12 Dandruff Causes—and How to Stop the Itch

We spend $400 million on dandruff treatments each year. Don’t flake out; instead, learn about a skin condition that’s affected us all.


Males are more likely to experience dandruff than females. This is thought to be due to a variety of factors including male hormones.

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Dandruff is an annoying, itchy, and often embarrassing skin condition that affects nearly 50 percent of the general population. Researchers of an article published in the Indian Journal of Dermatology, believe almost all of us have suffered from it. “No population in any geographical region would have passed through freely without being affected by dandruff at some stage in their life,” they claim. But what is dandruff and why do we get it?

What Is Dandruff?

“While some people think of dandruff as just flaky, itchy scalp, it’s actually more than that,” says Rajani Katta, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. “[Dandruff is] a condition caused by inflammation of the scalp. That inflammation produces redness and flaking of the skin of the scalp, along with itching.”

What triggers this inflammation? An overgrowth of a type of yeast called Malassezia is likely to blame. This yeast grows well in oil-producing areas, especially the scalp, Katta says. “Although it’s a common, normal skin organism, some people respond to its presence with inflammation. That inflammation results in redness and increased skin turnover, which we experience as flaking and itching.”

This flaking causes dandruff’s tell-tale white flakes which dot the hair and shoulders of sufferers, causing a great deal of embarrassment. The good news: Dandruff is treatable. While you may struggle to rid yourself of this itchy invader, it can often be controlled.


Bald people don’t suffer from dandruff, which leads Indian researchers to believe that hair follicles are necessary to create “fungal colonization in patients with dandruff.”

12 Causes of Dandruff

While the root cause (get it?) of dandruff is unknown, multiple factors can exacerbate or increase your risk of itchy, flaking skin. According to Indian researchers, “A vulnerable/sensitive scalp is perhaps the first predisposing factor for dandruff.” Other potential factors include:

  • Seborrheic dermatitis. This is one of the most common causes of dandruff. Characterized by red, greasy skin with flaky white or yellow scales, seborrheic dermatitis can also affect other areas such as the eyebrows, side of the nose, behind the ears and groin. See our sidebar “Dandruff Vs Seborrheic Dermatitis” to learn more about the difference between the two conditions.
  • Dry skin. Those who suffer from this are likely to have dry skin on many parts of the body. The flakes they experience appear smaller and less oily than those created by other causes of dandruff. This condition generally doesn’t result in redness or inflammation.
  • Illnesses. Some neurological and other diseases (i.e. Parkinson’s and HIV) can cause seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff.
  • Fungus. While some researchers refute the claim that Malassezia (a yeast-like fungus that lives on the scalp of most healthy adults) causes dandruff, many others believe it irritates the scalp, causing extra skin cells to grow. These then die, falling off as a white, flaky dandruff.


Dandruff gets worse during the colder months. One possible reason for this increase? Indoor heating can worsen dryness.

  • Contact dermatitis. This type of skin inflammation is triggered by contact with an allergen or irritant. Certain cosmetics, dust, hair dyes, and other hair care products can cause an irritated, red, itchy, and scaly scalp.
  • Gender. Males are more likely to experience dandruff than females. This is thought to be due to a variety of factors including male hormones. The Indian researchers mentioned above believe that because men tend to have less hair, their dandruff is more noticeable than it is for women who have a dense scalp coverage. The result: men’s dandruff may look worse and be reported more often than it is for women.
  • Product overuse. Using too many dandruff-fighting products too often could make things worse. Over-shampooing in general can also lead to scalp irritation and dandruff.
  • Sun exposure. Researchers believe excessive exposure to sunlight can cause scaling and flaking of the scalp. That said, a little bit of sun exposure may help fight your flakes. Limit your time outside and always wear sunscreen.
  • Frequent hair brushing. Repeatedly combing your hair can lead to irritation of the scalp, in turn creating dandruff.
  • Age. Turns out dandruff doesn’t only affect the young. While dandruff tends to begin in adolescence or young adulthood, some suffer with scalp irritation throughout their lives.
  • Too much grease. Not shampooing frequently enough can lead to a build-up of oil and skin cells on your scalp. Also, the fungus Malassezia feeds on oils. The result: dandruff.
  • Stress. Too much stress is bad for your health. In addition to putting you at risk for chronic diseases, it can also weaken your immune system and lead to worsened dandruff.

Dandruff Treatment

Scour the web and you’ll find anywhere from a few ways to dozens of different ways to rid yourself of dandruff—possibly forever. But which of them work? You’ll have to experiment to find out. Your first stop should be a mild shampoo used daily to help reduce the build-up of oil and skin cells. If this isn’t enough to fight the flakes, try a dandruff shampoo. Bonus points for using one that contains tea tree oil, which has antifungal, antibiotic, and antiseptic properties.

There are a ton of specialty products on the market, all claiming to rid your head of dandruff for good. Each contains a different cocktail of medicine and other ingredients, so you’ll have to try a few to find one that works best for your situation.

Start by using the shampoo daily or every other day. Once your dandruff is under control, drop back to using it two to three times a week. If it stops working, try alternating with a different type of dandruff shampoo. Tip: Always read and follow the directions on the bottle. Still no luck? It may be time to see a doctor to diagnose your condition and perhaps give you a prescription for a stronger shampoo or lotion.

For more ways to rid yourself of dandruff, read our post Itchy Scalp Treatment: 12 Options to Ease the Irritation

Having Dandruff Doesn’t Mean You’re Dirty

While some believe dandruff to be a sign of poor hygiene, in most cases, this condition has nothing to do with a person’s health or cleaning routine. However, Katta says, “due to the increased flaking, and due to the fact that oil production encourages the growth of the yeast, many people will find that their symptoms improve when they shampoo their scalp more often. “


Although both terms are used to describe similar symptoms (i.e. itchy scalp and scaly, flaking skin), these two conditions are different. Dandruff is a side-effect of seborrheic dermatitis, with mere dander as a symptom. It’s often easily and quickly treated. The latter condition, on the other hand, is characterized by chronic inflammation, a deeper level of scaling, and it can affect multiple areas of the body. As a result, seborrheic dermatitis is more difficult to treat than dandruff.

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This article was originally published in 2018. It is regularly updated. 

As a service to our readers, University Health News offers a vast archive of free digital content. Please note the date published or last update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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Shandley McMurray

Shandley McMurray has written several of Belvoir’s special health reports on topics including stress & anxiety, coronary artery disease, healthy eyes and pain management. Shandley also has authored numerous articles … Read More

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