7 Causes Of Dandruff To Know So You Can Stop The Flakes At The Source

Scalp health probably isn't on your radar unless you notice pesky dandruff flakes in your hair and on your shoulders. It's understandable; there are already a lot of skincare steps to tick off your list, from treating adult acne to keeping your legs moisturized post-shave. The top of your head just isn't top of mind (no pun intended) until those embarrassing white specks start making an appearance.

But besides being annoying, dandruff can majorly mess with your hair health. An itchy, irritated scalp can cause inflammation, according to MedicalNewsToday, which can slow down hair growth and weaken your locks. Over time, you may even notice hair loss after repeatedly scratching at the dry, flaky skin on your head. Translation: For healthy hair, it helps to have a healthy scalp, too.

Treating and preventing scalp issues requires an understanding of what causes dandruff in the first place. And dandruff doesn't have just one trigger — several factors can lead to the condition, which might be why it's so common (half of the population deals with dandruff, per Unilever). From bad hair habits to stress, here are some of the most common causes and how to fix them for a flake-free scalp.

Skipping shampoo

You've probably heard that you shouldn't wash your hair daily if you want a strong, healthy mane. But doing "no poo" several days in a row, and on a regular basis, might create the perfect environment for dandruff.

When you don't give your scalp a thorough cleanse, you're leaving behind dead skin and other residue, such as hair products and oil. Dove Hair Expert Dermatologist Dr. Francesca Fusco told InStyle, "The area where the hair emerges from the scalp can start to feel sore from the build-up of excess dead skin cells, and there's dandruff." At this point, you might make the mistake of assuming you shouldn't lather up your irritated scalp, but the opposite is true. "By not shampooing, you're making the situation worse," Dr. Fusco warned.

The easiest fix is to routinely wash your hair and scalp, but how often is often enough? There isn't a one-size-fits-all answer, but every two to three days is sufficient for most people, per WebMD. And while you're at it, consider swapping your regular shampoo for a dandruff-fighting one to keep flakes at bay.

Dry or dehydrated skin

It might come as no surprise that the white flakes falling from your scalp could be related to dry skin — after all, they tend to look and feel similar to those patches of dry skin you might find on your face or other parts of your body. According to Mayo Clinic, dandruff can be caused by dry skin, and a dry climate (such as during the winter) can exacerbate the condition. So while your hands may crack and your face may look dull, dryness or dehydration on the scalp can come in the form of peeling and shedding skin.

However, dry skin and dandruff aren't always synonymous. It's possible to have a dry scalp, where the skin lacks moisture, without having dandruff, which is often associated with a specific fungus called Malassezia (via Healthline). You can tell if your scalp issues are related to dryness by studying the appearance of your skin. If you already know you have a dry skin type and often suffer from a parched complexion, the white flakes on your head and shoulders may be caused by dry skin, too. Additionally, flakes from dryness tend to be smaller than ones caused by dandruff, which are often large and may have a yellow tint.

In either case, stick to a mild, moisturizing shampoo formulated for dandruff. It's also a good idea to keep your body hydrated inside and out by drinking plenty of water and using a humidifier during dry seasons.

Oily skin

Dandruff and dryness can sometimes go hand in hand, but that doesn't mean folks with oily skin can't suffer from dandruff, too. In fact, oily skin is a common culprit when it comes to scalp issues. Professor of dermatology and the chair of the department of dermatology at Wake Forest School of Medicine Dr. Amy McMichael explained to Everyday Health that excess oil can rev up cell renewal, causing specks of skin to flake off more rapidly than usual.

Sometimes, the roles are swapped and dandruff can actually be the cause of an oily scalp, notes Healthline. When this happens, scales stick to areas with a high concentration of oil glands until they eventually fall or are scratched off.

