Marked by itching and flaking skin on your scalp, dandruff is a common condition that is harmless but annoying. Symptoms tend to worsen in dry winter conditions and may improve during summer months.

The following sections offer detailed information for some common questions and different elements of dandruff.

There are a number of factors that can contribute to dandruff symptoms. The most common underlying reason for dandruff is dry skin resulting from dry air. A frequent cause is seborrheic dermatitis, which is basically an oily scalp condition that leads to larger white flakes or yellow scales from the uneven shedding and clumping of dead skin cells. Conditions such as eczemaand psoriasis can also contribute to itching, flaking and inflammation in the scalp area, as well as other parts of the body.

Dandruff can also simply stem from the overgrowth of a yeast-like fungus (malessezia) that normally lives on healthy scalps without causing any problem. The fungus feeds on oils produced by your scalp and it can cause itching and flaking symptoms.

Baby dandruff?

Babies can be affected by a form of dandruff too, called cradle cap. Seen most often in newborns and during infancy in general, it also involves a scaling scalp and some crusting. It is harmless and usually clears up by age one on its own.

Probably the most important thing to do for dandruff control is to shampoo frequently. People may think that a dry scalp causes flaking and that washing less often is the way to approach dandruff. In fact, it is an oily scalp that leads to clumping and uneven shedding of dead skin cells that result in unsightly flakes. Using a gentle shampoo daily can usually help mild cases of dandruff. If that does not work, there are many different dandruff treatment shampoos available in stores. Since the medicinal ingredients vary from one product* to another, you may have to try a few to find one that works best. Alternating the type of product you use may also help to achieve better results.

Coal tar (e.g. Neutrogena T/Gel, Denorex) works by slowing down skin cell turnover (how quick cells grow and slough off).

Salicylic acid (e.g. Sterex, Sebcur) is an exfoliating ingredient that helps to loosen and slough off dead skin cells to prevent clumping and flaking. The downside is that it can actually cause rebound scalp dryness.

Selenium sulphide (e.g. Selsun Blue, Versel) slows down skin cell turnover and may reduce fungal presence on scalp. The downside is that they can discolour blond, grey or colour-treated hair.

Ketoconazole (e.g. Nizoral) is another antifungal agent that reduces the amount of malessezia on the scalp.

Ciclopirox olamine (e.g. Loprox, Stieprox) is another antifungal agent that reduces the amount of malessezia on the scalp. It is available in prescription strength.

*Please note that the mention of a specific brand name does not constitute a recommendation for the product by the Canadian Dermatology Association.

Dandruff is usually an uncomplicated condition that can be effectively controlled with over-the-counter dandruff shampoos. However, if an itchy scalp persists despite using a dandruff-fighting shampoo for several weeks, or if you notice redness and swelling of the scalp, see your doctor. You may need a prescription-strength treatment shampoo.

Dandruff Facts
  • Dandruff is more common in younger people and usually resolves by around middle age, although it can persist into old age.
  • More men have dandruff than women, possibly due to hormones and an oilier scalp.
  • Stress can trigger or worsen dandruff.