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How Does Dandruff Look Under a Microscope?

dandruff under microscope

Are you tired of constantly being mistaken for a human snow globe? Don’t worry. We have some news from the world of itchy scalp and snowy shoulders. Yes, it’s Dandruff that we are talking about! That not-so-glamorous confetti that always shows up at the most inconvenient times! 

Prepare to be amazed by the wonders of the scalp, where a little sprinkle of dandruff can turn an ordinary day into a snowstorm. Let’s explore dandruff, how it looks on a microscope, and some easy ways to manage it.

What is Dandruff?

Dandruff is a common scalp condition that has existed for centuries. There are around 50 million people in the USA suffering from dandruff. Dandruff is a common scalp condition characterized by the shedding of dead skin cells from the scalp. It often results in the appearance of white or gray flakes of skin on the scalp, hair, and sometimes on the shoulders. Another infrequently used term for dandruff is “Pityriasis capitis.”

Dandruff is sometimes considered a very mild form of Seborrheic Dermatitis in adults. When thick scaling, crusting, and redness occur on the scalp of babies, it is referred to as Cradle Cap. Dandruff is harmless but can be embarrassing and cause discomfort due to itching. 

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How Dandruff Forms

You might be curious about where these flakes come from. Our skin cells are in a constant cycle of renewal. Old or dead skin cells, also known as corneocytes, naturally fall off as new ones take their place. However, there are circumstances where this process accelerates. 

Skin cells mature and shed within a shorter time frame of 2-7 days in people with dandruff, whereas individuals without dandruff experience a more typical monthly turnover. As these cells reach the scalp’s outer layer, epidermis, or stratum corneum, they die and flake away, resulting in dandruff shedding.

What Dandruff Looks Like Under a Microscope

What Dandruff Looks Like Under a Microscope

Under a microscope at 20x magnification, dandruff appears as dead skin flakes that look like shredded coconut. Sometimes, you may spot traces of blood from pimples or tiny hairs. The thickness and color of the flakes provide further clues: thicker and more yellow flakes indicate higher oil levels, while translucent and whitish flakes suggest a dry scalp

Examining dandruff under a microscope helps determine if the flakes result from excessive oiliness or dryness. The size and quantity of scales can vary across different areas of the skin and over time. Regardless of size, dandruff flakes are clumps of corneocyte cells that stick together and separate from the outer layer of the skin.

Common Symptoms of Dandruff

It’s important to understand that the severity of symptoms can vary from person to person, but some common symptoms of dandruff are

  • Flaky scalp.
  • Itching.
  • Dryness.
  • Oily or greasy scalp.
  • Crusty scalp in babies with cradle cap (mentioned here because some people think cradle cap is dandruff–it is technically seborrheic dermatitis)

What Causes Dandruff

Several genetic and environmental factors play a crucial role in causing dandruff. However, the most common causes of dandruff are:

  • Malassezia yeast
  • Overproduction of sebum
  • Sensitivity to hair products (Contact dermatitis)
  • Certain medical conditions

Overproduction of Sebum

Sebum is a skin protectant made in the sebaceous glands in the scalp, it is a natural oil. Sebum plays a vital role in moisturizing the skin and hair. However, an overproduction of sebum can contribute to the development of dandruff. Sebum is an oily substance surrounding dead skin cells, it binds flaking skin cells together and is what forms visible flakes.


In some instances of dandruff, fungal or bacterial elements may be present and contribute to the condition. Malassezia, a type of yeast, is commonly associated with dandruff. This yeast is naturally found on the scalp, but an overgrowth can lead to scalp irritation and the accelerated shedding of skin cells. Bacteria, such as Staphylococcus, can also be present in dandruff flakes, further exacerbating the scalp’s condition.

Dandruff and Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin condition often associated with persistent flaking of the skin. It can affect the scalp and other parts of the body. 

Common symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis include inflamed, red, and itchy skin, accompanied by patches of greasy skin covered with flaky white or yellow scales. 

Seborrheic dermatitis tends to occur in areas where the skin’s oil glands are more active.

What sets seborrheic dermatitis apart from ordinary dandruff is that the inflammation and scaling can extend beyond the scalp, spreading to the face, armpits, eyebrows, chest, ears, eyelids, and other body parts.

In babies, this condition is commonly referred to as cradle cap. Seborrheic dermatitis can be managed by regularly washing hair with a seborrheic dermatitis shampoo.

Cradle Cap and Dandruff in Babies

Cradle cap, also known as infantile seborrheic dermatitis, is a common skin condition that affects newborns and babies. It is characterized by oily or crusty patches on the scalp, which may appear yellowish or brownish. While it can sometimes be unsightly, cradle cap can be itchy but is not contagious.

