Stop Believing These Myths About Dandruff

Having dandruff is a nuisance that causes unsightly white flakes which are hard to hide. Especially during a night out in your best little black dress, dandruff can feel like a personal failure and embarrassment. Due to the stigma associated with having a flaky scalp, dandruff is not widely talked about, which makes finding answers and proper treatments challenging. Unlike other body blemishes, the causes of dandruff are often misunderstood or completely ignored. As a common condition, it's something you just have to deal with, right? Wrong.


Dandruff is a common problem that affects half the population spanning gender and ethnicity. The difficulty is that what may irritate and itch one person's scalp may actually be a precursor to a more serious skin condition, such as eczema or psoriasis, in another. It wasn't until the 19th century that studies were done to investigate why dandruff occurs. Scalp dandruff is one of the most common ailments in which dermatological advice is sought. If you have dandruff, you are not alone. Knowing the facts will help you get back into your LBD sooner rather than later.

Why we feel icky about dandruff

Dandruff is common, so why do we still feel so icky about it? The social stigma around dandruff is often rooted more in myths and less in actual research. Dandruff is caused by skin that is too oily, dry, irritated, sensitive, or which has a build up of a yeast-like fungus called Malassezia. When Malassezia occurs, the skin of the scalp starts to flake. This can be detected by scalp irritation, white flakes in the hair, or, in severe cases, bumps along the hairline.


We tend to feel icky about dandruff because it doesn't always look the same; it affects different hair types, textures, and colors in multiple ways. For example, curly hair tends to show dandruff more prominently than straight hair due to its texture. This means you will always think that your dandruff is the worst when it's probably normal for your hair type. The silver lining to all of this is that, no matter your hair type, the underlying causes are the same for most people, with a few groups (men) slightly more prone to dandruff than others. So, if you understand some common misconceptions about dandruff, you'll be better equipped to tackle your own.

Myth: Dry skin is the culprit

Many of the myths we believe lead us to remedies that more often than not impede our intended outcome. Since there are no discernible benefits of dandruff, everyone is in the same boat when it comes to finding the root cause (no pun intended) of dandruff. Dry skin can be a contributing factor for dandruff, but people with oily hair and scalps can also have dandruff in what is an inflammatory scalp condition known as seborrheic dermatitis.


It seems logical to connect dry and itchy skin on your body with dryness on your scalp, but this is not always true. Before you assume the problem is dry skin and change your haircare routine, try making slight tweaks instead. For example, if you previously avoided wash day because you were worried about making your scalp too dry and exacerbating your dandruff, then try the opposite. Research suggests giving your hair a more frequent wash, aiming for every two to three days with a pH-balanced shampoo that ideally does not exceed a scalp pH of 5.5.

Myth: Dandruff is contagious

Dandruff might be unsightly, uncomfortable, and unwanted, but it's nothing to worry about in terms of contagion. You don't have to worry about catching dandruff from your hairstylist or a friend because it is a non-infectious condition related to the scalp's natural balance of microorganisms and oils. Sharing a hijab, brush, or hair accessory with someone who has dandruff won't affect you because there is no way to transmit or receive it under any circumstances.


Interestingly, dandruff cannot be transmitted from person to person because everyone already naturally carries the fungus Malassezia whether or not they have (visible) dandruff. Think of it as everyone has dandruff, but not everyone has symptoms. Moreover, dandruff is not caused by any viral or bacterial infection, which are the two main types of diseases that can be contagious. Rest assured you might be able to catch a cold or flu from your co-worker but definitely not dandruff.

Myth: Hygiene is the underlying problem that causes dandruff

Feeling that dandruff is embarrassing might come from this third common myth: Those with dandruff lack proper hygiene practices, and dandruff will never become a serious problem for those with a consistent wash-day cycle. Wrong, again. Dandruff can affect anyone regardless of hair-washing habits, making this myth untrue. This fallacy has especially caused people from low socioeconomic backgrounds to feel additionally stigmatized — not wanting to address their dandruff for fear of embarrassment.


