Summer Vs. Winter Dandruff: The Differences & How To Treat Both

If you've ever had a bad case of dandruff, you know how embarrassing it can be when you notice those white flakes on your shoulders. But even if you're using over-the-counter dandruff shampoo, the changing seasons might be working against you. When the temperature dips, the drier air can irritate the skin on your scalp and increase shedding, but you can also develop dandruff during the summer because it's not primarily linked to dry skin — dandruff stems from the growth of fungus. And when oil builds up on your scalp, dead skin cells can also accumulate, and the combination can result in those unsightly white flakes (per Medical News Today).

In many instances, people believe that they can resolve their dandruff issue by simply addressing dryness. However, the condition requires more than just a moisturizing product for the scalp. Over-the-counter shampoos and conditioners might promise to eliminate the problem, but depending on the severity of your case, they may not be a viable solution. A dermatologist can provide more insight into any underlying conditions that may be contributing to your flakes, but familiarizing yourself with the common causes can also help you find the most effective treatment. In the end, you'll be able to eliminate the frustration and embarrassment.

The causes of winter dandruff

If you experience dandruff in the winter, dry air could make the situation worse — but it may not necessarily be the root issue. "Dandruff is primarily caused by a yeast that proliferates on the skin, especially in oily areas," board-certified dermatologist Muneeb Shah told Well+Good. "By proliferating, it creates a lot of inflammation on the scalp and it starts to scale as a result." Shah went on to explain that although a dry scalp can contribute to the flakes you're seeing on your shoulders, the actual cause is likely excessive amounts of yeast. For this reason, all of those moisturizing shampoos and conditioners you're using could also be making the problem worse.

The essential oils that are included in these products, for instance, might be causing further scalp irritation. Certain oils, like olive oil, are also known to fuel the growth of yeast. "If the flakes are caused by an oily scalp and yeast or fungus are a factor, applying more occlusives or emollients is not the answer as it may exacerbate the condition," hair transplant surgeon Dr. Rae Lynne Kilner explained to Well+Good.

If you begin to experience dandruff in the winter, take a look at the hair care products you're using. Depending on their ingredients, you might want to scale back your usage. A shampoo with alcohol and sulfates, for instance, might be worsening your winter dandruff. Similarly, phthalates can be drying, which is an issue if you already have a dry scalp.

The culprit behind summer dandruff

In the warm weather, you may not experience a dry scalp, but that doesn't mean that you won't have dandruff. Because it's usually fueled by yeast and your skin's natural oils, the problem may even worsen in the summer months when temperatures rise and you're more prone to sweating and oil production. The build-up of oil and yeast — typically a group of fungi called Malassezia, per Head & Shoulders — can spur the abundance of dandruff.

Many people also now choose to skip shampooing daily in an attempt to maintain the health of their hair. While you might not feel the need to use shampoo every time you hit the shower, shampooing too infrequently can also allow the yeast and oil to accumulate. This ultimately worsens your dandruff situation, which may begin to manifest as yellow, oily scales on your scalp. Luckily, there are some over-the-counter hair products — namely shampoos — that can help you get control of the situation.

"The best anti-dandruff shampoo contains antifungal, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory ingredients," board-certified dermatologist Yoram Harth told Health. "For mild dandruff, look for shampoos that contain pyrithione zinc and salicylic acid. For severe dandruff, look for shampoos that contain ketoconazole." You can also look for products that contain antioxidants to help maintain the strength and moisture of your hair. 

How hair products can contribute to dandruff

Whether dandruff is a problem for you in the winter and summer months (or both), the hair products you regularly use could be to blame. For example, products that are meant to be sprayed onto your hair might contain alcohol, which is known to cause dryness. When your skin detects dryness, it's encouraged to create more natural oil — a recipe for the buildup and yeast growth that spurs dandruff. When you're experiencing a bout of those white flakes, steering clear of these drying hair products until it's under control can speed up the treatment process.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, oil-based hair products — such as those designed to moisturize your tresses and scalp — could also be contributing to your dandruff. When your scalp is already over-producing natural oils, adding these ingredients on top is likely fueling the problem. "Over-treating the scalp with conditioners or oil-based hair products may exacerbate dandruff," board-certified dermatologist Deanne Mraz Robinson told Allure. "Hair-care products can add to the buildup of skin cells, sebum, and the active ingredients from the products themselves. Cool it on the hair products until the flare is under control, and slowly introduce them back in."

Is weather a determining factor in dandruff build-up?

Hair products play a role in the development of dandruff, but weather can't be entirely ruled out as a factor. The dry air that moves in during the winter can sap the moisture from your scalp, resulting in small, white flakes. However, it's important to note that these flakes differ from those that develop as a result of oil build-up — they're usually less greasy and yellow in color, according to Everyday Health. If you think that your dandruff is a result of cold weather and dryness, you might want to look for natural oils to add moisture to your scalp. "Jojoba oil has a similar structure to your natural oils, so it's specifically an amazing moisturizer," trichologist Dominic Burg told BuzzFeed.

Alternatively, warm weather can encourage the development of dandruff as well, but it's usually the heavier, greasier flakes as a result of oil buildup. When you sweat in the heat, yeast is able to thrive and grow on your oily scalp. "Being in moist, humid, warm environments foster the growth of Malassezia," board-certified dermatologist Deanne Mraz Robinson told Allure. "Especially if you're already prone to dandruff, it can be an exacerbating factor." If this seems to be the case for you — particularly when the weather is warm in the summer — try shampooing daily with a product that is formulated for dandruff.

When is the right time to see a doctor for dandruff?

If you've been living with dandruff periodically for months, you might start to wonder if the condition is something worth mentioning to your doctor. In any situation in which you feel that your health is at risk, it's always a good idea to contact a medical professional. But it may feel unnecessary to contact a doctor about those little white flakes on your shoulder — so when is it acceptable to seek medical treatment for dandruff?

Of course, many dandruff-relieving shampoos and treatment options can be found over the counter. If you follow the instructions and still don't experience relief, Mayo Clinic recommends alternating between different types — dandruff shampoos contain varying ingredients to address different issues, from killing the fungus to slowing the shedding of skin cells. Read the labels and try a combination of products to see if you can gain control of the situation.

In addition, considering other lifestyle factors that may be contributing to the dandruff might help. For example, Cedars Sinai notes that stress can exacerbate dandruff, as well as too little sun exposure — reducing your stress level and getting a little sun to discourage the fungal growth (while still protecting your scalp from harmful ultraviolet rays, of course) can minimize the development of flakes. If these steps don't result in a decrease in dandruff, contact your doctor or a dermatologist for more insight into the best possible treatment.