This Common Hair Problem Has a Different Cause Than You Might Think

Most of us experience dandruff, but do you know why it happens and how to treat it?
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Lilly Bozzone
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Most of us experience dandruff, but do you know why it happens and how to treat it?

Did you know that one out of two people experience dandruff? That’s 50 percent of us, people! What's even more surprising is that most of us have been blaming our itchy scalps on dry skin or product irritation. But dandruff can be caused by external factors like pollution, stress, seasonal changes—and fungus. (Yes, you read that right.)

If you suffer from dandruff, it's from the presence of fungus on your scalp. Now, before you freak out à la 2007 Britney Spears, rest assured that this is completely normal. In fact, we all have a little fungi. It's called Malassezia, and it lives off the oil on our scalps and produces a substance that can cause inflammation. 

Admittedly, it's pretty creepy to think of fungus living rent-free on our heads, so we chatted with Dr. Ilyse Lefkowicz, a dermatologist from Head & Shoulders, to give us the scoop on our fungal roomies. 

Lefkowicz explains that the Malassezia produces a substance "which causes inflammation, irritation and an increased turnover of skin cells." These cells clump together making the flaky, white scales that you find on your scalp, in your hair, and floating down onto your shoulders like a snowy afternoon in December. 

So why do some people suffer more from dandruff than others? Well, these are people who have a stronger allergic reaction to the Malassezia, and their skin becomes inflamed much easier. Genetic susceptibility naturally plays a role, but so does excess oil production and a humid environment. Malassezia is a part of the yeast family, and we all know yeast's absolute favorite environment: warm, dark, and damp. 

So while you were applying oily hair masks and avoiding showers in the hopes of bringing moisture back to your seemingly dry scalp, you were actually creating an ideal environment for the Malassezia to thrive. Lefkowicz explains that it's a common misconception that poor hygiene or dry scalp is the cause of dandruff, but "dandruff is actually condition that can develop on even the cleanest scalp."

Don't worry, we're not just going to leave you with this Twilight Zone-worthy tidbit of knowledge to keep you up at night. There is something you can do to combat the flakes. Meet your new super hero, Zinc Pyrithione, a.k.a, "ZPT." Zinc Pyrithione is exactly what it sounds like, zinc. This coordinated complex of zinc inhibits the division of fungal and bacterial cells, thus reducing the production of Malassezia. While there is no way to completely eradicate this scalp inhabiting fungus, shampoos that contain ZPT will reduce Malassezia and the irritation it causes. 

While it's really completely normal to have Malassezia on your scalp, if you're suffering from the constant irritation from dandruff, you might impact the health of your scalp and hair from excessive scratching. Lefkowicz explains that it's important to care for and nourish your scalp and prevent Malassezia if it's causing you discomfort and impacting your scalp and hair health. Use shampoos with ZPT in them, but make sure to follow up with matching conditioner. A regular cosmetic conditioner could wash out the ZPT. We suggest trying Head & Shoulders Nourishing Collection, Kiehl's Scalp Purifying Anti-Dandruff, or Matrix Biolage Anti-Dandruff Shampoo. Shampoos containing tea tree oil have also been shown to combat flakes thanks to the oil's antifungal properties. 

Household items like baking soda and apple cider vinegar have also been touted as remedies because they make it harder for yeast to thrive. Baking soda can be massaged into the scalp and then rinsed. The vinegar should be mixed with water, spritz on, and left to sit for fifteen minutes. Rinse and repeat a couple times a week. 

See? The cause of our dandruff isn't so bad! And knowing that half of us are dealing with it should make it a little easier to face. 

Photo Credit: Olivia Leigh