The itching and flakes associated with dandruff are a nuisance that can make you feel self-conscious. You can’t prevent dandruff, but the proper use of over-the-counter shampoos usually relieves the symptoms.
The itchy scalp and white flakes of dandruff that you may have noticed on your sweaters and blouses are usually not a medical problem, but they can certainly be embarrassing. Dandruff, a mild form of a common skin condition called seborrheic dermatitis, appears when skin cells grow and die off too fast.
Contrary to what you may think, dandruff usually isn’t caused by careless hygiene. In some cases, dandruff results when a fungus that naturally lives on the scalp grows out of control. If dandruff flakes are yellowish and oily and the scalp is red, the cause may be another form of seborrheic dermatitis, one that’s called cradle cap when it occurs in infants. Hormonal changes and the onset of winter, with its cold, dry air, can make dandruff worse.
What to Do About Mild Dandruff
You can’t prevent dandruff, but in most cases, you can control the problem with home treatments. Try these strategies:
- Wash your hair daily with a dandruff or medicated shampoo. Look for products that contain coal tar, pyrithione zinc, salicylic acid, selenium, or ketoconazole.
- Massage the shampoo into your scalp well, then leave it on for five minutes to give it time to work. Rinse thoroughly. This gets rid of the cells you’ve dislodged, and it keeps shampoo residue from adding to your scalp irritation.
- Try different types of shampoos until you find the one that works for you. Over time, a shampoo may lose its effectiveness and you may need to switch to another.
- Avoid excessive heat on your scalp. Frequent blow-drying can contribute to flaky skin.
- Try not to scratch your scalp. Scratching can leave cuts in the skin and may lead to an infection.
Treating More Severe Cases
If you have the symptoms of a more severe form of seborrheic dermatitis that affect your scalp, you can help control them with the following steps:
- Part your hair into small sections and apply a dandruff or medicated shampoo to one small area at a time. Rub it into the scalp well, then rinse thoroughly.
- Try a relaxation technique. One of the triggers for this skin and scalp condition is stress. If your personal stress-o-meter is stuck on “high,” consider meditation, yoga, deep breathing, or another technique or practice that can help you relax.
- Get enough sleep. Fatigue can also cause seborrheic dermatitis to flare up, so make sure you set aside enough time to get a good night’s sleep.
When to See Your Doctor
If you’ve tried over-the-counter shampoos without success, call your doctor. There are prescription shampoos containing selenium, ketoconazole, or corticosteroids for more stubborn cases. It’s also a good idea to seek medical help if your scalp becomes very red or painful, or if you notice fluid or pus coming from your scalp. This could be a sign of an infection that requires treatment.
For most cases of dandruff, however, the right over-the-counter shampoo and a steady stream of warm water are all it takes to control those flakes.