An itchy, flaky scalp is more than an annoyance. It’s a signal from your body that your scalp needs attention – it is demanding attention! I get this question in my office a lot, so I wanted to share some dandruff deets with you guys!

Why It’s Happening:

Dandruff is caused by a naturally-occurring microbe (tiny organism, in this case a fungus) on your scalp called “Malassezia Globosa.” This tiny organism feeds on natural oils which your pores release onto your skin and scalp called “sebum.” As the sebum is broken down, it produces oleic acid. One in two people are sensitive to oleic acid (so, it’s very common). If you have the sensitivity, your scalp responds by becoming irritated, inflamed, red and itchy. To get rid of this irritation, your body tells your brain to shed skin cells faster than usual. This rapid shedding is what causes dandruff flakes to appear on your scalp.

When it Tends to Happen:

Although dandruff is not caused by cold, winter air, it can be aggravated by the cold, dry air. So, you might notice that it’s more pronounced during the winter months.

If you have certain medical conditions, you can also be more prone to dandruff.

Of course, scalp health is important from a cosmetic standpoint because dandruff is not aesthetically pleasing and is often deemed socially undesirable. But, the more significant issue is that scalp health impacts our hair health as well. Our scalp skin is very delicate and has a higher number of oil glands, sweat glands, and hair follicles than the skin on other parts of our bodies. Chronic dandruff arising from scalp inflammation most likely will impact the health of our hair – but harsh scalp treatments are also not conducive to healthy hair. Given that healthy hair and a healthy scalp typically go hand in hand and complement one another, companies are now starting to focus not only on hair health, but also on scalp health and on maintaining the proper pH for your scalp and hair.

What to Do:

Most people benefit from washing their hair every few days, but my patients with dandruff often find that they benefit from washing about every other day.  The Malassezia feeds on natural oils, so the more you rinse away their food, the less likely they are to trigger inflammation.  while natural oil buildup is fine in most people, and can easily be camouflaged with a dry shampoo, in people with dandruff those excess oils can sometimes do more harm than good.

I’m also asked a lot whether probiotics can help. The quick answer is yes – probiotics can help to rebuild and strengthen the scalp’s skin barrier! So, eating yogurt with live cultures or sipping a probiotic is another way to help alleviate that itchy, flaky scalp.

Another tip I provide to my patients is to let go of their love of lathering. So many people believe that when they are lathering their hair, they are thoroughly cleansing it. As I tell my patients, the more suds and bubbles, the more damage the shampoo is doing to your hair. The detergents that give you those foamy bubbles are the same detergents that are damaging the hair shaft. Detergent is actually an overachiever when it comes to cleansing your hair, stripping your hair and scalp of the healthy oils and natural protective barrier while irritating your scalp and prompting your skin to produce even more oil to compensate for its loss. Look for sulfate-free products which are much more gentle on your scalp and your hair!

Want to check out more of my input when it comes to healthy hair and a healthy scalp? Check out these posts, which include product recommendations: (1) The Evolution of Hair Care: Is Water Actually Damaging Your Hair and (2) Have You Been Washing Your Hair All Wrong?

Dr. Whitney