What Causes Dandruff, its Symptoms, and How To Get Rid of it?

What is Dandruff Causes Symptoms and Treatment

What is Dandruff?

Characterized by flaking of skin on the scalp, dandruff is a common skin condition that affects adults, children, teenagers, and babies alike. According to researchers Dandruff is considered a mild form of Seborrheic Dermatitis. A skin condition that causes yellow, thick, crusty flakes and scales on the scalp. 

Dandruff usually appears as white or yellow small flakes and scales on the scalp. Though irritating and embarrassing, most dandruff cases aren’t serious and can easily be managed by over-the-counter medicated shampoo.

Learn more about Dandruff from Dr. Eddie Valenzuela

What Causes Dandruff?

Medicated shampoos are the most effective treatment for dandruff, especially if they contain pyrithione zinc. Pyrithione zinc is an ingredient that has antibacterial and antifungal properties. It has been proven safe and effective to improve the symptoms of flaking and itching associated with dandruff.

However, almost every zinc pyrithione dandruff shampoo on the market is made for adults. These strong shampoos contain ingredients that might be harmful or uncomfortable for use on sensitive young skin.

Dr. Eddie’s Happy Cappy Medicated Shampoo & Body Wash is the only medicated dandruff shampoo for kids. Formulated by a licensed pediatrician, Happy Cappy Medicated Shampoo & Body Wash fights back against dandruff without irritation to young skin.

Scalp Oil and Dandruff

Scalp oil and dandruff have a deep connection. The more oil produced by the scalp, the more risk of developing dandruff. That being said, just because you may have an oily scalp, it does not mean you will experience dandruff. Dandruff flakes only appear when your scalp has a tendency to react with oleic acid. 

However, in most cases, people who have oily hair and oily scalp experience dandruff quite often. The oily scalp is the favorite place for Malassezia yeast to grow. More yeast on the scalp can lead to scalp conditions like dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, and cradle cap.

Why do I have Dandruff all of a Sudden?

If you are wondering why do I have dandruff all of a sudden? We have your answer. Dandruff is believed to be caused by Malassezia yeast. Various other factors can trigger the appearance of dandruff flakes.

Some of the most common factors are:

  • Contact dermatitis
  • Reaction to hair products
  • Stress and depression
  • Hormonal changes
  • Certain medical conditions
  • Dry skin
  • Oily skin and scalp
  • Not washing the hair enough or excess washing
  • Extreme weather

Types of Dandruff

Dandruff is mostly considered the tiny white flakes that fall on your shoulders like snow. Most people consider it as dry skin flaking off.

Well, the truth is there are different types of dandruff. Two of the most common types are greasy or oily dandruff and dry dandruff.  

The difference between oily dandruff vs dry dandruff is that dry dandruff usually appears as small white flakes that look like tiny snowflakes and is believed to be caused by a lack of moisture on the scalp. While the flakes that appear when you have oily dandruff are yellow or white, a little thick and greasy. Greasy dandruff also known as seborrheic dermatitis is caused by the overproduction of sebum and Malassezia yeast on the scalp.

Symptoms of Dandruff

Symptoms of Dandruff

Other conditions like psoriasis, eczema, and ringworm can cause symptoms similar to the ones of dandruff. This is why it is important to learn about the symptoms of dandruff to differentiate it from other conditions. The most common symptoms of dandruff are:

  • Itchy scalp
  • Skin flakes on the scalp or in the hair
  • Skin flakes on facial hair like beards and mustaches, or on the eyebrows
  • Red rash
  • Inflammation 

Dandruff doesn’t only affect adults. Children also get dandruff and exhibit symptoms such as:

  • Scaly or crusty scalp–also known as “cradle cap”
  • Itching

Oily yellow flakes on the scalp, forehead, or eyebrows

What Does Dandruff Look Like?

What Does Dandruff Look Like?

Dandruff might be those boring and irritating flakes that keep falling on your black dress. While under a microscope those flakes can be very interesting. Dandruff under microscope when magnified 20 times looks like pieces of shredded coconut. 

If the dandruff flakes in the microscope appear thicker and yellowish in color they are caused by oily dandruff while thinner, translucent ones are due to dry dandruff. Looking at dandruff flakes under a microscope can help determine which type of dandruff it is or if it is some other scalp condition like scalp psoriasis.

Dandruff in Beard and Eyebrows

Dandruff in Beard and Eyebrows

Most of us think that dandruff only appears on the scalp. The fact is dandruff loves hair. Dandruff on eyebrows and beard is very common. 

The reason behind dandruff in beard and eyebrows is the same as it is for your scalp. It is either due to dry skin or because of Malassezia yeast. The good news is those dandruff flakes in your beard that make you look like Santa Claus can be easily managed and removed with the help of a medicated shampoo that is also safe to be used as a face wash.

Seborrheic Dermatitis and Dandruff

Even though dandruff is considered a mild form of seborrheic dermatitis, the manifestation of seborrheic dermatitis is quite different from regular dandruff. Seborrheic dermatitis usually causes inflamed, red, itchy, irritated skin and appears as 

  • Thick, greasy patches of skin
  • White or yellow scales and flakes

What makes it different from dandruff is that dandruff mostly appears on the scalp, eyebrows, and beard while seborrheic dermatitis can appear anywhere on the body. Especially where the skin oil glands are active such as the face, behind the ears, chest, armpits, eyelids, and in the skin folds of arms and legs.

Baby Dandruff (Cradle Cap)

Dandruff knows no age. It can happen to anyone, even babies. Dandruff is common in children, however, the type of dandruff that appears in infants and babies is usually known as Cradle Cap.

It appears as thick, greasy scales that look like a honeycomb on the scalp, forehead, eyebrows, behind the ears, skin folds, and diaper area. It is usually not harmful nor is it contagious but the way it looks can be irritating for the parents and many want to get rid of it as soon as possible.

It is caused by the same Malassezia yeast that causes dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis. Baby dandruff can be easily managed with the help of a cradle cap shampoo and cradle cap brush.

Dandruff vs Dry Scalp

Dandruff vs Dry Scalp

It can be very difficult to tell between dandruff vs dry scalp apart as both cause similar symptoms like itching, dryness, and irritated skin. However, dandruff is mainly caused by the overproduction of Malassezia yeast and excess sebum while dry scalp is the result of a lack of moisture on the scalp.

A common cause of dry scalp is the hair products we use. The harsh chemicals in those products strip away natural oils from the scalp leaving it dry and flaky. Some other contributing factors are:

  • Eczema
  • Cold, dry weather
  • Hard water
  • Excessive washing

To treat dry scalp it is important to first rule out its root cause. However, using a gentle Daily Shampoo and body wash that is free from harsh chemicals and contains hydrating natural ingredients can help keep the scalp moisturized and relieve the symptoms.

Dandruff and Itchy Scalp

Dandruff and itchy scalp go hand in hand. The reason behind itching in dandruff is usually the scale and flake buildup. Flakes are an indication of irritated skin, and irritated skin is itchy skin.

Even though itching is a prominent symptom of dandruff, an itchy scalp does not necessarily mean you will have dandruff. There are many other conditions that can cause itchiness such as 

How to Get Rid of Dandruff?

Easing the symptoms of dandruff or even curbing the condition altogether is fairly simple. 

Anti-Dandruff Shampoo

The best way to treat those annoying flakes and scales is with the help of an anti dandruff shampoo. An over-the counter (OTC) shampoo that contains any of the following active ingredients can help relieve dandruff symptoms

The dandruff shampoo suggested by your family doctor, pediatrician or dermatologist usually depends on the root cause of dandruff, your hair type, and the severity of the condition. 

Brush Away the Flakes

Brushing can help remove those excess loose flakes and scales on the scalp. The best way to brush away the flakes is with the help of a cradle cap brush. It is specially developed with soft bristles to help remove the flakes without hurting or irritating the scalp.

