Why does your scalp flake?

You’re getting ready to go out on a date and put on your favorite dark-colored outfit before brushing your hair. When you’re finished, you notice that you shoulder has lots of little white flakes on it. What is causing them? How can you stop it from happening?


Dandruff is a condition in which the skin on your scalp flakes. It can have several causes, including irritated skin, oily skin, dry skin, not shampooing enough, sensitivity to hair care products, a yeast-like fungus (malassezia) that feeds on the oils of the scalp or other skin conditions (ex. eczema or psoriasis). It’s not considered serious or contagious, but can be embarrassing to deal with. Symptoms can include an itchy scalp and skin flakes on your scalp, hair, eyebrows, beard/mustache and shoulder. In infants, it can look like a scaly, crusty scalp and is known as cradle cap. Typically, symptoms are worse when you’re stressed or in a cold, dry environment.

Anyone can have dandruff. However, some things can make it worse. It usually appears in young adulthood and continues through middle age, so if you’re in this age range then you’re more likely to experience it. Since male hormones are thought to play a role in the development of it, if you’re a man, you’re chances of having dandruff are higher. Diseases that affected the nervous systems, like Parkinson’s, or the immune system, such as HIV, seem to increase the chances of having dandruff.

TreatmentFast Facts - Dandruff

The best initial treatment for dandruff is to wash your hair daily with a gentle shampoo. This will help to decrease oil and skin cell buildup. If this doesn’t work, you can try over-the-counter medicated shampoos. Often it takes trying several different shampoos to find the one that works best for you. Sometimes, the effectiveness of one shampoo wears off over time, so you might need to alternate between two different ones. It’s vital to follow the directions listed on the bottle because some products need to be left on your head for a few minutes and others need to be rinsed off immediately.

Dandruff shampoos are sorted into groups based off of the medication in them. Pyrithione zinc shampoos have antibacterial and antifungal agents in them. Tar-based shampoos help to slow how quickly skin cells on your scalp die and flake off. It’s important to note that these products can cause discoloration to light-colored hair and increase sensitivity of your scalp to sunlight. Salicylic acid shampoos help to get rid of scales. Selenium sulfide shampoos have an antifungal agent in them, but are known to discolor the hair and scalp. Ketoconazole shampoos are designed to kill any dandruff-causing fungi that live on your scalp.

Typically, you will use a medicated shampoo one to three times a week to start. Once your dandruff is under control, you should only need to use the shampoo once a week at most in order to maintain and prevent further dandruff. If you’ve used medicated shampoos for several weeks with no change, talk to your doctor or dermatologist (skin doctor). They can prescribe a prescription-strength shampoo or steroid lotion.


Unfortunately, there isn’t any particular way to prevent dandruff from occurring. The best thing you can do is manage stress and eat a healthy diet. It’s also helpful to wash your hair daily, especially if you have an oily scalp. Try to limit the amount of hair products you use since these can build up on your scalp. There is some thought that sunlight might be beneficial in controlling dandruff. So, exposing your head to sunlight might decrease it, but don’t sunbathe and apply sunscreen to your face and body.

Dandruff can be annoying, but there are ways to treat it. If you have any questions or concerns about dandruff, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the American Academy of Dermatology’s dandruff page at https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/hair-scalp-care/scalp/treat-dandruff