What Causes Dandruff?
Is your scalp itchy? Is it dry and flaky yet still paradoxically greasy? Do you shed a blizzard of flakes? Redness and tenderness to the scalp got you down? You very well may have dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis as dermatologist like to call it.
So why do some people get dandruff? The cause of dandruff is believed to be a complicated interaction between naturally occurring yeast, your skin oil, and the resultant inflammation. For unclear reasons, the yeast finds the composition of some individuals’ scalp oil to be delicious. The digestion of these oils generates fatty acids that penetrate the skin and stir up inflammation (hence the redness and flaking). It is not an infection of yeast per se, but a poorly understood reaction to your skin’s natural inhabitants.
What Are Some Dandruff Treatments?
Luckily dandruff is easily controlled in most cases. And a wide spectrum of products works for most people. Before seeing your dermatologist, you should try over-the-counter products with selenium sulfide, zinc pyrithione, or salicylic acid. Some of my favorites are Head & Shoulders, Selsun Blue, and Tsal. There are some inexpensive coal tar derivative shampoos that work well also. However most carry that little label stating “this chemical is known to the State of California to cause cancer” since it is a petroleum based product. I highly doubt your coal tar shampoo will give you cancer, but hey, there are perfectly other good options from which to choose. There are many prescription shampoos, foams, and drops that tame those flakes as well.
For those with a more natural mindset, tea tree oil and vinegar are popular and seem to work quite well in many people. I’ve heard of oatmeal soaks and massaging raw eggs into the scalp from patients with varying degrees of endorsement.
Supplementing with vitamin B6, zinc, and biotin is worth a try in my opinion. If several of the above treatments fail to offer you adequate relief, see your dermatologist. We have many other tricks up our white sleeves. Dandruff is not curable and the goal of treatment is to have your scalp flake free and comfortable. I know dermatologists who suffer dandruff themselves, so no one is holding back any magical cures from the masses.
Listerine was once heavily marketed as a scalp treatment for dandruff. 1926 advertisements from Lambert Pharmaceuticals of St. Louis, Missouri warned readers that “dandruff is a sign of a serious medical condition,” and “Dandruff is a germ disease that no intelligent person will tolerate.” So having dandruff meant not only were you seriously ill but a germ-infected moron according to the Lambert posters. One ad depicts a loving couple embracing with the words “Look out for Infectious Dandruff!” in bold marquee style lettering for a horror movie.
We get our word shampoo from colonial India during the 1760’s. Champo is derived from the Hindi word for kneading and pressing which was often done with soapberry extracts. When English traders returned from India many brought the act of shampooing the hair with them. How well these early shampoos worked on dandruff is not known however. Many depictions of street urchins of the time period show tikes with scruffy bald spots and cornflakes of dandruff trailing them in the air.
For most of Western history soap was used to cleanse all parts of the body, including the hair. The pendulum of personal hygiene has swung wildly over the last few hundred years. Due to fears of cleanliness actually causing disease (ill humors would enter through your open pores so it was best to stay dirty), it took a coordinated marketing campaign on behalf of the soap makers to make bathing an acceptable habit for the common man.
Can Dandruff Mean A Worse Health Problem?
The vast majority of people with dandruff are healthy with no other medical problems. In newborns we call it cradle cap and many grow out of it as their oil glands mature. But it has been known for decades that many neurodegenerative conditions, like Parkinson’s disease, go along with dandruff (especially facial dandruff, i.e. seborrhea). HIV can also cause difficult to treat cases. Changes in humidity, sleep deprivation, and stress often worsen dandruff as well. But rest assured, almost all dandruff sufferers are healthy, if not slightly annoyed by their scalp’s misbehavior.