Medically reviewed by Patrick Carroll, MD
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 4/03/2020
Whether you notice white flakes in your hair or on your shoulders, few hair-related issues are as much of an annoyance as dandruff.
Dandruff is the result of a dry or oily scalp causing dead skin cells to shed at an overly fast rate in the form of small white skin flakes. The flakes are caused by small pieces of skin falling off your scalp, creating the appearance that’s easy to identify as dandruff.
There are several main causes of dandruff, ranging from skin conditions to a sensitivity to hair products and shampoos. Sometimes, dandruff is hormonal and can be treated by changes to your diet, lifestyle or medication use.
If you have dandruff and want to do something about it, it’s worth knowing that you’re definitely not alone. About 50 percent of the general adult population worldwide deal with dandruff at some point in life, and the condition is normally cheap and easy to treat.
Below, we’ll explain how dandruff happens and you can get rid of it for good, although without having to deal with any expensive or inconvenient treatments.
Just like your body is constantly replacing old hairs with new ones and growing your finger and toenails, your scalp is constantly creating new skin cells while shedding old ones in the form of dead, exfoliated skin.
Most of the time, this process is invisible, with old skin cells washed out in the shower and new ones taking their place without you ever noticing.
With dandruff, however, things are a little different. Dandruff is the result of your body replacing old skin cells at an overly fast rate, combined with natural scalp oils causing the dead skin cells to form larger, visually obvious skin flakes.
Dandruff has several root causes. Sometimes, a yeast-like fungus known as malassezia, which is naturally present in the scalp, can cause skin to grow overly fast and dandruff to develop.
Often, the cause of dandruff is simpler. If you don’t shampoo your hair often enough, oil buildup can cause dandruff to develop. Dandruff can also be the result of sensitivity to ingredients in hair care products like shampoo, hair dye or hair gel.
Finally, some dandruff is seborrheic dermatitis of the scalp. This type of dandruff tends to have a reddish-yellow color, making it easy to differentiate from other dandruff. Dandruff can also be caused by underlying skin conditions such as psoriasis.
Because each type of dandruff has a different root cause, you may need to try several different treatments before finding one that works to manage your dandruff. We’ve listed the best treatments below, starting with the simplest, cheapest options.
Removing dandruff is sometimes possible without medication. However, because dandruff can be the result of several different root cases, the process can take some trial and error.
The first and easiest step in getting rid of dandruff is to switch from using a regular shampoo to an anti-dandruff shampoo. If your dandruff is the result of skin irritation caused by your shampoo, this is usually enough to fix the problem.
One thing to know is that many anti-dandruff shampoos have different formulas, meaning you may have to try several different brands to find a formula that works for you.
Some of the best ingredients to look for in an anti-dandruff shampoo include pyrithione zinc, ketoconazole, selenium sulfide and salicylic acid, all of which have real benefits for treating dry skin, scalp oil and dandruff.
It can take several weeks for dandruff to stop, so don’t jump to conclusions about shampoos in the first week or two. If you don’t see any improvement after about a month, it’s worth using another shampoo or moving on to another dandruff treatment.
If you're concerned about how dandruff shampoos may affect your hair, you can read our guide to Does Head & Shoulders Cause Hair Loss?
If your dandruff is caused by seborrheic dermatitis, you can try treating it using a shampoo that contains coal tar. This is a dark, viscous liquid that’s created when coal is made into coke — a high carbon fuel — and it’s widely used as an effective treatment for psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis of the scalp.
Like regular anti-dandruff shampoos, you’ll need to wait for about a month before you notice long-term results from coal tar shampoo.
Some people get skin irritation from coal tar shampoo, making it important to stop if you notice any rash or redness. Washing with coal tar shampoo while breastfeeding or pregnant is not recommended due to the health risks of pyrene absorption.
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Yes, believe it or not, research indicates that your diet may have an impact on dandruff. One study, which included over 4,300 participants who were each given a skin examination and asked to fill out a food frequency questionnaire, found that a diet high in fruit consumption resulted in less instances of seborrheic dermatitis (the medical term for dandruff), but a diet that was high in processed foods full of fat and sugar (known in the study as a “Western” diet) resulted in more instances of dandruff.
The researchers noted the increase in dandruff was only clearly apparent in women, but even so, it’s worth paying attention to.
Assistant clinical professor of dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center Jessica Krant, MD, believes that one potential way to treat dandruff is to adopt a “dandruff diet” that cuts out sugar and simple carbohydrates while increasing your consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Again, the scientific study data linking diet to dandruff is thin, but even so, improving your eating habits is a no-downside way to improve your health, all while potentially reducing the amount of dandruff that builds up on your scalp throughout the day.
Finally, the weather can potentially play a role in producing or preventing dandruff. Doctors have long noted that dandruff problems seem to become more prevalent in the winter, possibly due to dry weather conditions that make flaky skin more commonplace.
In this case, there’s little you can do to change the weather. However, improving your hair care habits and treating your dandruff using an anti-dandruff shampoo can make the amount of dry skin on your scalp more tolerable, at least until the weather improves.