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How to Get Rid of Dandruff, According to the Experts

A woman checking her scalp in the mirror for dandruff.
Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

Those who have dandruff know just how infuriating it can be. From the itching to the flaking, this scalp condition is often difficult to combat, or even understand. So, we consulted dermatologists to find out what causes dandruff, and most importantly, how the heck you get rid of it!

If you’re one of the many who deal with dandruff on the daily, we know you’re sick of it. That’s why we reached out to two board-certified dermatologists, Dr. Joshua Zeichner and Dr. Craig Ziering, to get all the details on how to get rid of any snow on your roof.

What Is Dandruff, and What Causes It?

a person runs fingers through their hair, and a hand squeeze shampoo into a palm.
Dove

Dandruff is a scalp condition that causes flaking skin, and a red or itchy scalp. Typically, these symptoms stem from inflammation, dry or oily skin, or sensitivity to an ingredient in a product you’re using.

Oily or dry skin on the scalp builds up over time, leading to a collection of skin cells which, eventually, flake off and shed throughout your hair.

As a clinical researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital, Zeichner has delved into what causes of dandruff. He cited the delicate balance of yeast and bacteria present in our bodies as a reason why some people suffer from dandruff.

“Dandruff is essentially inflammation that develops because of your skin’s reaction to natural yeast that lives on your scalp,” Zeichner said. “You may not want to think about it, but we all have yeast and bacteria that live symbiotically on our bodies as part of our natural microbiome.”

For many people, this balance is fine, but those who deal with dandruff could have more of a reaction to yeast than others, which causes redness, flaking, and itching. Dandruff can also be particularly bad when yeast levels rise. These levels rise whenever your hair or skin is particularly oily or sweaty, like after a run or workout.

If you’re concerned about any health issues, though, you can relax: both Ziering and Zeichner said dandruff is harmless; it’s just “embarrassing and difficult to treat.”

Dove Dermacare Anti-Dandruff Shampoo for Dry Scalp, Pack of Four

Shampoos with zinc pyrithione are a good choice for fighting dandruff.

Are Some People More Prone to Dandruff?

A woman has dandruff flakes on her shoulder.
suriya yapin/Shutterstock.com

According to Zeiring, anyone can have dandruff, but there are a few factors that might make you more susceptible.

First, when it comes to personal or physical characteristics, those with dry skin or excessively oily hair and/or scalp are, generally, more likely to have dandruff. If you have dry skin, your scalp can become overly irritated and begin to flake.

If you have oily skin, the excess oil causes skin cells to build up over time, and then shed.

In addition to your skin type, if you have any medical conditions, such as Parkinson’s Disease or anything that affects the nervous system, this can increase your chances of having dandruff. Diseases that weaken the immune system, like HIV, can also be a culprit.

Believe it or not, your emotional state can also contribute to developing dandruff.

“Stress can lead to chronic inflammation,” Ziering said, “which is one of the key symptoms of many skin conditions, like psoriasis.”

Second, there are outside factors to consider, like weather and the hair products you use. Winter weather, in particular, dries out your skin and scalp, which can increase flaking. Products that often create buildups, like mousse, gels, and sprays, can also lead to dandruff.

Could It Be More Than Dandruff?

A woman touches her hair, and a hand dips into an exfoliating shampoo.
Briogeo

As we covered previously, the symptoms of dandruff are redness, itching, and flaking. However, according to Zeichner and Ziering, other conditions, including seborrheic dermatitis, present in a similar way.

Like dandruff, this condition can lead to flaking, but it can also spread to other parts of the body where oil glands are present. If this is what you have, you’ll likely also have scalp redness, yellow flakes of dry skin, scaling, swelling, and inflammation.

You should also consider whether or not you could possibly have psoriasis. This condition occurs because the immune system essentially gets angry at the skin. This leads to white, scaly plaques that can affect the scalp.

Like seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis can also move beyond the scalp. Symptoms also include small red bumps and lesions, and possible hair loss.

If you’re not experiencing any of the more severe symptoms we just described, you’re probably just dealing with a harmless case of dandruff. Still, it’s always best to consult your dermatologist just to be sure.

The Best Ways to Get Rid of Dandruff

A person washes there hair, and another person scratches their scalp.
Neutrogena/Scalpicin

There are different levels of dandruff, from mild to severe. For mild cases, or those who are only experiencing some flaking, Ziering recommends starting with a gentle shampoo that can help reduce oil and skin cell buildup.

Neutrogena Gentle & Soft Healthy Scalp Shampoo for Sensitive Scalp

Ideal for sensitive scalps and use between medicated washes.

However, if that doesn’t help, a medicated dandruff shampoo might be necessary. Try to use the medicated formula 2-3 times per week, and a gentler shampoo the rest of the time.

Zeichner said another way to attack the problem is by targeting your yeast levels. You can do this by using only shampoos that contain zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide, or ketoconazole. These ingredients help lower yeast levels which, in turn, will limit inflammation.

For inflammation, you can also use cortisone topically to combat irritation on your scalp. However, as it can have negative side effects, like thinning the skin, you can only use it for a short time.

“Most dermatologists recommend using them for no more than two weeks in a row,”  Zeichner said.

Of course, if none of these over-the-counter steps work, there are also some prescription options, so schedule an appointment with your dermatologist, and see what he or she recommends.

Scalpicin Max Strength Scalp Itch Treatment

Target inflammation with this treatment.

Can Dandruff Be Cured?

A woman shampooing her hair in a shower.
namtipStudio/Shutterstock.com

While there are effective ways to treat dandruff, both Zeichner and Ziering said there is, unfortunately, no way to “cure” it.

Zeichner explained this is predominantly due to the genetic factors that figure in when it comes to dandruff, which can’t be changed. However, with treatments, you can manage those flakes to the point that they’re unnoticeable.

There’s also no need to worry about any sort of dandruff-based skin complications.

“While dandruff is bothersome, it is not medically harmful,” said Zeichner.


Dandruff is a very common scalp condition. But if you’re sick of dealing with all the flaking, you might not have to for much longer. From special shampoos to topical treatments, there are several OTC ways dermatologists recommend for treating this condition. So, what are you waiting for? Check ’em out!

Shea Simmons Shea Simmons
Shea Simmons is an Atlanta-based writer who has written about everything from whether Crisco is a good moisturizer to how to KonMari your space. Her work has appeared in Bustle, My First Apartment, and Make It Grateful. Read Full Bio »
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