causes

Dandruff is a condition that is usually simple to diagnose.  If there are flakes of dead skin present in your hair and on your shoulders coupled with an itchy scalp, there is a good chance that you have dandruff.

The climate can also impact the condition. Fall and winter months are usually the most difficult times of the year for people with dandruff due to indoor heating contributing to dry skin and scalp. Typically, statistics show that the condition will improve during the summer months.

What is dandruff and causesWhen is Dandruff Extreme?

If you only have a mild case of dandruff, it is typically not necessary to visit the doctor. My advice is to find a gentle shampoo and begin shampooing your hair regularly (weekly is a good start) and adjust as needed based on the results.

However, if you’re regularly shampooing your hair and it doesn’t seem to help much or if your scalp condition becomes more severe (red, tender or swollen), then it’s time to visit your medical doctor or dermatologist.

There are skin conditions like seborrheic dermatitis that resemble dandruff to the layman and should only be diagnosed by a physician or dermatologist. This type of diagnosis generally requires a visual examination of your hair and scalp by a trained medical professional.

Potential Causes of Dandruff-like Symptoms

There are several potential causes of dandruff. Below are the most common causes:

Sensitivity to Certain Hair Product Ingredients

Experiencing sensitivity to specific ingredients within hair care products that contact the scalp (contact dermatitis) is a common cause of dandruff-like symptoms. This is a great example of why writing down what you put in your hair is so important.

Using certain ingredients too frequently may also irritate your scalp. For example, paraphenylenediamine is an ingredient that has been known to appear in some hair care products. It is a common culprit of itchy, scaling scalp. It’s important that you determine which hair care ingredients are causing problems for your scalp.

Infrequent or Inadequate Shampooing

Infrequent or inadequate shampooing can lead to a dirty scalp due to the potential product build-up and the accumulation of oils and skin cells on your scalp. Be sure to shampoo your hair regularly to prevent this potential cause of dandruff.

Understanding the Impact of Dry Skin Issues

Dry skin has always been a potential cause of dandruff. The problem is exacerbated in the winter months when the air outside is cold and our houses are often heated. This scenario is ripe for itchy, flaking dandruff.

It is important to note that the flakes that you will see from dry skin are usually smaller and less oily than the flakes from other causes of dandruff. If you have dry skin on other parts of your body – like your arms, legs and back – there is a greater probability that you will encounter this form of dandruff.

eczema skin dandruffSeborrheic Dermatitis (also Seborrheic Eczema)

Seborrheic dermatitis, an inflammatory skin condition, can affect oily areas of the body including your eyebrows, ears, nose, groin, armpits and breastbone. Additionally, this condition has been known to produce flaky, dandruff-like scales on other oily areas of your body including the scalp. Seborrheic dermatitis is commonly misdiagnosed as dandruff.

Eczema (Dermatitis) Skin Inflammation

If you have eczema on any part of your body, then there is a chance that you also have it on your scalp. This can lead to the development of dandruff.

The Histopathology of Psoriasis (Scaly Rash)

psoriasis dandruffPsoriasis, which more commonly affects the knees and elbows, is a skin disorder where dead skin cells accumulate and form chunky, silvery scales. This disorder can also affect your scalp, making it difficult to differentiate from seborrheic dermatitis without the assistance of a medical professional.

Malassezia (also known as Pityrosporum)

Malassezia (formerly known as Pityrosporum) is often found on the skin of many humans and other mammals. This yeast-like fungus typically doesn’t cause problems for most healthy adults. However, there are times when the fungus grows out of control and feeds on the natural oils produced by your hair follicles.

This feeding process can irritate the scalp and encourage more skin to grow. When these extra skin cells die and flake away, they are generally clumped together with natural oils from your hair and scalp appearing to be dandruff to the layman. Again, this disorder can easily be misdiagnosed as seborrheic dermatitis and obtaining professional medical advice is the recommended course of action.

Are You at High Risk?

