Dandruff is a condition in which dead skin cells on your scalp flake off, often landing on your shoulders and clothing. Although dandruff flakes may look alike, they can be caused by several types of scalp conditions.
Knowing which type of dandruff you have is key to getting rid of the flakes and itchiness and can also help you take steps to treat the underlying cause.
In this article, we’ll explore the different types of dandruff and what you can do to treat or prevent a flaky scalp.
There are several types of dandruff, each with a unique cause. Some types can be treated easily with changes to your hair care routine or with dandruff home remedies. Other types of dandruff may require prescription medications.
Let’s take a closer look at the types of dandruff and the underlying causes of each.
Dry skin dandruff
This is a common type of dandruff. It tends to happen more often in the winter months as cold weather and indoor heating can dry out your skin, including the skin on your scalp.
Washing your hair frequently in hot water can also lead to dry skin dandruff.
A scalp that’s too dry can become irritated and shed skin cells. Dry skin dandruff flakes are small and white. Your scalp may feel itchy, but not excessively so.
If the itchiness becomes severe, you may have a more serious skin condition that requires a medical professional’s care.
To help prevent dry skin dandruff, use a moisturizing shampoo. Home remedies, such as a coconut oil scalp massage, may also help relieve itchiness and prevent the skin on your scalp from drying out.
Oily skin dandruff
Just below the surface of your skin are glands that produce sebum, an oily substance that helps moisturize and protect your skin. When these sebaceous glands produce too much sebum, it can make you hair oily.
Also, the excess oil can clump together, irritating your scalp and causing dandruff.
Oily skin dandruff flakes tend to be larger than dry skin dandruff. The flakes may look more yellow than white, and may appear oilier, too.
Seborrheic dermatitis is a more severe form of oily skin dandruff.
Shampooing regularly and using a dandruff shampoo with salicylic acid may help keep oily skin dandruff under control.
A type of common fungus called
Using a shampoo with Malassezia-inhibiting ingredients, such as zinc pyrithione, may help treat fungus-related dandruff.
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Applying diluted tea tree oil or a shampoo containing tea tree oil may also help reduce fungus-related dandruff.
Some common skin conditions, including psoriasis, eczema, and seborrheic dermatitis, can affect your scalp and cause dandruff.
One of the most effective ways to treat dandruff caused by seborrheic dermatitis is with a shampoo that contains zinc pyrithione.
Also known as atopic dermatitis, eczema is characterized by patches of flaky, itchy skin, and sometimes a red rash.
When it appears on your scalp, this inflammatory condition can cause flakes that are usually larger than dry skin dandruff flakes. You may also notice red, irritated skin on your scalp.
Using a gentle, moisturizing shampoo may help, though you may need a stronger topical treatment prescribed by a doctor.
Psoriasis is thought to be an autoimmune condition in which skin cells grow too quickly, causing thick, scaly patches to form on the skin.
According to the National Psoriasis Foundation, about 50 percent of people who have psoriasis also have scalp psoriasis.
Scalp psoriasis may appear as fine, powdery flakes with a silver sheen. It may also appear as raised, inflamed, scaly patches of skin covered with a silvery-white buildup of dead skin cells.
Dandruff treatment and prevention strategies can be divided into three categories:
- dandruff shampoos
- lifestyle changes
- hair care
For some people, using a shampoo that’s targeted at treating dandruff is enough to treat and prevent flaking.
It’s important to read the instructions carefully — some shampoos are for daily use, while others should be used less frequently.
If one type of shampoo isn’t effective or loses its effectiveness over time, try another kind.
If a shampoo causes side effects — such as redness and irritation, or a rash — stop using it immediately and speak with a medical professional.
Over-the-counter (OTC) shampoos that contain the following types of ingredients may help reduce or prevent flaking:
- Pyrithione zinc. Helps destroy bacteria and fungus on the scalp. Shampoos with this ingredient, also known as zinc pyrithione, are appropriate for most hair types.
- Coal tar. Slows the process of skin cell death on the scalp. These shampoos may cause some discoloration to light-colored hair.
- Salicylic acid. Treats excessive oil on the scalp. Many shampoos with this ingredient can be used every day, while others are recommended for use 2 to 3 times a week.
- Selenium sulfide. Fights fungus on the scalp. This ingredient can cause some hair discoloration if you don’t thoroughly rinse your hair after washing.
- Ketoconazole. Also fights fungus, and this type of shampoo is available OTC and in prescription strength.
A healthy lifestyle can also benefit your scalp health in several ways. In particular, try to:
- Manage your stress, as high levels of stress can weaken your immune system and exacerbate certain skin conditions, like seborrheic dermatitis, eczema, and psoriasis.
- Eat a healthy diet that includes plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, B vitamins, and probiotics.
If you’re prone to dandruff, you may need to make some changes to your hair care routine and the products you use. Consider these strategies:
- Limit hairstyling products, including hair dyes, which may irritate your skin or leave oils and chemicals on your scalp. This, in turn, may increase your risk of developing dandruff.
- Avoid hot water. Use lukewarm water instead to wash your hair.
- Shampoo regularly with a gentle shampoo, or a shampoo that contains dandruff-fighting ingredients, and be sure to rinse thoroughly.
A mild case of dandruff usually doesn’t warrant a doctor’s evaluation and treatment. There are some situations, though, that require prescription-strength shampoos or other medications.
If you notice changes to your scalp that are more serious or that don’t go away with self-care treatments, follow up with your healthcare provider or dermatologist.
Some symptoms that could be a sign of a condition that needs medical treatment include:
- ongoing redness or irritation
- a rash that doesn’t go away
- persistent scaling
- extreme itchiness
- flakes that don’t clear up with OTC shampoos
If you have a skin condition such as psoriasis or eczema that affects one part of your body and you also have dandruff, let your doctor know. Together with your doctor or healthcare provider, you can determine the best course of treatment for your dandruff.
Although dandruff flakes often look alike, they can be caused by different types of scalp conditions. Paying close attention to the appearance of the flakes, the condition of your skin and hair, and other possible symptoms may help you figure out what type of dandruff you have.
Dandruff can often be treated with an OTC antidandruff shampoo as well as changes to your hair care routine. In some cases, prescription shampoos may be necessary to help get rid of those pesky flakes for good.