What is Dandruff? Could It Be a Product of Eczema or Psoriasis?
In the world of beauty, there are topics and skin conditions that beauty enthusiasts around the globe have been working to break the stigma around. One of those conditions is dandruff. To break this stigma, the first step is unlearning the misconceptions you’ve been hearing for years and get to the real facts, like: exactly what is dandruff and how do you treat it?
- Dandruff is a common scalp condition characterized by small pieces of dry skin flaking off of the scalp.
- Seborrheic dermatitis, dandruff, eczema in the scalp, and scalp psoriasis are on the same spectrum, but there are core differences such as the severity of symptoms and the underlying causes.
- The most common treatment recommendations for dandruff include dandruff shampoo, tea tree oil, Omega-3s, aloe vera, and apple cider vinegar.
With the stigma and mystery surrounding dandruff, there are plenty of misconceptions floating around that need to have the record set straight. By people not being able to answer the question of “What is dandruff?” and “What causes dandruff?”, incorrect assumptions about poor hygiene being the cause of dandruff have floated around for years. Due to assumptions like these, an intense stigma has been built around those who experience dandruff, even though it is extremely common and affects close to 50% of the world’s population (1).
What is dandruff?
First things first: what is dandruff? Dandruff is a common scalp condition characterized by the well-known symptom in which small pieces of dry skin flake off of the scalp. Also known as seborrheic dermatitis, these terms have often been used interchangeably because they are often known to be on the same spectrum of Malassezia overgrowth (2). Malassezia is a yeast microorganism that lives on the skin/scalp’s surface; if the yeast overgrows, the immune system can overreact and lead to the inflammatory response that results in seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff (3).
This excess shedding of the top layer of the skin can commonly occur in numerous places on the body such as on the scalp, eyebrows or along the sides of the nose. The term “seborrheic” comes from the term “sebaceous”, as in “sebaceous glands” where oil is produced. Besides dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis is also referred to as “cradle cap” on a baby’s scalp and manifests in white or yellow crusty flakes.
As mentioned, dry and flaky skin are two well-known signs of this condition, but other symptoms can occur such as greasy patches or red on the scalp, itchiness, or tingling skin. While the exact cause of dandruff is still considered complex, there are certain factors that can contribute to developing seborrheic dermatitis or dandruff, such as:
- A sensitivity to/overgrowth of Malassezia that is on the scalp and skin (3)
- Psoriasis or eczema
- Dry skin
- Hormonal changes or illness
- Harsh detergents, chemicals, or soaps
- Cold, dry weather
- Stress or depression
Those with oily skin are also commonly prone to dandruff, as Malassezia feeds on oils on the scalp. This increase in the breakdown of oil can cause the scalp to react by increasing the rate of speed in which the skin cells renew, which causes dandruff. For those without dandruff, it can take up to a whole month for skin cells on the scalp to die and shed, but those with dandruff experience this turnover in a mere two to seven days (4).
What is Scalp Psoriasis and Eczema in the scalp?
Now that you can answer “what is dandruff?”, it’s important to also discuss scalp psoriasis and eczema in the scalp. This way, you will be able to know the similarities and differences between the three conditions.
As seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff are on the same spectrum, eczema is on this spectrum as well. The National Eczema Association has noted that seborrheic dermatitis is a chronic form of eczema that impacts areas of the body that secrete the most oil (4). All of these conditions, along with scalp psoriasis, can easily be confused for each other as an itchy, flaky scalp is such a common symptom. This can make it hard to find the cause or a sufficient treatment.
Both psoriasis of the scalp and seborrheic dermatitis share common symptoms, like red patches of skin, flakes of skin on the hair shaft, or itchiness (5). To tell the difference, pay attention to:
- The scales, or flakes of skin. Psoriasis on the scalp produces thick scales that are silver in color while flakes of seborrheic dermatitis are usually thinner and are usually white or yellow.
- Psoriasis is usually located in other patches on the body and are easily irritated. If scratched, you can irritate the skin further and could bleed. As for seborrheic dermatitis, these flakes are easy to scratch and flake off.
- Psoriasis patches sometimes feel sore or tender, but not seborrheic dermatitis scales.
As for eczema in the scalp, it can commonly be confused with psoriasis, but the two are fundamentally different. While they both can cause rashes, patches of red, raised, and itchy skin, there are core differences to help you tell the difference:
- The underlying causes of eczema and psoriasis are very different, as psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that causes the skin cells to grow too fast, leading to a pile-up of the skin cells on top of the skin which forms a scale. The cause of developing eczema is harder to determine as plenty of factors, like genetics or environmental factors, can play a role (6).
- Psoriasis can cause mild itching and sometimes a burning or stinging sensation, but eczema can cause intense itchiness.
- Psoriasis can show up on more areas of your body in comparison to eczema.
How can you help treat dandruff?
If there’s one thing you’ve learned about dandruff, it’s that it can be super annoying and tough to treat, as so many factors can cause it to consistently show up. The most effective ways to treat and control dandruff is to use dandruff shampoo and scalp treatments. Here are some key tips and tricks to help you address dandruff:
- When it comes to shampoo, make sure you are not waiting too long between washes. Sometimes, people can mistakenly think that dandruff is caused by a dry scalp and need to stop shampooing their hair so they can keep their natural oils on the scalp. However, this will actually give Malassezia a chance to feast on the oil and exacerbate the dandruff (7).
- At-home remedies that are commonly recommended are tea tree oil for its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, aloe vera for its antibacterial and antifungal properties, apple cider vinegar to remove dead skin cells, and Omega-3s to help regulate oil production (8).
- Dandruff shampoo is a great option, but it’s important to look for and choose products with effective ingredients by checking the labels. Some effective ingredients you can look for are antifungals like ketoconazole or salicylic acid, zinc pyrithione, coal tar, and sulfur (9). You can alternate between your regular shampoo and an antifungal shampoo depending on the severity of your dandruff. This shampooing routine can also be worked out with your dermatologist.
- Know when to consult a dermatologist. This is a super important tip! If your itching associated with your dandruff if getting worse, if no at-home treatments or store-bought treatments are working, if inflammation, redness, swelling, is getting worse, if the area appears to be infected, or if you’re starting to experience symptoms on another part of your body besides your scalp, consult a dermatologist.
Written by Selena Ponton