Dandruff is a common condition that causes the skin on the scalp to flake. It isn't contagious or serious. But it can be embarrassing and difficult to treat.
Mild dandruff can be treated with a gentle daily shampoo. If that doesn't work, a medicated shampoo may help. Symptoms may return later.
Dandruff is a mild form of seborrheic dermatitis.
Dandruff signs and symptoms may include:
The signs and symptoms may be more severe if you're stressed, and they tend to flare in cold, dry seasons.
Most people with dandruff don't require a doctor's care. See your primary care doctor or a doctor who specializes in skin conditions (dermatologist) if your condition doesn't improve with regular use of dandruff shampoo.
Dandruff may have several causes, including:
Almost anyone can have dandruff, but certain factors can make you more susceptible:
A doctor can often diagnose dandruff simply by looking at your hair and scalp.
The itching and flaking of dandruff can almost always be controlled. For mild dandruff, first try regular cleansing with a gentle shampoo to reduce oil and skin cell buildup. If that doesn't help, try a medicated dandruff shampoo. Some people can tolerate using a medicated shampoo two to three times a week, with regular shampooing on other days if needed. People with drier hair would benefit from less frequent shampooing and a moisturizing conditioner for the hair or scalp.
Hair and scalp products, both medicated and nonmedicated, are available as solutions, foams, gels, sprays, ointments and oils. You may need to try more than one product to find the routine that works for you. And you'll likely need repeated or long-term treatment.
If you develop itching or stinging from any product, stop using it. 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. Some are available in stronger formulations by prescription.
If one type of shampoo works for a time and then seems to lose its effectiveness, try alternating between two types of dandruff shampoos. Once your dandruff is under control, try using the medicated shampoo less frequently for maintenance and prevention.
Read and follow the directions on each bottle of shampoo you try. Some products need to be left on for a few minutes, while others need to be rinsed off quickly.
If you've used medicated shampoo regularly for several weeks and still have dandruff, talk to your doctor or dermatologist. You may need a prescription-strength shampoo or a steroid lotion.
You can take steps to reduce your risk of developing dandruff or to control it:
Tea tree oil is included in a number of shampoos, but there is no strong evidence to support its use for dandruff control. It comes from the leaves of the Australian tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) and has been used for centuries as an antiseptic, antibiotic and antifungal agent. The oil may cause allergic reactions in some people.
You don't need any special preparations for an appointment to diagnose dandruff. Your doctor will likely be able to diagnose your dandruff 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, which help in determining the cause of your dandruff.
© 1998-2021 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved.