What is Dandruff? Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Dandruff is a common skin condition that affects adults and children alike. Characterized by itching and flaking of the skin on the scalp, dandruff can be very irritating. Luckily, it isn’t a serious or contagious condition.

What is Dandruff?

Dandruff is a very mild case of a skin condition called seborrheic dermatitis. The main symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis are oily, red, and scaly skin that can flake off.  When there are just fine white scales without redness we call it dandruff.  

Though it is often called “cradle cap” in children, seborrheic dermatitis doesn’t just show up on the scalp. Similar symptoms can appear on parts of the body that have revved up oil producing glands: including on eyebrows, armpits, and the groin. While dandruff mostly appears on the scalp.

What Causes Dandruff?

Several factors can trigger and cause dandruff, some of the most common are:

Malassezia Yeast

The prevailing thought on the origin of Dandruff is that it is caused by a yeast-like fungus called Malassezia. This fungus naturally lives on the scalp as it feeds on the oil, known as sebum, produced by the oil producing mechanism found in the skin known as the sebaceous gland.

However, the overproduction of Malassezia yeast can cause the skin cells on the scalp to multiply too quickly. These excess skin cells clump together and flake off as dandruff. Risk factors for having an excess of Malassezia include hormones, age, and stress.

Not Shampooing Enough

Dirty hair or a lack of hygiene does not cause dandruff. However, if hair is not washed enough, an oily buildup can cause skin cells to accumulate, leading to flaking and itching. These can worsen the existing condition.

Dry Skin

Dry skin or scalp occurs when the skin lacks moisture. The skin becomes dry, and dead skin cells start to flake off. The falling of these small flakes is considered dandruff. A dry scalp can also cause intense itching and irritation. 

Reaction to Certain Chemicals

When the skin gets irritated by certain irritants or allergens as a reaction it can cause inflammation, flaking, and itching on the skin. This scenario is also known as contact dermatitis

When your sensitive skin reacts to harsh chemicals in hair products the immune system tries to protect the body against those irritants. This reaction can lead to scaling and flaking associated with dandruff. 

Excess Sebum

Sebum is naturally present on our scalps and keeps the skin moist. However, an overproduction of sebum on the scalp provides a breeding ground for Malassezia yeast.

Malassezia yeast then grows at a much faster rate, and when it combines with sebum, it creates a byproduct that causes itching, irritation, and dandruff flakes.


Stress may not solely cause dandruff but it can trigger and worsen the condition. When under stress the body is put into ‘fight or flight mode’. To combat stress our body releases a certain type of cells.

These cells can trigger the production of sebum and Malassezia yeast on the scalp leading to dandruff. Learn more about can stress cause dandruff

Symptoms of Dandruff

The most common symptoms of dandruff include:

  • Itchy scalp
  • Irritated skin
  • Small white or yellow flakes.
  • Redness or red patches on the scalp.
  • Scaly or crusty scalp, mostly seen in children with “cradle cap.”

Symptoms of dandruff usually appear on the scalp however they can also appear on the eyebrows and beard. 

Dandruff symptoms can worsen under stress or in cold, dry climates or weather.

Dandruff VS Dry Scalp

Dandruff and dry scalp are not the same thing, though it is easy to confuse dandruff with a dry scalp as they have very similar symptoms.

Dry scalps are simply caused by a lack of moisture. This can be caused by dry or cold air, allergic reactions, and age. When the skin on the scalp has too little moisture, it can become irritated, itchy, and flaky.

The easiest way to tell the difference between dry scalp and dandruff is by the appearance of the skin flakes. Dandruff flakes are often bigger and oily, while dry scalp flakes are smaller and dry. 

Also, dry scalp occurs in conjunction with other patches of dry skin throughout the body, while dandruff is contained to the head and face.

