Dandruff can affect up to 50% of the world’s population, and more than one-third of consumers are seeking a solution. Those are significant numbers. Yet while it’s a common concern, we find dandruff and flakes aren’t discussed as readily as, say, dry skin. You ask your friends for moisturizer recommendations, but have you inquired about their favorite dandruff shampoo? This may be linked to fears that dandruff is tied to poor hygiene. But that’s a myth we’ll speak more about below. We encourage an open discourse about having dandruff or a dry scalp—you might be surprised by just how many people you know can relate. With that said, when it comes to advice, we suggest turning to the experts.
Here, we’re working with Kiehl’s Consulting Experts, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Arash Akhavan and hairstylist Ruslan Nureev, to answer questions about dandruff and dry, flaking scalps. You’ll learn about what causes dandruff, whether there’s an easy answer for how to get rid of dandruff, and how to tell the difference between it and dryness. Plus, find out whether there’s a connection between dandruff and hair loss. Read on for your Kiehl’s guide to dandruff and flakes.
What Causes Dandruff?
Let’s start with the source: Why do you get dandruff? Dandruff occurs when the skin cells on the scalp multiply more frequently than normal and begin shedding more rapidly. And a number of things can trigger this. According to Dr. Akhavan, stress is among the top causes of dandruff. “I get [reports] from patients that they went on vacation, and it went away, and they sometimes will associate it with that location.” In actuality, “it’s the fact that they’re on vacation, they’re outside, and they weren’t stressed.”
Aside from stress, dandruff can be caused by both dry skin and irritated, oily skin. It also may result from using haircare products that your scalp is sensitive to.
Is Getting Dandruff Connected To Poor Hygiene?
No, having dandruff doesn’t mean you are unclean or have bad hygiene. As Dr. Akhavan says, “It’s not a poor hygiene condition; it’s just that skin cells start to build up.” Nevertheless, cleansing more often to break down buildup is key. Dr. Akhavan says this should be the first step in your haircare routine if you have dandruff.
Is Dandruff Linked To Hair Loss?
While there are rumors about a connection between dandruff and hair loss, they’re lacking proof. “There is no evidence, good solid scientific evidence, that the two are linked in any way,” says Dr. Akhavan. However, it is possible for temporary hair thinning to be caused by picking or scratching at an extremely dry scalp or severe dandruff. Dr. Akhavan warns that if the scalp picking continues for long enough, the thinning can also become permanent.
How Can You Manage Dandruff?
You won’t snap your fingers and get rid of dandruff, but a proper routine can help you manage it. Try these four expert tips.
1. Use a dandruff shampoo.
There are over-the-counter shampoos that are specifically meant for dandruff. If your regular products aren’t cutting it, you can try one of those. Shampoos with either sulfur or salicylic acid in their formulas are two popular options.
2. Try products with the right ingredients.
Something that may come as a surprise is that dandruff isn’t necessarily siloed to your scalp. It can appear in different spots. According to Dr. Akhavan, you may experience dandruff in any area of the body where you have a concentration of oil glands, including your eyebrows and the creases of your nose.
Because you may not find many dandruff products that aren’t shampoos, for these spots, Dr. Akhavan shares that you can look for regular products with the right ingredients. “Buy something more specific to that area that you’re treating,” he advises. For example, “You can buy a cleanser that has sulfur in it, or buy a cleanser that has salicylic acid in it.”
3. Be intentional with hairstyling.
While you’re in the midst of managing dandruff, you don’t need to hide away under a hat. You can disguise flaking with a few hairstyling tricks. To start, Nureev suggests combing through your hair with a fine-tooth comb to remove excess flakes and dead skin cells.
As for what type of hairstyle to wear, he recommends a blowout. “If you slick your hair back or slick it down, you will see more of your scalp,” he says. A blowout with volume at the roots, on the other hand, can help hide it.
4. Visit a dermatologist.
Last but not least, you can visit your dermatologist for help managing dandruff. Dr. Akhavan shares that you can try over-the-counter options first, and within a few weeks, you’ll know if they’re working for you. If not, “time for a prescription.”
Of course, if dandruff is really bothering you and you’re in a rush to deal with it, you can skip straight to making an appointment with your dermatologist. “A board-certified dermatologist is going to be able to help with any skin issues more effectively and more efficiently than most things you could do on your own,” says Dr. Akhavan.
Is Short or Long Hair Better For Dandruff?