The best time to use a cradle cap comb or brush is while shampooing. 

  • After applying shampoo on the scalp use a dandruff brush to remove the flakes.
  • Remove only the loose flakes.
  • Don’t overbrush your hair to remove the stubborn scales. 

Shampoo According to Your Hair Type

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it is important to shampoo according to your hair type in order to get rid of dandruff flakes. People who have straight hair or oily scalps should use dandruff shampoo twice a week and use a daily shampoo to wash their hair daily. 

People with curly, dry hair should use an anti-dandruff shampoo once a week and wash their hair only when needed, which is mostly after 1 or 2 days. 

Don’t Scratch

It is essential that you don’t scratch if you want to get rid of those snowflakes (dandruff) on your scalp. Scratching can trigger a never-ending itch-scratch cycle which will further worsen the condition.

Scratching the scalp can harm the sensitive skin on the scalp and make it easier for bacteria and viruses to penetrate the skin which can lead to other complications like skin infections, and hair loss. 

Home Remedies

The internet is full of home remedies to help you get rid of dandruff. Typical suggestions include apple cider vinegar, aloe vera, lemon juice, olive oil, coconut oil, and others. But the fact is these home remedies can do more harm to the scalp than good.

A lot of people think that coconut oil is very effective at reducing dandruff. Does coconut oil help with dandruff? The answer is no. Coconut oil may help in moisturizing your scalp but it does not help with dandruff.

Putting coconut oil on your scalp will make it greasy and provide a breeding ground for Malassezia yeast to thrive in, which may make your dandruff even worse. 

Consult a Doctor

If you are experiencing severe dandruff, or the symptoms are getting worse even after the use of dandruff shampoo then it is best to consult a doctor..

There are chances that you might be experiencing any other skin condition like scalp psoriasis, eczema, tinea capitis, or a fungal infection and confusing it with dandruff. The dermatologist will diagnose your condition and provide you with a treatment plan according to it.

Best Shampoo for Dandruff and Dry Scalp

Best Shampoo for Dandruff and Dry Scalp

The best anti-dandruff shampoo is a medicated shampoo that contains  Pyrithione Zinc–an OTC active ingredient. It contains antibacterial and antifungal properties that have been proven safe and effective in improving the symptoms of flaking and itching associated with dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis. 

Most medicated anti-dandruff shampoos on the market contain harsh chemicals that can further irritate the scalp, strip away natural oils, leave the scalp dry, and sometimes even lead to contact dermatitis. We advise making sure the shampoo you are choosing is: 

  • Fragrance-free
  • Dye-free
  • Alcohol-free
  • Paraben-free
  • Sulfate-free
  • Phthalates-free
  • BPA-free
  • Hypoallergenic
  • And possibly even gluten-free

Choosing the right dandruff shampoo will not only help you get rid of the symptoms of dandruff but can also prevent future scale build-ups. Shampoos like Happy Cappy Medicated Dandruff Shampoo and Body Wash is a pediatrician-developed, dermatologist-tested dandruff shampoo that helps reduce flaking and scaling associated with dandruff. It is safe to be used by adults, teenagers, and children of all ages with dandruff and contains Zinc Pyrithione as an active ingredient.

Best Dandruff Shampoo for Kids

Most of the zinc pyrithione dandruff shampoos on the market are made for adults. These strong shampoos contain ingredients that might be harmful or uncomfortable for use on the sensitive skin of children and babies.

As a pediatrician, Dr. Eddie wanted to recommend to his young patients an anti-dandruff shampoo that would reduce scaling and flaking without irritating the children’s scalp. But there were no options available at that time. 

Which is why he developed a dandruff shampoo for kids. It eliminates the bothersome symptoms of dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, and cradle cap in children and babies. The formula is fragrance, dye, BPA, paraben, and alcohol-free.