If you're dealing with oily dandruff, the American Academy of Dermatology Association suggests first visiting a dermatologist to rule out related conditions, such as psoriasis or rosacea. Outside of the doctor's office, use a shampoo that contains ​​piroctone olamine. "The hero active ingredient piroctone olamine transforms congested scalps," Head & Shoulders dermatologist Dr. Anjali Mahto noted to Cosmopolitan. A dandruff-friendly scalp scrub can also be used to slough off any remaining dead skin.

Heavy, irritating hair products

The heavy conditioner that keeps your locks silky smooth or the sticky hairspray you leaned on during your bouffant era may be non-negotiables in your beauty routine, but they could be contributing to pesky dandruff — or at least something that looks a lot like dandruff. "Oftentimes, our flakes are not dandruff but simply build-up from products that have ingredients that flake on the hair," certified trichologist Sophia Emmanuel told The Zoe Report. "Common hair products that cause flakes are products with hold such as gels, sprays, and mousses. Simply shampooing your hair with a clarifying shampoo, and discontinuing use of the product that causes build-up on the scalp, can help."

Hair products can also cause flakes if they irritate the scalp, according to MedicalNewsToday. If you notice dandruff, itchiness, redness, or other signs of irritation, switch to gentler products, and be careful to keep harsh skincare products (such as topical acne treatments) away from the hairline when possible.

Stress

You're probably already familiar with the unfortunate ways stress can wreak havoc on your body. From insomnia to tummy troubles, stress can do a number, and it can mess with your head, too — literally. "Stress can have far-reaching effects on the body, and many skin conditions, including dandruff, often flare during stressful times," dermatologist with telehealth service Apostrophe Dr. Maggie Kober revealed to Well + Good. "Stress can influence hormone levels, which in some people can affect sebum production on the scalp. Higher amounts of sebum production create a more conducive environment for Malassezia to grow and flourish." Stress also lowers immunity, making it easier for Malassezia to take over (via Healthline).

Since stress itself doesn't introduce dandruff-causing fungi to the scalp, lowering stress levels may not completely eliminate flakes and itch. Dandruff shampoos and prescription treatments may be required to stop dandruff in its tracks.

Still, managing stress can help ease symptoms and make Malassezia less likely to multiply. Not sure where to start? Consider reclaiming your morning routine for a more positive day or making time for a daily workout to shake off built-up tension.

Pollution and hard water

If your dandruff worsened after moving to a different home or city, your new environment may be to blame. Mumbai-based dermatologist Dr. Madhuri Agarwal told Vogue India that toxic particles in the air can do major damage to your scalp. "Pollutant chemicals like hydrocarbons can be absorbed by the scalp and lead to scalp build-up adding to dandruff," Dr. Agarwal explained. Her advice: Shield your head and hair with hats and scarves when possible. You can also try running an air purifier in your home to give delicate skin a break.

Besides air pollution, water may also be the reason for your scalp woes. According to Healthline, hard water — that is, water heavy in minerals like magnesium — can create a barrier against moisture, leading to a dry, unhappy scalp (not to mention your hair will likely suffer too). If your shower water is on the harder side, try installing a water softener on your shower head to limit exposure to heavy minerals.

Medical conditions

Sometimes, skin problems can offer insight into your overall health, and a flaky scalp could point to an underlying medical condition that requires your attention. For starters, skin shedding from the scalp and other areas of the body may be a symptom of another skin condition, such as psoriasis, eczema, ringworm, or acne (via MedicalNewsToday). If you notice skin irritation in addition to those pesky flakes, be sure to see a dermatologist for a proper diagnosis.

Other medical conditions that may also be associated with dandruff include Parkinson's disease, HIV, epilepsy, vitamin deficiencies, and recovery from a recent stroke or heart attack. Some mental health conditions, too, can up your chances of suffering from dandruff, such as depression.

Dandruff shampoo may help at first, but it won't get to the root of the problem if another condition is at play. If your flakes don't subside or if they get worse with time, make an appointment with your doctor to get your scalp and overall health back on track.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.