Dandruff in Children

Dandruff doesn’t just happen in adults. Children also get dandruff. Signs of dandruff in children include:

  • Dry, white flakes on the scalp or clothing
  • Continuous itching of the scalp
  • Oily flakes on the scalp or eyebrows
  • Red patches on the scalp or forehead

As children begin their pubertal growth spurts, the same hormones that trigger accelerated growth also enhance production of the oily sebum giving rise to itchy, flaky scalps. 

How to Get Rid of Dandruff?

Dandruff is usually mild, with just itching and flaking which is certainly irritating. However, in some cases, the scalp can become inflamed, red, and even painful. In these instances, it’s essential to consult with a doctor, but easing symptoms is fairly simple for most dandruff. 

Anti Dandruff Shampoo

The best way to get rid of dandruff is by the use of a dandruff shampoo. 

  • Wash your hair with a dandruff shampoo at least 2-3 times a week. 
  • Leave the shampoo on your scalp for 2 to 3 minutes before rinsing. 
  • Rinse properly after shampooing and leave no residue behind.
  • According to the American Academy Of Dermatology choose an anti-dandruff shampoo that contains at least one of the following ingredients.
  1. Pyrithione Zinc
  2. Sulfur
  3. Salicylic acid
  4. Selenium sulfide
  5. Ketoconazole
  6. Coal tar 

Consult a Doctor

Dandruff can be easily managed with dandruff shampoo or other  OTC products. But if your condition is not getting better, it is best to consult a doctor. You may be experiencing similar conditions, like eczema, tinea capitis and psoriasis

For severe cases of dandruff, the doctor may prescribe antifungal shampoos, topical steroids or topical calcineurin inhibitors. 

Discover more ways to get rid of dandruff fast here.

Dandruff Shampoo For Kids

Dandruff Shampoo For Kids

Most dandruff shampoos are made for adults and contain additional ingredients that might be harmful to young, sensitive skin. Dr. Eddie’s Happy Cappy Medicated Shampoo and Body Wash is one of the best-medicated dandruff shampoos for kids, babies, and adults.

Dr. Eddie’s unique formula is made with 95% plant-based ingredients. It contains Zinc Pyrithione, an FDA-approved ingredient that has been proven highly effective in helping with dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, and cradle cap.

It is infused with licorice root extract to soothe redness and provitamin B5 to moisturize hair and skin. It is fragrance-free, dye-free, sulfate-free, and alcohol-free, making it the best dandruff shampoo for kids.

Key Points

  • Dandruff is a common skin condition that causes flaking, scaling, and itching on the scalp.
  • Dandruff is a mild form of seborrheic dermatitis also known as cradle cap.
  • Dandruff can be easily managed with the use of a medicated dandruff shampoo. 
  • Use Happy Cappy Medicated Shampoo and Body Wash daily until the skin is healed and the dandruff clears. In between flare-ups of both dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis, try using gentle, fragrance-free, and hypoallergenic Happy Cappy Daily Shampoo & Body Wash to cleanse the scalp.


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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 hot water cause dandruff?

Hot water is not the direct cause of dandruff. However, hot water removes the natural oil from scalp and body, which can lead to dryness and worsening existing dandruff.

Can dandruff cause hair fall?

The simple answer is no. Dandruff doesn’t cause hair loss. However, sometimes, dandruff causes itching, which sparks off the urge to scratch. The scratching causes hair loss.

Can dandruff spread to face?

If dandruff spreads on the face it could be facial dermatitis or seborrheic dermatitis. In seborrheic dermatitis flakes and scales can appear on the eyebrows, face, and behind the ears.

Is dandruff permanent?

Dandruff is not permanent, but there is no permanent cure for it. Dandruff can disappear and can reappear again. However, permanent treatment for dandruff is not possible.

Does drinking water stop dandruff?

Drinking plenty of water keeps your body, hair, and skin hydrated. This is a good thing but likely will not have an impact on your dandruff.

Should I ignore dandruff?

It’s up to you. Dandruff is usually not a harmful condition. If you are okay with white flakes on your scalp, you can ignore it. If your scalp is itchy, inflamed, red, or painful, you should seek treatment.

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