Dandruff is a common chronic scalp condition marked by itching and flaking of the skin on your scalp. Although dandruff isn't contagious and is rarely serious, it can be embarrassing and sometimes difficult to treat.
The good news is that dandruff usually can be controlled. Mild cases of dandruff may need nothing more than daily shampooing with a gentle cleanser. More stubborn cases of dandruff often respond to medicated shampoos.
For most teens and adults, dandruff symptoms are easy to spot: white, oily looking flakes of dead skin that dot your hair and shoulders, and an itchy, scaling scalp. The condition may worsen during the fall and winter, when indoor heating can contribute to dry skin, and improve during the summer.
A type of dandruff called cradle cap can affect babies. This disorder, which causes a scaling, crusty scalp, is most common in newborns, but it can occur anytime during infancy. Although it can be alarming for parents, cradle cap isn't dangerous and usually clears up on its own by the time a baby is a year old.
When to see a doctor
Dandruff can have several causes, including:
Almost anyone can have dandruff, but certain factors can make you more susceptible:
Preparing for your appointment
You don't need any special preparations for an appointment to diagnose dandruff. Your doctor should be able to diagnose your dandruff and its cause simply by looking at your scalp and skin. If you've started using any new hair care products, bring the bottles with you to your appointment or be prepared to tell your doctor about them, so he or she can determine whether the products may be causing your dandruff.
Treatments and drugs
Dandruff can almost always be controlled, but dandruff treatment may take a little patience and persistence. In general, daily cleansing with a gentle shampoo to reduce oiliness and skin cell buildup can often help mild dandruff.
When regular shampoos fail, OTC dandruff shampoos may succeed. But dandruff shampoos aren't all alike, and you may need to experiment until you find one that works for you. If you develop itching, stinging, redness or burning from any of these products, discontinue use. If you develop an allergic reaction, such as a rash, hives or difficulty breathing, seek immediate medical attention.
Dandruff shampoos are classified according to the medication they contain:
Try using one of these shampoos daily or every other day until your dandruff is controlled; then cut back to two or three times a week, as needed. If one type of shampoo works for a time and then seems to lose its effectiveness, try alternating between two types of dandruff shampoos. Be sure to massage the shampoo into the scalp well and then leave the shampoo on for at least five minutes — this gives the ingredients time to work.
If you've shampooed faithfully for several weeks and there's still a dusting of dandruff on your shoulders, talk to your doctor or dermatologist. You may need a prescription-strength shampoo or treatment with a steroid lotion.
Lifestyle and home remedies
In addition to regular shampooing, you can take steps to reduce your risk of developing dandruff:
One alternative therapy that seems to reduce dandruff is daily shampooing with tea tree oil. Tea tree oil, which comes from the leaves of the Australian tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia), has been used for centuries as an antiseptic, antibiotic and antifungal agent. It's now included in a number of shampoos found in natural foods stores. The oil may cause allergic reactions in some people.
Last Updated: 2010-11-23
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