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Facts on Dandruff

  • Dandruff is a very common skin condition that nearly all people experience at some point in their lives regardless of age or ethnicity. It affects the not just the scalp, but also the ears, eyebrows, sides of the nose, beard, and less commonly the central (often hair-bearing) part of the chest.
  • Dandruff can affect any hair-bearing area or an area with even very small hair follicles.
  • Other names for dandruff are seborrheic dermatitis and seborrhea.
  • Dandruff is seen in all ages from babies to the elderly. In infancy, scalp dandruff is commonly known as "cradle cap." In the teen years it has been called "druff" for short.
  • Some people are simply more prone to dandruff, and others experience periodic clearing cycles and periodic flare-ups of the condition.
  • Dandruff typically looks like dry, fine flaky skin on the scalp, sometimes with areas of pink or red inflamed skin.
  • Many individuals have no scalp symptoms but simply complain of white flakes on their shoulders, particularly noticeable on dark clothing. More advanced cases may cause intense itching, burning, and unstoppable scratching.
  • Some people are more prone to dandruff, and dandruff tends to be a chronic or recurrent disorder with periodic ups and downs. Although it is not curable, it is generally quite easily controlled with proper skin and hair hygiene. In babies, cradle cap usually clears after a few months.
  • It may recur later in life as typical dandruff. For some, dandruff may worsen with time. Although it may occur for a short period, dandruff tends to recur throughout a person' s life.
  • Severe dandruff may be a very difficult and frustrating condition. An ongoing combination treatment of shampoos, washes, and creams and lotions may be required to treat resistant cases. Overall, dandruff treatments are very safe and effective.
  • The best shampoo choices include those containing zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide, and tar-based shampoos. Prescription dandruff shampoos such as ketoconazole offer no benefit over over-the-counter brands.

What Causes Dandruff?

The exact cause of dandruff is unknown. Possible causes and associations include increased oil production and secretion, and increased numbers of normal skin yeasts.

Bacteria have not been found to cause dandruff. Dandruff is not a fungal infection and is not the same as scalp "ringworm," which is actually a fungal infection called tinea capitis. Dandruff is not contagious.

Dandruff may also be triggered or made worse by poor hygiene and infrequent shampooing and washing. The immune system may also play a role in dandruff. Although mild dandruff is a very common condition in many people with a normal immune system, severe dandruff is more common in people with some chronic illnesses such as Parkinson' s disease or a compromised immune system as in advanced HIV/AIDS.

  • Common triggers (factors that may worsen) of dandruff include the following:
    • Oily skin
    • Oily scalp
    • Poor hygiene
    • Weather (hot and humid or cold and dry)
    • Infrequent washing or shampooing
    • Poor immune system
    • Chronic illness
    • Emotional or mental stress
  • Risk factors for dandruff include the following:
    • People with extreme or severe cases of dandruff often also have other chronic health conditions
    • Dandruff probably has a small hereditary component making it more common to run in families.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/21/2017

Patient Comments & Reviews

The eMedicineHealth doctors ask about Dandruff (Seborrhea):

Dandruff - Experience

Please describe your experience with dandruff.

Dandruff - Treatment

What was the treatment for your dandruff?

Dandruff: Who Gets It?

Dandruff: Who Gets It?

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel, Jr, FACP, FACR

Dandruff is certainly unsightly and it can be a cause for concern. Is it just a result of poor hygiene? Or is there a medical reason for dandruff, so that the sufferer "can't help" but have it?

The answer isn't so simple. While doctors don't know exactly what causes dandruff, we do know it is a very common condition that affects nearly everyone at some point in their lives. It's not the result of a bacterialor fungalinfection (like the misnomer "ringworm" of the scalp). Some potential causes for dandruff have been suggested, including increased oil production of the skin, increases in certain skin secretions, and increased numbers of normal skin yeasts, but the exact cause of dandruff has never been established.

There are also many factors that may trigger dandruff. Common factors that may trigger dandruff include:

Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Seborrheic Dermatitis »

Seborrheic dermatitis is a papulosquamous disorder patterned on the sebum-rich areas of the scalp, face, and trunk.

Read More on Medscape Reference »

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