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dandruff; hair; flakes; scalp; fungus;


If your head feels really itchy and you find small yellowish flakes falling onto your shoulders, the chances are that you have dandruff. Some people can also have dandruff in their eyebrows, but this is unusual. Wearing dark coloured clothes can be embarrassing, as the flakes show up particularly well on dark colours.

What is dandruff?

The skin of the scalp has many layers. Cells start growing in the dermis at the bottom, and eventually they form a layer of dead cells on the surface of the skin. Normally, these dead cells fall off in tiny flakes which we don't even notice. Washing or brushing your hair helps to get rid of the flakes.

These tiny flakes are not dandruff!!

A type of dermatitis called seborrheic dermatitis can cause dandruff.

  • This dermatitis causes itching and flaking on patches of the scalp.
  • The scalp of people with dandruff sheds many bigger greasy flakes and these are what we call dandruff.
  • Dandruff can be distressing for the person who has it because the flakes can be seen in the hair and on the clothes.
  • Some people might think you don't take good care of your appearance, even when you are trying hard - really, most people won't notice these flakes as much as you do!

Why do some people get dandruff?

It is not clear why some people get dandruff, and others don't, but there are some things that we do know about it.

  • It seems to start happening around puberty, when a lot more oil is made by glands at the base of each hair. This oil holds the tiny flakes together to make bigger, more noticeable flakes. Boys get more oily hair than girls, and boys have dandruff more often than girls.
  • A tiny fungus seems to be part of the reason people get dandruff. This fungus is called Malassezia (mal-a-sea-zee-a) or sometimes Pityrosporum (pit-ee-rose-por-um). This fungus makes the skin cells grow much faster, so there are a lot more dead cells, and these mix with the hair oils to make bigger flakes.
  • There are some other things that can cause flaky, itchy skin, such as ringworm and other types of dermatitis. Your doctor would be able to look at your hair and tell you if you have one of these problems, or just dandruff.

What can you do about dandruff?

Well, the first thing is to work out if you really have dandruff, or if you just have the normal tiny flakes of dead cells which everyone has. A lot of money is made from persuading people that they have dandruff, and that they just have to use this latest, greatest treatment or else they will be social outcasts.

  • Have a talk with your mum or dad, or with your doctor, to see whether you really do have a problem.

There are several different things you can try to see if you can improve your scalp health.

  • First, if you have oily hair, using a gentle shampoo every day will get rid of the extra oil. Since the oil holds the tiny flakes together making big, noticeable flakes, getting rid of the oil is enough for some people.
  • Avoid hair products like hair gels. These hold on to the tiny flakes making bigger lumps as well.
  • See if you can have a bit more zinc in your diet. Zinc is one of the things that seems to help keep skin healthy. Food sources for zinc include egg yolks, fish, meat, soybeans, sunflower seeds and whole grains.
  • Get a little sunshine. This does not give you 'permission' to sunbake and develop a tan. The sun can still damage your skin if you stay out too long, but a little bit of sun onto your scalp seems to help.

Dandruff treatments

There are treatments, such as anti-dandruff shampoos, which can be helpful if you are having problems with dandruff.

  • You can get many of the shampoos 'over-the-counter' at chemist shops.
    • Different types of shampoos work in different ways, and some can affect the colour of your hair, and some people can be allergic to some of the products. So have a talk to the chemist before you spend your money.
    • When you use one of these products, it is important to leave it on your scalp for five minutes before you wash it off.
    • You may need to use one of these shampoos every day for a while, then, as the dandruff gets better, use the product about twice a week for a while.

 If you have dandruff that is not getting better even when you have tried a couple of different types of products, go back to see your doctor. He or she may be able to prescribe a different treatment which could work.

Remember, dandruff is treatable.

Did you know…

Tea tree oil kills fungus, and can be helpful for some people who have dandruff and who would prefer to use a 'natural' product - but be careful...

  • 'raw' tea tree oil can hurt broken skin, or irritate healthy skin
  • some people are allergic to tea tree oil, which could cause even more itching and scaling.

You could look for skin or hair products which contain tea tree oil, and test the product on a different part of your skin before you try it on your head

Further reading

Mayoclinic.com 'Dandruff'


Harrison's Textbook of Internal Medicine 'Online' - Chapter 47. 'Eczema, psoriasis, cutaneous infections, acne and other common skin disorders'.

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Youth Healthline on 1300 13 17 19 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).
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