Stereotypes about dandruff being related to poor hygiene have also harmed BIPOC communities, as some hair types, textures, and colors show dandruff more visibly. A study from the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology used a qualitative approach to survey over 200 women from Detroit, finding that 44% of African American women reported dandruff symptoms such as scalp itching and flakes. Dandruff affects about 50% of adults, and, as research has proven, race, ethnicity, hygiene practices, and socioeconomic status have nothing to do with it.

Myth: Fixing dandruff is always quick and easy

Dandruff has no known cure. Since everyone carries the fungus, its presence is usually a lifelong condition that flares up from time to time. Since no magic pill exists, managing dandruff and knowing your body and what works for you is the best way to approach the issue. While this news might be a bit unsavory, the upside is that dandruff can be managed with proper treatment, usually with simple tweaks to your haircare routine. To start, an over-the-counter (OTC) remedy or natural treatment might be the best choice because most mild dandruff can be controlled with a gentle shampoo to reduce scalp oil and buildup.


If you opt for an OTC shampoo treatment, make sure to check the label for the following active ingredients: selenium sulfide, pyrithione zinc, salicylic acid, and ketoconazole. Tea tree oil is another ingredient to look for in shampoo to relieve dandruff symptoms. Using just 5% tea tree oil shampoo can make a marked difference, plus it smells amazing!

Myth: Dandruff is only a seasonal problem

Dandruff is not just a seasonal problem and can occur any time of year. Depending on your body chemistry, you may not be affected by changes in temperature or humidity. Don't believe that dandruff is a winter problem because some people experience flare-ups during the colder seasons due to the dry air from indoor heat. The opposite is also true, as some find that the increased heat and sweat in the summer months can cause flare-ups. One solution is to get a humidifier to increase the water vapor in the air at home and ease weather-induced skin problems including scalp irritation.


Regardless of the season, if you experience dandruff, it's good to practice dandruff control self-care, as physicians from the American Academy of Dermatology Association suggest that, for Asian and Caucasian populations, washing hair with dandruff shampoo is recommended twice per week. This changes for BIPOC communities, where it's recommended to use dandruff shampoo only once per week because it's harsher on textured hair types. Those with light-colored hair, including blonde, gray, or white, should avoid anti-dandruff products containing coal tar. While great for fighting dandruff, coal tar can cause hair discoloration and increase scalp sensitivity to sunlight. Overall, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to dandruff. Just make sure you're making the right choices for your body chemistry, hair type, and lifestyle.


Myth: Dandruff is simply a cosmetic problem

Standing in the board room in your Steve Jobs-esque black turtleneck before a presentation only to find a dusting of dandruff on your shoulders probably isn't enticing. Imagining dandruff as part of your pitch meeting definitely ruins the girl-boss vibe you were going for. While dandruff is often seen as simply a cosmetic issue, it can also be an indication of a more serious health problem. According to dermatologist Ohara Aivaz of Cedars-Sinai, "Dandruff isn't usually a sign of something more serious, but if your scalp is red, tender, isn't responding to over-the-counter treatments, or appears to be infected, it's important to see your doctor right away."


The prevalence of dandruff exists for those who over wash and under wash their hair, but extreme dandruff can potentially be related to other health concerns. If you experience serious dandruff, there can be complications if left untreated; as with most medical issues, it's always better to air on the side of caution. Dandruff can lead to complications, such as hair loss, scalp infection, and allergic reactions, so, when in doubt, always seek medical attention from a dermatologist or healthcare provider.

Myth: Dandruff and lice are always connected

As horrible as dandruff may be, lice is far worse. The myth of a potential connection between the two doesn't stack up, as there is no direct correlation between dandruff and lice despite their similar symptoms and treatments. Lice is a temporary infestation of contagious parasites that live on the human scalp and feed on blood. Young children often get lice from school and daycare centers where there is close proximity and easy transfer from one person to another. Lice do not carry diseases such as mosquitoes, but they spread from human to human through close contact and sharing items, whether it be a towel, scarf, hat, or other piece of clothing. If you're guilty of sharing such items, be on the lookout for nits (lice eggs) on the hair shaft.


