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Dandruff: Causes, symptoms, and treatments

Duncan Reid: Patient Safety & Professional Services Manager | minute read

Although it’s not a harmful condition, dandruff can be a source of embarrassment and negatively impact our self-confidence. It’s a common complaint that’s estimated to affect up to 50% of the general population. The good news is that it can be effectively managed with the right treatment. In this article, we look at what exactly dandruff is, what causes the condition, and how you can treat it.

What is dandruff?

Dandruff is the term used to describe flaky skin that breaks off from the scalp and can leave a residue of dead skin on the shoulders. It can also cause the scalp to itch and feel quite dry. Certain causes of dandruff can also lead to redness and irritation.

What causes dandruff?

There are several different causes of dandruff. It’s often a symptom of an existing skin condition such as seborrheic or contact dermatitis, eczema, or psoriasis. The scalp can be affected by these conditions and like other affected areas, the skin here can become dry, cracked, and flaky. You might also experience tenderness and inflammation as a result of itching and cracking.

Conditions such as ringworm can also contribute to dandruff. Ringworm is a fungal infection that commonly forms a rash. This rash can develop across different areas of the body and become dry and itchy. If it forms on the scalp, this can also result in temporary, patchy hair loss.

Cradle cap is a common condition in babies that results in dry, scaly, flaky skin on the head and face. These scaly skin patches break up and flake off, causing dandruff.

If you do experience dandruff, environmental factors such as stress and cold weather can make it worse.

How can I treat dandruff?

The most common form of treatment for dandruff is a specialist shampoo containing one of several ingredients to help treat and prevent dandruff. You can purchase anti-dandruff shampoo from our online pharmacy shop or at your local supermarket.

How does anti dandruff shampoo work?

Depending on the shampoo you choose, it will contain an ingredient with properties known for helping to reduce and prevent dandruff. Brands like Neutrogena and Polytar use coal tar in their medicated shampoos for example. Coal tar can reduce dead skin build up on the scalp and help to soothe itching due to its anti-inflammatory effects. Other brands such as Nizoral use the ingredient ketoconazole to treat dandruff. This is an antifungal medicine that works by interrupting fungal cell growth. Other ingredients that can be effective in treating dandruff include salicylic acid, zinc pyrithione, and selenium sulphide/sulfide. Follow the instructions for use and if you have any questions or concerns about using your chosen product, talk to a pharmacist. You may need to try a few different shampoos if you don’t notice an improvement after one month of use.

If you suspect you might have ringworm (most commonly characterised by a circular rash), have a chat with your pharmacist as they’ll be able to confirm the best course of treatment.

To treat flaky skin caused by cradle cap in infants, the NHS advises using a non-fragranced baby shampoo to wash your baby’s scalp after gently brushing with a soft-bristled brush. You can also use an emollient to lightly massage the affected area. This can help to loosen scaly patches of skin and promote healing. It’s important not to pick or rub at the patches as this can make them sore and increase the risk of infection. Cradle cap is harmless and typically goes away in around 6-12 months.

If you’re still experiencing dandruff after one month of using a medicated anti-dandruff shampoo, or the itching and/or redness is getting worse, speak to your GP who can investigate if there’s another cause and look at different treatment options.