The exact cause of the cradle cap is unknown, but it is believed to be caused by Malassezia yeast already present on the scalp. Malassezia yeast consuming sebum on the scalp can sometimes trigger an inflammatory reaction in the body. This reaction can lead to flaking and scaling. It is more common in babies under three months of age but can persist for several months or longer. 1 in 3 kids under the age of 5 are affected by it. 

Scaling, flaking, and irritation associated with cradle cap can be easily managed with a gentle cradle cap shampoo specially formulated for babies and kids. 

Are Contact Dermatitis and Dandruff related?

Contact dermatitis is a skin condition that happens when the skin keeps coming in contact with a substance that irritates it. There are two kinds of contact dermatitis: irritant contact dermatitis (ICD) and allergic contact dermatitis (ACD). Contact dermatitis is not so common on the scalp because there are fewer chances of exposure to irritants that can trigger skin reactions on the scalp compared to hands, feet, arms, and legs.

Are Contact Dermatitis and Dandruff related?

Flakes caused by different scalp issues under the microscope.

The Difference Between Dandruff, Eczema, and Psoriasis

Dandruff is a prevalent condition causing flakes that are dry and sometimes itchy.

In contrast, eczema and psoriasis are both inflammatory skin conditions that can affect the scalp.

Eczema can be lifelong and can have periods of flare-ups and remission. Its symptoms are more likely to appear on other parts of the body than on the scalp. But when eczema occurs on the scalp, it is usually known as Scalp Eczema.

Like eczema, psoriasis can create a reddish rash that becomes itchy and uncomfortable. However, unlike Eczema, psoriasis is an autoimmune condition that results in flaky rashes covered with thick, silvery scales. Psoriasis can even lead to temporary hair loss.

Inflammation and irritation associated with eczema can be managed with the help of Happy Cappy Two-Step Eczema Skincare Routine & Solution. The Daily Shampoo and Body Wash gently cleanses and moisturizes your skin and protects its normal barrier function. And Happy Cappy eczema cream helps soothe and hydrate eczema-prone skin. 

Managing Dandruff with Happy Cappy

Managing dandruff symptoms or even getting rid of it entirely is relatively simple. Staying hydrated and avoiding potentially irritating hair and skin products like sprays, creams, or gels can be helpful. The most effective way to tackle dandruff is by using an anti-dandruff shampoo.

It’s important to shampoo regularly and correctly. Look for shampoos specifically formulated to treat dandruff containing active ingredients like pyrithione zinc. This helps minimize the growth of yeast and fungi, effectively tackling the root causes of dandruff.

Dr. Eddie has created an exceptional formula without fragrance and color (common skin irritants) utilizing Pyrithione Zinc, an FDA-approved active ingredient. This formula effectively reduces the unsightly flaking and scaling commonly associated with dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis.

Happy Cappy Medicated Shampoo & Body Wash is a dandruff shampoo that is 95% natural and suitable for pre-teens, teenagers, and adults. It is effective against dandruff and safe for individuals with fungal acne. Happy Cappy is vegan-friendly, cruelty-free, and does not contain gluten.


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Dr. Eddie Valenzuela is an award winning pediatrician and the founder and CEO of Pediatric Solutions, LLC.

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Is dandruff contagious?

No, dandruff is not contagious. It is a common scalp condition that can affect anyone, regardless of age or gender.

How can I prevent dandruff?

To help prevent dandruff, you can practice good hair and scalp hygiene. This includes regularly washing your hair with a gentle daily shampoo, avoiding excessive use of hair care products, keeping your scalp moisturized, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Can dandruff lead to hair loss?

While dandruff does not directly cause hair loss, persistent scratching or an underlying scalp condition can contribute to hair thinning or loss. It is essential to address the root cause of the problem to prevent further hair-related issues.

When should I see a doctor about my dandruff?

If your dandruff persists despite using over-the-counter treatments, becomes increasingly severe, or is accompanied by other concerning symptoms like intense itching, inflammation, or skin lesions, it is recommended to consult a dermatologist for further evaluation and treatment.

Can stress worsen dandruff?

Stress can worsen dandruff or trigger flare-ups in individuals already prone to the condition. Managing stress through relaxation techniques, exercise, and self-care practices may help improve overall scalp health.

Can dandruff affect other parts of the body besides the scalp?

Dandruff primarily affects the scalp, but in some cases, it can also appear in other areas with a high concentration of oil glands, such as the eyebrows, ears, or beard.


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