It's also important to be aware of the important differences between the two so you can better assess your own situation. For example, people with lice may experience a bacterial infection on their scalp causing flu-like symptoms with swollen lymph nodes behind the ears and on the neck. The color is also different; while dandruff always consists of white flakes, lice can be white, brown, or black depending on the maturity of the lice themselves. If you have lice, small black or brown spots will appear on the hair, not on the scalp where dandruff is most visible, so you should be able to tell the difference just by looking.

Myth: Dandruff is a dermatological issue not related to diet or stress

A big myth about dandruff is that it's simply a dermatological issue not affected by other lifestyle indicators. In truth, diet and stress can affect dandruff levels in a negative way. Diets high in saturated fat, sugar, and processed food can cause inflammation, therefore, increasing the risk of dandruff. So, if you have exhausted all options in managing your dandruff symptoms, review your diet and increase your intake of fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids.


Stress is another factor that is often overlooked, as stress is a silent killer. It's important to consider your stress level if and when you experience a dandruff flare-up. Stress disrupts the natural hormone balance of the body and increases levels of cortisol and the production of sebum, exacerbating cortisol production and symptoms of stress. Overall, eating a balanced diet and engaging in self-care practices to reduce stress are great first lines of defense against dandruff.

Myth: You must say goodbye to your favorite haircare products

Dandruff can be dramatic at times, but it doesn't have to be a death sentence for your favorite haircare products. Before you throw out your entire arsenal of products, don't assume they are the cause of your dandruff — remember that dandruff has multiple causes. However, if you have exhausted all other possibilities, there is a chance that the harsh chemicals are irritating your scalp. Ingredients including sulfates, alcohol, and fragrances can cause dryness and irritation, and the buildup of products such as hairspray, mousse, or gel can also be a factor.


Dandruff can be caused by allergies, and, while this is rare, it's not something to rule out entirely. Usually, the allergy is related to a haircare product that contains an irritant which causes dandruff-like symptoms. Therefore, the products themselves don't cause dandruff, but your body chemistry may be reacting to the products, causing an irritated scalp, flakes, and itchiness. If you think you might have an allergy to a new shampoo or styling product, opt for a hypoallergenic or fragrance-free version to alleviate symptoms.

Engage in scalp care to prevent dandruff

Now that we've busted the myths regarding dandruff, let's share a couple of helpful tips. A little prevention goes a long way, and giving your scalp some TLC from time to time is a good idea. Since everyone is susceptible to dandruff, taking care of your scalp is an excellent preventative measure. As our myth-busting has proven, taking care of your scalp can mean different things to different people depending on what your body and hair need. The three easiest things to do are wash your hair regularly to remove product buildup and excess oil, brush your hair consistently to move natural oils throughout the hair and reduce inflammation and yeast growth, and use a scalp treatment – one trick to treating dandruff.


Scalp treatments are available at a variety of beauty outlets and range in price to suit all budgets. Buyer beware: Always check for similar ingredients in a scalp shampoo as you would a scalp treatment. Salicylic acid, coal tar, and zinc pyrithione are words to watch for. Otherwise, you might be indulging in self-care but not doing anything to improve your dandruff.

Some au naturel dandruff relief

So, you have dandruff... now what? Dandruff treatment is often seen as only OTC shampoos when, in reality, there are many natural treatments for dandruff that you can try at home. Natural treatments can help manage dandruff but might not work for everyone and may not be as effective as medicated treatments from the pharmacy. If you prefer to go au naturel first, there are a few household ingredients that may be worth a try.


Studies have shown that natural oils, including olive oil and coconut oil, are a great way to moisturize and help reduce flakes. If you want to use coconut oil, apply it to your scalp and leave it on for an hour or overnight before washing it out with shampoo. This moisture burst will help two-fold, as coconut oil contains anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and anti-fungal properties. Plus, it smells and feels amazing!