An itchy, scaly, uncomfortable scalp. Unsightly white flakes covering your favourite black jumper… Sure, dandruff isn’t the sexiest haircare topic we could talk about. But we’re betting it’s one many of you have Googled from the comfort of your own home.
Maybe you’re struggling to understand exactly what’s flared up your achy, flaky situation? Or wondering what causes dandruff in the first place, or what you need to do to get rid of it, like yesterday?
There are a lot of dandruff myths and misconceptions out there, so we chatted to a dermatologist and hairdresser to clear them up. Read on to discover everything you need to know about dandruff – and separate the flaky facts from fiction.
First up, what is dandruff?
According to leading Melbourne dermatologist Dr Shyamalar Gunatheesan, dandruff can be a common chronic, relapsing dermatitis of the scalp. And it falls under the broad category of seborrheic dermatitis. “We think dandruff (or pityriasis capitis) is just an uninflamed form of the seborrheic dermatitis, or an eczema affecting the scalp,” she says.
Characterised by itching, flaking skin on the scalp – and often brows and face, too – dandruff is believed to be associated with an overgrowth of a yeast called Malassezia. “It’s thought that the breakdown of products or its metabolites such as fatty acids and oleic acids causes this inflammatory reaction,” says Dr Gunatheesan.
And while you might experience small, white flakes and itching with run-of-the-mill scalp dryness, dandruff is often linked to increased oiliness. One easy way to tell whether you’re dealing with dryness or dandruff? With the latter, the flakes are typically larger, oilier and more yellow in appearance.
So, now you know the basics, let’s get into the most common myths about dandruff…
Myth #1: Dandruff is something to be ashamed of
We get it. A dusting (or dumping) of flakes on your shoulders is less than desirable. Especially if you’re in a job interview or wearing a brand-new LBD for date night.
Dandruff is nothing to be ashamed of, however, and it’s an incredibly common concern. Especially among younger adult males, according to Dr Gunatheesan.
With around half the adult population experiencing the condition at one time or another, dandruff doesn’t mean you’re defective, dirty or a flaky-scalped freak. So, in the immortal words of Jay-Z, go and brush your shoulders off. And hold your head up high.
Myth #2: A flaky scalp always equals dandruff
For years, clever advertisers have had us reaching for the anti-dandruff shampoo at the first sign of flakes. But the truth is, dandruff is just one of a handful of reasons your scalp could be itchy, scaly or flaking. Generalised scalp dryness could be to blame, or you might be triggering a dry-skin tsunami with the wrong products or harsh, moisture-stripping ingredients.
Of course, fungus-driven dandruff is another cause of a shedding scalp. And, according to Melbourne Hairdresser Sofia Basile, more serious skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis could also be to blame. “Using irritating ingredients such as sulfates and parabens can result in contact dermatitis, or you might have an allergy to certain fragrances or essential oils,” she says.
Anti-flaking tip: Use sulfate-free cleansing products, like our Super Hydrating Shampoo and Conditioner to avoid a dry, irritated scalp.
Myth #3: Dandruff is contagious
If you’re worried your flaky friend’s scalp situation is going to rub off on you, don’t be. According to the Mayo Clinic, dandruff IS NOT contagious. Like other inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis, it has nothing to do with cleanliness.
But that doesn’t mean you should go around sharing brushes. Hairbrushes can harbour all kinds of microbes and bacteria, as well as potentially irritating product build-up. So, make sure you wash your hairbrushes regularly and think twice before sharing them with anyone. Regardless of whether or not they have dandruff.
Myth #4: You should scrap away your dandruff
We’ve all looked on in horror at the guy picking his flaky scalp on the bus. Aside from being gross, this is no way to treat your scalp. Aggressively removing scales by combing or picking at the scalp is a no-no if you want to avoid bleeding, pain and infection. And this is even more important if you’re dealing with a more serious skin condition.
Regular and gentle brushing of the scalp, on the other hand, is always a good idea. “I recommend my itchy-scalped clients use a cushion brush or square flat brush to gently dislodge any flakiness,” says Basile. “Not only does this allow you to wear black clothes more freely, it also helps boost circulation which is essential for healthy hair growth.”
Myth #5: You shouldn’t exfoliate your scalp
Exfoliating the scalp is an ideal way to remove dead skin cells, scales, product build-up and excess oils. However, you do need to be gentle if you’re dealing with dandruff.
“As long as your symptoms are mild, your scalp is not too painful and you’re not dealing with something like psoriasis, I’d recommend using a scalp scrub once a week,” says Basile.
Anti-flaking tip: Reach for a product that simultaneously hydrates, sloughs and soothes an itchy scalp. Like our Deep Clean Scalp Scrub, formulated with coconut oil, manual and chemical exfoliants and peppermint oil.
Myth #6: You just have to put up with dandruff
Think your dandruff’s here to stay, so you’ll just have to deal with it? Not true. According to Basile, some simple product swaps can get your scalp back on track. First up, she recommends cutting back on dry shampoo use, as most of the supermarket brands are full of drying alcohol. Sea salt spray can also be problematic, so you may need to bypass the beach waves for a while.
As for products you can use? “For mild scalp irritation and dandruff, I love shampoos and treatments that contain soothing and antiseptic ingredients like peppermint, tea tree, lavender or lemon,” says Basile.
And if your flaky scalp is due to dryness, she suggests reaching for treatment masks with nourishing ingredients like cocoa or shea butter. Or known soothers such as chamomile.
Anti-flaking tip: Treat a dry, flaky scalp with our Like A Virgin Nourishing Hair Masque – formulated with moisturising shea butter and argan oil.
Myth #7: Anti-dandruff shampoos are the only answer
In terms of treatment options for dandruff, Dr Gunatheesan likes a holistic approach. “Your gut health is very important. Reducing stress levels can be important too,” she says.
As for scalp treatments, there are lots of over-the-counter dandruff products. A medicated shampoo or tar-based shampoo can be beneficial, as well as products with salicylic or lactic acids (like our AHA- and BHA-infused scalp scrub).
“My take on it is to use a gentle shampoo to slough off the scale once a week,” says Gunatheesan. “You could use some olive oil or coconut oil and then gently wash off with a soft towel… Look into hydrating shampoos other days of the week.”
(Note: while dandruff and oiliness often go hand-in-hand, it’s important to keep the scalp hydrated as dehydration can trigger increased oil production.)
And if your scalp becomes very itchy, sore or inflamed? See your dermatologist. There are prescription, steroid-based shampoos and higher strength salicylic and lactic acid-based preparations they can prescribe.
Got the flakes? Try our Ultimate Pamper Bundle – featuring our cult scalp scrub, hair masque and Miracle Elixir.
Written By: Pip Jarvis
Edited by: Vidhya