Dandruff, a common chronic scalp condition, is incredibly annoying and unsightly. Take it from someone who has it! Unfortunately, the problem can represent more than just pesky white flakes falling from your scalp like a mini blizzard. Dandruff can sometimes lead to itchy, red patches that can scab and even bleed. Yikes.
No matter how much you're suffering, you're not going through this embarrassing affliction alone. We spoke with Dr. David Kingsley, who has specialized in hair and scalp problems for more than 35 years, who was kind enough to shed some light on dandruff and the best ways to treat it.
Fact #1: There are three different types of dandruff.
Pityriasis simplex is the basic white flakes; seborrheic dermatitis is what the condition is called when you see yellow flakes, redness, and more oil; and psoriasis is the most severe of the three dandruffs that causes itching, redness, and bleeding. Lesions elsewhere on your body, like your elbows or knees, are also an indication that you might be dealing with psoriasis.
In general, most scalp conditions would fall under one of these areas, says Kingsley. If you’re experiencing more of the severe symptoms, you should definitely consult with your primary-care doctor or a dermatologist.
Fact #2: Dandruff is caused by a yeast on your scalp called malassezia.
While it might sound gross, everyone has this yeast on their scalp—but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll have flakes. Only the first two types of dandruff—pityriasis simplex and seborrheic dermatitis—are usually caused by this yeast, and your scalp is only affected if it's aggravated by the malassezia, says Kingsley.
Still, a the common misconception surrounding dandruff is that it's caused by dryness. "People think dandruff is triggered dry skin, but it’s actually due to scalp oil," he says. For the most part, the more oily your scalp is, the more the malassezia yeast multiplies and triggers dandruff.
Fact #3: Sometimes dandruff is hereditary, sometimes it's not.
While there is a genetic link to dandruff, Kingsley says that's not always the case. People can also have dandruff when no one else in their family has it.
All kinds of things can cause dandruff to pop up or get worse. A woman's menstrual cycle and stress are some internal causes that bring on the flakes, while external influences like cold or dry weather, or shampooing your hair less, can have the same effect. Even the foods you eat ("particularly things like chocolate and cheese," says Kingsley) can trigger it, but all of these causes only affect the people who are already prone to dandruff.
How to get rid of it:
If all of the sudden you're experiencing dandruff for the first time, Kingsley suggests locating a cause by keeping track of what you're eating, if anything stressful has happened recently, or if there have been any big changes in the weather.
"Look at those possible triggers first and if there’s something obvious that sticks out, work on that; however, once you get [dandruff] it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to go away immediately or never come back," he says. In any case, whether it's suddenly triggered or if you've been experiencing dandruff since you can remember, he recommends the same first step for taking on the problem: anti-dandruff shampoo. "If [your flakes] are really bad, you might need to use the shampoos every day or whenever you shampoo, and then as it gets better maybe you only need to use it once a week," Kingsley suggests.
Just note that not all products will work the same for everyone, so he recommends trying one shampoo for 28 days (one skin cycle aka the amount of time for your skin to shed itself) to see if it's had a positive effect. If the shampoo you're using is working, Kinglsey adds that you'll start to see results within a week or two.
If you've already tried anti-dandruff shampoos and nothing has worked:
Firstly, don't be discouraged—trust me, I know it's hard to find the right dandruff-decreasing cocktail. Secondly, as long as you've tried each formula for the full 28 days and they still haven't worked for your scalp, see a doctor. Kingsley suggests seeking professional help from either a dermatologist or for topical steroid applications such as a lotion or cream.
These types of physicians might use a type of steroid called corticosteroids, which will help if your scalp is inflamed, flaky, and irritated from dandruff. But Kingsley said that other treatments can also include topical salicylic acid to exfoliate the scalp and get rid of build-up.
Unfortunately, while dandruff is entirely treatable, like Kingsley mentioned above, once you start getting flakes, you cannot guarantee that they won't return. "It's not like, 'Oh my gosh, I got dandruff and I’m never going to get rid of it!'" he says. "You can get rid of it and it may never come back, but the odds are that you might experience dandruff again at some point in time."
And don't get frustrated that it won't go away overnight. Because the skin cycle is almost a month long, you really have to commit to working on the problem. All of the steps above take time, but if you're serious about getting rid of your dandruff, the results will be well worth it for flake-free hair.
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.