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What Causes Dandruff? Everything You Need to Know About Dandruff (and How to Treat It) Dandruff is equally likely to form on an oily scalp, not just a dry one


woman with dandruff on hair

Dandruff is an incredibly common problem, and yet there’s such stigma to it. Anyone who has had to live with the constant flaking knows how embarrassing it can be. What’s more, for a condition that is experienced by almost everyone at some point in their lives, not only is there no cure for dandruff, so little is understood about it – to this day, the exact cause is unknown. What exactly is dandruff? How is dandruff formed and why do you have it? Read on for the most commonly asked questions about this head-scratching problem.


1. What is dandruff?

Skin cells, including those on our scalp, are constantly growing and shedding as they are replaced. Dandruff is formed when skin cells divide at a faster rate than they are shed. The overgrowth of cells build up on the scalp before flaking off into those telltale white bits that are so hard to live with. Exactly what causes skin cells to grow and die more rapidly is not clear.


2. Why do I have dandruff?

It’s a common misconception that dandruff is related to scalp dryness. The truth is, just like acne, dandruff can occur on both dry and oily scalps.  Many factors come into play, including the scalp’s pH balance, hormonal influences, medical conditions, hair products, stress levels, hygiene and a yeast called Malassezia that naturally exists on the scalp.  

Malassezia can be found on everyone and by itself, it is harmless. It’s when a person is sensitive to it that the body reacts by growing extra skin cells, which then accumulate and flake off. Unfortunately, as many as 50 percent of us are sensitive to Malassezia but it is still not fully understood how that reaction is triggered. At the same time, some people are more genetically predisposed than others to flaking, which could explain why you and multiple members in your family grapple with the same dandruff problem.

On top of that, Malassezia feeds off sebum produced by the skin, hence they thrive on oily scalps. What happens is that the fungus takes in sebum and excretes end products onto the scalp that could potentially irritate the scalp skin. Dandruff is formed as a result, and sufferers have to deal with familiar symptoms like itching and flaking. On dry scalps, dandruff tends to be wispier or powdery, and dislodge easily. Those with greasier scalps will find flakes sticking to the scalp or hair.   

Then there is seborrheic dermatitis, a condition that causes rough, scaly skin on the scalp and face, especially in areas with active sebaceous glands like the sides of the nose or behind the ears. The scalp will also feel uncomfortably tight and red due to inflammation. The flakes that result from the problem are often yellowish, sticky and cling to the scalp.


3. Is bad hygiene the main cause of dandruff?

woman scratching her hair

The belief that bad hygiene directly causes dandruff is one reason why the condition is so embarrassing – if someone has dandruff, it must mean that the person is “dirty” and not washing his or her hair enough. The truth is, not shampooing is not going to cause dandruff. But if you already have a dandruff condition, then yes, inadequate scalp cleansing is going to worsen the problem. What’s more, dandruff can be caused by not thoroughly rinsing out your shampoo, conditioner or hair treatments as, over time, this results in a buildup of unhealthy product residue on the scalp. So it pays off to rinse thoroughly in the shower.


4. So how do I treat dandruff?

Daily Home Care Regime:

There are many scalp problems that can be aggravated by over-enthusiastic shampooing, but dandruff is not of them. In fact, it is one condition that can be controlled with proper, daily scalp cleansing using the right products. Look for shampoos containing anti-dandruff ingredients such as zinc pyrithione or selenium sulfide – these help to slow the rate at which skin cells die and flake off.

Alternatively, invest in specialised care products such as the  designed for dandruff-prone and oily scalps. It removes unsightly flakes and excess sebum without drying out the scalp. Follow with the ADV Purify Tonic to regulate sebum production and to eliminate dandruff-causing microbes on a daily basis.

Anti-dandruff shampoos work on the scalp, so be sure to massage your shampoo of choice directly onto the scalp with your fingers to give it a good cleansing. Also, stick to lukewarm water as heat can disrupt the scalp’s moisture barrier, cause irritation and lead to inflammation. Once you have the dandruff under control, it’s okay to switch to another shampoo that targets other hair concerns, such as anti-ageing or chemical damage, as long as you keep the anti-dandruff shampoo in rotation at least once or twice a week to keep flare ups under control.

woman shampooing her hair in bathroom

Weekly Home Care Regime:

Just like how the skin is fresher, smoother and more radiant with regular exfoliation, the scalp also benefits from exfoliation one to three times a week. The process gently lifts and removes flakes and helps to normalise skin cell turnover. Scalp exfoliation speeds up recovery from dandruff and also helps prevent them. Try a product with salicylic acid or hydrocortisone, or a premium scalp primer like the ADV Elixir, which not only exfoliates but also nourishes the scalp, leaving it in tip-top shape to absorb nutrients and treatment benefits.

Professional Treatment:

PHS Advance Scalp Repair Treatment

Left untreated, dandruff can lead to or worsen hair fall while thick, scaly patches can smother hair follicles and cause hair loss. At the same time, an unhealthy scalp can cause hair thinning due to less-than-optimal hair growth. Mild cases of dandruff can easily be taken care of with a proper home care regime using the right products. If your anti-dandruff shampoo does nothing to improve the condition after two weeks to a month, however, it’s time to seek professional help.

One option is the Advance Scalp Repair Treatment from PHS HAIRSCIENCE®, a customised scalp treatment that for individuals with dandruff, oily scalp or scalp sensitivity. By purifying and rebalancing the scalp, as well as boosting its natural immunity, the 150-minute treatment helps to prevent inflammation and curb dandruff flare-ups.