One thing we didn’t cover was whether you need to cut (or grow out) your hair in order to tackle dandruff. That’s because your hair length won’t designate whether your scalp starts to flake. According to Nureev, people with longer hair may assume that’s the culprit behind their dandruff, but there’s really something else at play: “It’s because they usually skip the step of properly washing their scalp.”
If you have longer hair, take extra care to thoroughly wash your scalp—not just the lengths of your hair. “You actually have to rub your scalp,” explains Nureev.
Can You Get Your Hair Done If You Have Dandruff?
Having dandruff shouldn’t prevent you from doing anything in your daily life, and that includes getting a haircut. Nureev says, “It’s definitely okay to go to the salon, and the hairstylist should not care about it.” As for whether you should warn your hairstylist, that’s really up to you. You don’t need to tell them, but you may find it helpful. Nureev shares, “If you do have concerns about your dandruff and are looking for some help, it might be nice to give the hairstylist a heads up, and they can prepare a proper treatment for you.”
Do You Have Dandruff, Or Is Your Scalp Just Dry?
It’s possible that you could be mistaking dandruff for a dry scalp (or vice versa). And you wouldn’t be alone. According to Dr. Akhavan, it really can be challenging to distinguish dandruff from a dry scalp. If you’re unsure which you’re dealing with, there are few helpful hints you can look for.
As we covered earlier, dandruff can appear in multiple spots, whereas a dry scalp is specific to the top of your head. Where your flakes are may indicate whether you have dandruff or a dry scalp.
Per Dr. Akhavan, a dry scalp occurs in someone who has decreased oil production. This could be due to age, climate, or skin-drying habits, like using a harsh shampoo. As for dandruff, it’s actually associated with increased oil production. If you have dandruff, you may find that you also have oily hair. This is because one of the causes of dandruff is a yeast-like fungus that feeds on the oils on your scalp.
Dandruff and a dry scalp look similar, but Dr. Akhavan shares that the flakes you see with each concern aren’t quite the same. With a dry scalp, it’s “typically very similar to what you’ve seen when you have dry hands. It’s fine, white flakes.” With dandruff, he says, “you’re getting clumps of skin cells coming off, instead of the fine dust that’s always exfoliating from our scalp and bodies—which you can’t see.” He continues, “The flakes will tend to be a little bit larger than the simple white flakes of dry skin.”
For help determining whether you have dandruff or a dry scalp, you can also seek the opinion of a board-certified dermatologist. They’ll examine your skin and its history to get the full picture.
How Do You Address a Dry Scalp?
Because dandruff and a flaky, dry scalp aren’t one and the same, how you address each is different, too. For a dry scalp, start by analyzing your current routine. Nureev shares that many products, including certain dry shampoos, hair sprays, and texture sprays, can dry out the scalp. Make sure the formulas you’re using are non-drying.
Magic Elixir Scalp and Hair Oil Treatment
When it comes to picking products and setting up a better routine for a dry scalp, Dr. Akhavan says he handles it much like how he would treat dry skin—with moisturizer. Another tip he shares is: “I often find that products meant for dry hair can also really help with a dry scalp as well.” These include hair oils and leave-in conditioners. For the former, Nureev recommends Magic Elixir Scalp and Hair Oil Treatment. The pre-shampoo treatment with avocado oil helps leave the scalp and hair feeling moisturized and healthier. It also helps soften your hair and improve manageability.
A hair mask, like Amino Acid Scalp-Restoring Treatment-Mask, can also help boost that much-needed moisture. The mask, which is suitable for all scalp types, including dry and sensitive, provides long-lasting moisture, helps with flaking, and leaves the scalp feeling comfortable. Amino Acid Scalp-Detoxifying Treatment-Scrub can also help with flakes. The scalp exfoliator with sea salt and salicylic acid works to leave your scalp feeling fresh and free of excess oil, without flaking.
Product Buildup vs. Dry Scalp vs. Dandruff
There’s one last thing you could mistake for dandruff, and that’s product buildup. Nureev shares that product buildup from dry shampoo or a volumizing powder “has that white flakiness, and it can look like dandruff.” What’s convenient is that some of the same tips for dry, flaky scalps can be applied to addressing scalp buildup. This includes cleansing thoroughly and using a scalp scrub. “I would recommend [exfoliating with a scrub] for a person who has some excess buildup on their scalp,” says Nureev.