It is a natural baby dandruff shampoo made with 95% natural ingredients. It combines FDA-approved active ingredient pyrithione zinc for dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis, licorice root extract to soothe redness, and provitamin B5 to moisturize hair and skin. It also complies with pediatric dermatologist recommendations for eczema by being a non-soap cleanser that is hypoallergenic.

How Does Anti-Dandruff Shampoo Work? 

Shampoo that contains pyrithione zinc is very effective against dandruff. It helps you get rid of dandruff in 3 ways

  1. Reduces Malassezia yeast growth: It helps in slowing the growth of Malassezia on the scalp. Which reduces and prevents future flaking and building up of scales.
  2. Reduces skin irritation: It helps in reducing irritation which can lead to a reduction in redness and itching on the scalp.
  3. Removes flakes: It has exfoliating properties that help remove and loosen the dead skin cells on the scalp.

How to Use a Dandruff Shampoo?

How to Use a Dandruff Shampoo

Here is how to use a dandruff shampoo to get the most out of it

  • Wet your hair and scalp
  • Apply shampoo to the scalp and gently massage the roots.
  • Leave the shampoo on for a few minutes. 
  • To remove the excess flakes a cradle cap brush may be used.
  • Brush in gentle circular motions.
  • Rinse thoroughly with lukewarm or cool water.
  • Make sure to leave no residue behind.
  • Gently pat dry your hair with a towel.

How often should I Wash My Hair if I Have Dandruff?

If you are wondering, should I wash my hair every day if I have dandruff? The answer to this question is a little complicated. It all depends on your hair type, the severity of the condition, and how your scalp will react to the dandruff shampoo.

In most cases, it is advised to wash your hair with a dandruff shampoo at least two times a week. People with oily scalp may need to use it more frequently, while people who have dry scalp may need dandruff shampoo less frequently. 

For days when not using the dandruff shampoo, both hair types can use a gentle shampoo like Happy Cappy Daily Shampoo and Body Wash to clean the hair. 

Myths About Dandruff

Myths Facts
Dandruff is caused by a dry scalp. Dandruff is usually caused by Malassezia yeast.
Using oil can help with dandruff Oils will only worsen your condition by increasing the growth of Malassezia. 
Wash your hair less if you have dandruff Washing is essential to remove the excess scale buildup and debris on the scalp.
Dandruff becomes worse in winter Even though cold dry air can worsen dandruff this is not always the case. Some people may find that their dandruff becomes worse in summer.
Flakes are a sign of dandruff Flakes are just one symptom of dandruff. Flakes can also be caused by other skin conditions like scalp psoriasis, eczema, ringworm, and contact dermatitis.


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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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Does dandruff smell?

Dandruff usually does not smell. However, sometimes the build-up of scales and excessive oil on the scalp cause an interesting odor.

Can dandruff cause acne?

No dandruff directly does not cause acne. However, dandruff and acne are related. Dandruff is caused by excess production of sebum. Which means the rest of the body will also be producing extra sebum. When the skin pores clog due to the sebum and dirt it can lead to acne.

Can hot water cause dandruff?

Using hot water for washing your hair or taking a bath often can strip away oil and moisture from the scalp leaving it dry. Dry skin can lead to itching, irritation, and the appearance of dry skin flakes or dandruff.

Is it lice or dandruff?

If you or your child has lice in their hair it can cause itching, irritation, and lice eggs that look similar to dandruff flakes. This is why some people often confuse it with dandruff.
The difference between lice eggs vs dandruff is that the eggs usually stick to hair strands and look like tiny water drops while dandruff sticks to the scalp and looks like coconut flakes.

Is dandruff contagious?

No, dandruff is not contagious. If you are experiencing dandruff, it does not mean you will spread it to other people.

Can dandruff cause hair loss?

Dandruff directly does not cause hair loss. However, when you scratch your scalp due to itching and irritation it can damage the hair follicles and lead to temporary hair loss.

Is dandruff a fungus?

No dandruff is not a fungus. Even though it is caused by a fungus called Malassezia yeast it is not a fungus itself.

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