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What Is Dandruff? Discover What Causes It and How to Treat It

Find out what causes dandruff and how to manage it.

Are you wondering: what is dandruff? Dandruff is a common condition that causes the skin from your scalp to shed quicker than usual, leaving you with visible white flecks in your hair and on your shoulders. This makes it easy to spot, but other symptoms of dandruff can include itching, redness and dry scalp.

Dealing with dandruff is no easy feat because the condition can make you feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. The good news is with our guidance and expert tips, you can learn how to be scalp savvy and manage it better.

We sat down with Unilever’s Peter Bailey, Global Technical Manager, Hair Care, to debunk some of the most common myths surrounding this hair concern. From causes to cures, Peter weighs-in with his expert opinion on how to recognise and treat dandruff.

What is Dandruff and How can I Treat It?

What is dandruff? Close up of brunette girl showing hair parting
What is dandruff? We decode your hair myths.

What Does Dandruff Look Like?

Unfortunately, dandruff can be a very noticeable scalp condition. Flakes of skin on the scalp are mostly shades of white, which makes them especially obvious if you’re sporting darker locks.

There’s not one uniform size or shape of the flakes, it depends on the condition of your scalp and how prone the skin is to shedding.

What Causes Dandruff?

As Peter reveals, “dandruff is caused by a number of factors. The presence of a micro-organism called Malassezia, (which everyone has on their scalp) is one of the most talked-about sources.”

The amount of sebum that’s present on the scalp is also another dandruff-affecting factor, as is whether or not the scalp skin of that particular person is susceptible to flaking. “This is similar to the way in which some people are prone to dry skin more than others,” verifies Peter. So, is dandruff contagious? “No,” he confirms.

What Makes Dandruff Worse?

The drier the skin on your scalp is, the more prominent your dandruff can appear. A combination of internal and external factors can disrupt the scalp skin barrier, leading to dryness.

“Internal factors can include a change in diet, stress or illness. External changes in temperature, low humidity and the use of harsh surfactants can also affect your scalp,” advises Peter.

Other habits that can exacerbate the condition include:

1. Overwashing your hair

As mentioned above, the drier your scalp the more prominent dandruff will be.

2. Using the wrong shampoo

As well as using a medicated shampoo, we suggest including a detoxing one into your hair routine, like the Love Beauty and Planet Delightful Detox Shampoo

This shampoo is infused with tea tree oil and coconut oil, to help gently detoxify your hair and leave it feeling a lot cleaner.

3. Overloading your hair with products

To avoid scalp irritation, make sure to take it easy with the number of hair products you use in your hair in one day.

5. Rubbing your scalp vigorously

If you’ve got dandruff, avoid rubbing or picking at it. The skin on your scalp is fragile, so you want to make sure you don’t disturb it. When washing, we advise you gently massage at your scalp instead of rubbing vigorously.

How Does Your Scalp Health Affect Dandruff?

Healthy skin (including on the scalp) forms a strong protective barrier to prevent water loss and maintain the correct hydration level. “Think of it as bricks and mortar in a wall – the skin cells act as the bricks and lipids act as the mortar holding the barrier together,” Peter explains.

Disruption of the lipids in this barrier can result in water loss, leading to dry or irritated skin. One of the most common symptoms of which is flaking: AKA dandruff.

How Do I Treat Dandruff?

Woman with wet long dark brown hair in the shower
Credit: Rupert Laycock

The most common way to treat dandruff is with an anti-fungal-containing shampoo (such as zinc pyrithione), whose primary role is to remove the Malassezia micro-organisms from the scalp.

“By removing Malassezia micro-organisms, the main source of attacking toxins is removed and the scalp skin can then start to recover and rebuild its protective scalp barrier again.”

How Can I Stop Dandruff Returning?

Maintaining your scalp’s health is an on-going process. If you have any concerns, make sure to consult a medical professional. Especially if you feel that the frequency of your dandruff or scalp health is in question.

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