Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 5/24/2021
Dandruff is a common form of skin flaking that can affect your scalp, causing itching, discomfort and a negative effect on your appearance.
Many cases of dandruff are caused by the skin condition seborrheic dermatitis, which can affect the scalp and cause a range of symptoms.
Most of the time, dandruff doesn’t cause hair loss on its own. However, itching your scalp, which is a common behavior for people with dandruff, can affect your hair follicles and cause your hair to shed.
Below, we’ve explained what dandruff is, what causes it and how dandruff may affect your hair’s health and appearance.
We’ve also explained what you can do to treat and prevent dandruff using over-the-counter hair care products and good habits.
Dandruff is a form of skin flaking that affects your scalp. If you have dandruff, you may spot thin flakes of skin on your scalp that are yellow or white in color.
These skin flakes may loosen and fall from your scalp onto your shoulders and clothing.
Although dandruff can affect men and women, it’s more common in men and typically develops after puberty.
Most cases of dandruff are caused by seborrheic dermatitis, a chronic form of eczema that can develop in areas of your skin with lots of sebaceous glands (glands that produce oil).
Seborrheic dermatitis develops due to several factors, including your genes, overall health and the effects of the Malassezia yeast that grows on your skin.
Dandruff from seborrheic dermatitis can vary in severity. Some people notice a small amount of fine, powdery dandruff, while others develop severe dandruff that’s often accompanied by a skin rash.
In addition to dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis may cause other symptoms, such as redness and scaly patches that develop on the skin.
Before we get into the specifics of dandruff and hair loss, it’s important to discuss how and why male hair loss occurs.
Most hair loss in men is the result of androgenetic alopecia, or male pattern baldness. This type of hair loss leads to the classic M-shaped receding hairline or bald patch at the crown that many men develop as they grow older.
Male pattern baldness is caused by a combination of your genes and the effects of an androgen hormone (male sex hormone) called dihydrotestosterone, or DHT.
You can learn more about this process and its root causes in our detailed guide to DHT and hair loss in men.
Dandruff doesn’t directly cause male pattern baldness, nor does it appear to have any effect on your production of DHT.
Dandruff has no effect on other forms of hair loss, such as telogen effluvium (hair loss that can occur after a physiological shock or severe stress), anagen effluvium, traction alopecia or tinea capitis (scalp ringworm).
Although dandruff doesn’t cause hair loss, it may cause your scalp to feel itchy.
If you scratch at your scalp aggressively, you may weaken your skin’s protective barrier and increase your risk of developing a bacterial or fungal infection.
Some infections, such as tinea capitis, can affect your hair follicles and contribute to temporary or permanent hair loss.
Hair loss from male pattern baldness is treated using two medications. The first is a prescription medication called finasteride that’s sold in tablet form.
The second is a topical medication called minoxidil that’s available as a liquid or foam that’s applied directly to your scalp.
If you’re losing your hair, you’ll likely benefit from these treatments. However, some people who use hair loss medications -- minoxidil, in particular -- report developing a dry, itchy scalp during the first few weeks of treatment.
This is somewhat backed up by scientific study data, with one study from 2015 showing that use of minoxidil results in higher rates of scalp itching than a placebo.
Itchiness and dryness from minoxidil may be caused by the product’s formula. Some versions of minoxidil contain ingredients such as propylene glycol and alcohol, which can dry the skin.
If you have a sensitive scalp or already have dandruff, there’s a risk that using minoxidil to treat your hair loss could worsen your dandruff.
The risk isn’t large -- most people that use minoxidil don't experience any scalp issues -- but it’s important to know that it’s there.
If you’ve noticed an increase in dandruff since you started to use minoxidil, this could be the key reason.
As we briefly mentioned earlier, dandruff can cause your scalp to become itchy -- a factor that could lead to hair loss if you scratch your scalp aggressively.
Scratching your scalp can damage your skin, increasing your risk of developing infections that can cause follicular damage and hair loss, such as tinea capitis.
Scratching aggressively may also pull on your hair, causing temporary hair shedding that gives your hair a thin appearance.
In addition to dandruff, a variety of other issues may cause you to develop an itchy scalp, such as hives, psoriasis, head lice, neuropathy (a form of damage to your nerves that can result in a tingling or uncomfortable feeling) and allergic reactions to certain hair care products.
Many of these conditions can be treated and prevented with topical or oral medications, helping you to avoid scratching and damaging your scalp.
If you have an itchy scalp and feel tempted to scratch it, it’s best to reach out to your healthcare provider for assistance.
While dandruff doesn’t cause hair loss, it’s still a major annoyance that can ruin your confidence and negatively affect your life.
Luckily, there are numerous ways to deal with dandruff, almost all of which are effective over the long term. We’ve listed several options below.
The most effective way to clear up dandruff is by washing with anti-dandruff shampoo. You can buy shampoos formulated to treat and prevent dandruff online or from your local supermarket or drugstore.
When you're comparing shampoos, look for science-based active ingredients such as pyrithione zinc, ketoconazole, selenium sulfide, coal tar and salicylic acid.
Make sure to follow the instructions provided with your shampoo. Be careful when using coal tar shampoo, as this ingredient can discolor blonde, white or gray hair and make your skin become more sensitive to sunlight.
If you’re Asian or Caucasion, wash your hair daily with a regular shampoo and use anti-dandruff shampoo two times per week.
If you’re African-American, it’s best to shampoo your hair once per week using an anti-dandruff shampoo.
Although there’s no direct link between diet and dandruff, some research in women has found that eating a diet that’s rich in fruit and low in high-fat, high-sugar processed foods may help to reduce the severity of seborrheic dermatitis.
Our guide to foods to eat for hair growth lists specific ingredients to prioritize for a healthy scalp and hair.
If your dandruff doesn’t improve with regular use of an anti-dandruff shampoo, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider.
Although most cases of dandruff are associated with seborrheic dermatitis, other conditions that affect your scalp can also cause skin flaking.
Some of these conditions may only disappear with the use of medication.
Although dandruff can be unsightly and annoying, there’s no scientific evidence that it directly causes hair loss.
With this said, some conditions that can affect your scalp and cause dry skin, such as fungal infections, may also cause temporary hair shedding or hair loss.
Although it’s uncommon, it’s also possible to damage your hair if you scratch your scalp very aggressively.
If you’re starting to lose your hair and it’s not related to dandruff or infections, you’ll get the best results with proven, science-based medications such as finasteride and minoxidil.
We’ve gone into more detail about how these hair loss medications work in our guide to what you should take for hair loss.
If you have dandruff, you can find out more about treating and preventing it in our full guide to getting rid of dandruff for good.
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