Several factors can make you more susceptible to suffering from dandruff including:

  • Males are higher risk than females due to larger oil-producing glands on their scalps.
  • Individuals with oily hair and scalps are more susceptible
  • Individuals who choose to eat a poor diet
  • Young adults due to pubertal development through middle age
  • Certain medical illnesses and conditions, which are outside of the scope of this article, also put you at high risk for dandruff. We choose not to provide medical advice and encourage you to consult with your medical doctor or dermatologist.

Treatment Options

Typically, dandruff can be controlled with a little patience and persistence. Begin by washing your hair regularly with a gentle shampoo.

Keep in mind that shampoos can contain very different ingredients and you may have to try a few to find the one that works best for you. Discontinue using any hair products that cause your scalp to itch, sting, burn or turn red.

Furthermore, if you think you’re having an allergic reaction to a hair product – like a rash or hives – then consult with your medical doctor or dermatologist at your earliest convenience.

DIY Treatment: Home Remedies

Based on a research study conducted in Thailand, a sample pool of 274 men and women were selected to test the effectiveness of a potential dandruff home remedy.

Instead of applying an anti-fungal solution to the scalp, which is one of the most widely used dandruff treatments in the world, the researchers decided to treat the loss of scalp hydration.

It’s important to note that most commercial shampoos include an anti-fungal solution, so this was indeed an interesting study.

The study tested treating the problem with a humectant, which is a chemical that absorbs water out of other surfaces, to tackle the loss of scalp hydration symptom.

Though it may seem as if you are treating the symptoms, instead of the cause, the research proves that the DIY treatment is indeed effective.

The study participants who used the DIY treatment regularly for eight weeks were asked to stop using the treatment to determine if the problem would return. The study participants confirmed that there were no signs of dandruff one week after they stopped using the DIY treatment.

How to Prepare the DIY Leave-On Lotion


  • Vegetable Glycerine – 10 ml
  • A base of your choice (details below) – 90 ml

For the base of the solution, you can choose to use either water or your favorite leave-in conditioner. If you decide to use a water base, you should add one small drop of your favorite oil. We like to use sunflower oil (used in the study mentioned above), but you could conceivably use argan oil, castor oil, rosemary oil, lanolin oil, tea tree oil or your favorite hair oil. Just be sure only to use a small drop mixing your water based solution.

If you intend to use a leave-in conditioner as the base, you should avoid leave-ins which have a high percentage of oil content in them; be careful with natural oils too.

How to Use the DIY Dandruff Treatment

Step 1. Shampoo your hair using your regular routine.
Step 2: Apply the DIY Glycerin Treatment directly to your scalp.
Step 3: Repeat the process daily (or at least four times weekly)

Note: Remember to shake the bottle containing the lotion before use to make sure the base and glycerin are mixed well.

What Results You Can Expect

Most users report a noticeable improvement in the scaly, flaky, dry skin problem within the first two weeks of applying the DIY treatment regularly.


  • Kenneth this article was very informative. I suffered with Psorasis as a child. It continued well into my adult years. I would use dandruff shampoos yet they did not work. They would make the problem worse. It is very important to have a dermatologist evaluate your scalp if you are having problems. I have found that ACV, Apple Cider Vinegar in it’s raw organic form works wonders.

    • @swan You’re exactly right about ACV. Tea Tree Oil has also been helped many people, but to your point, I wanted to encourage people to visit their dermatologist or medical doctor to receive a proper evaluation before trying to self-diagnose and potentially making the problem worse.


  • I’m in 12th grade and no kidding almost every kid in my class has dandruff. At first I thought my case was a reaction to the relaxers cause I don’t have dry skin or eczema but my mom told me it was contagious. I kept arguing and saying it couldn’t be contagious. I’ve had it since ninth grade but I never see a dandruff flake during the summer or spring.

    • Hi Ore.nk,

      A great place to start is to know what you are doing in the summer months; when you don’t see dandruff.

      Have you been diagnosed with dandruff? I encourage you to speak with your parents to have you medically diagnosed.


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