Other namesPityriasis capitis, pityriasis sicca[1]
A microscopic image of human dandruff
SymptomsItchy and flaking skin of the scalp[2][1]
Usual onsetPuberty[1]
CausesGenetic and environmental factors[1]
Diagnostic methodBased on symptoms[3]
Differential diagnosisPsoriasis, dermatitis, tinea capitis[2][1]
MedicationAntifungal cream (ketoconazole), salicylic acid[2][1]
Frequency~50% of adults[1]

Dandruff is a skin condition that mainly affects the scalp.[1] Symptoms include flaking and sometimes mild itchiness.[1][2] It can result in social or self-esteem problems.[4] A more severe form of the condition, which includes inflammation of the skin, is known as seborrhoeic dermatitis.[1]

The cause is unclear, but believed to involve a number of genetic and environmental factors;[1] the condition may worsen in the winter.[5] It is not due to poor hygiene,[6] and the underlying mechanism involves the excessive growth of skin cells.[5] Diagnosis is based on symptoms.[3]

There is no known cure for dandruff.[7] Antifungal cream, such as ketoconazole, or salicylic acid may be used to try to improve the condition.[1][2] Dandruff affects about half of adults, with males more often affected than females.[1] In addition, people in all areas of the world are affected.[1] Onset is usually at puberty, and it becomes less common after the age of 50.[1]

Signs and symptoms

The main symptoms of dandruff are an itchy scalp and flakiness.[8] Red and greasy patches of skin and a tingly feeling on the skin are also symptoms.[9]


Dandruff with hair can be with dry skin.

The cause is unclear but believed to involve a number of genetic and environmental factors.[6]

As the skin layers continually replace themselves, cells are pushed outward where they die and flake off. For most individuals, these flakes of skin are too small to be visible. However, certain conditions cause cell turnover to be unusually rapid, especially in the scalp. It is hypothesized that for people with dandruff, skin cells may mature and be shed in two to seven days, as opposed to around a month in people without dandruff. The result is that dead skin cells are shed in large, oily clumps, which appear as white or grayish flakes on the scalp, skin and clothes.

According to one study, dandruff has been shown to be possibly the result of three factors:[10]

  1. Skin oil, commonly referred to as sebum or sebaceous secretions[11]
  2. The metabolic by-products of skin micro-organisms (most specifically Malassezia yeasts)[12][13][14][15][16]
  3. Individual susceptibility and allergy sensitivity.


Older literature cites the fungus Malassezia furfur (previously known as Pityrosporum ovale) as the cause of dandruff. While this species does occur naturally on the skin surface of people both with and without dandruff, in 2007, it was discovered that the responsible agent is a scalp specific fungus, Malassezia globosa,[17] that metabolizes triglycerides present in sebum by the expression of lipase, resulting in a lipid byproduct: oleic acid. During dandruff, the levels of Malassezia increase by 1.5 to 2 times its normal level.[5] Oleic acid penetrates the top layer of the epidermis, the stratum corneum, and evokes an inflammatory response in susceptible people which disturbs homeostasis and results in erratic cleavage of stratum corneum cells.[14]

Seborrhoeic dermatitis

In seborrhoeic dermatitis, redness and itching frequently occur around the folds of the nose and eyebrow areas, not just the scalp. Dry, thick, well-defined lesions consisting of large, silvery scales may be traced to the less common condition of scalp psoriasis. Inflammation can be characterized by redness, heat, pain or swelling, and can cause sensitivity.

Inflammation and extension of scaling outside the scalp exclude the diagnosis of dandruff from seborrhoeic dermatitis.[11] However, many reports suggest a clear link between the two clinical entities - the mildest form of the clinical presentation of seborrhoeic dermatitis as dandruff, where the inflammation is minimal and remains subclinical.[18][19]

Seasonal changes, stress, and immunosuppression seem to affect seborrheic dermatitis.[5]


Dandruff scale is a cluster of corneocytes, which have retained a large degree of cohesion with one another and detach as such from the surface of the stratum corneum. A corneocyte is a protein complex that is made of tiny threads of keratin in an organised matrix.[20] The size and abundance of scales are heterogeneous from one site to another and over time. Parakeratotic cells often make up part of dandruff. Their numbers are related to the severity of the clinical manifestations, which may also be influenced by seborrhea.[5]


Ketoconazole (Nizoral) shampoo

Shampoos use a combination of special ingredients to control dandruff.[21]


Antifungal treatments including ketoconazole, zinc pyrithione and selenium disulfide have been found to be effective.[8] Ketoconazole appears to have a longer duration of effect.[8] Ketoconazole is a broad spectrum antimycotic agent that is active against Candida and M. furfur. Of all the antifungals of the imidazole class, ketoconazole has become the leading contender among treatment options because of its effectiveness in treating seborrheic dermatitis as well.[5]

Ciclopirox (topical route) may also be used as an anti-dandruff agent.[22][23][24] However, it is mostly sold as cream and its main use is for treating athlete's foot, jock itch, and ringworm.[25]

Coal tar

Coal tar causes the skin to shed dead cells from the top layer and slows skin cell growth.[26]


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word dandruff is first attested in 1545, but is still of unknown etymology.[27]


  1. Tucker D, Masood S (August 2021). "Seborrheic Dermatitis". StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. PMID 31869171.
  2. "Dandruff". nhs.uk. 18 October 2017. Retrieved 1 January 2020.
  3. "Patient education: Seborrheic dermatitis (including dandruff and cradle cap) (Beyond the Basics)". www.uptodate.com. Retrieved 1 January 2020.
  4. Grimalt R (December 2007). "A practical guide to scalp disorders". The Journal of Investigative Dermatology. Symposium Proceedings. 12 (2): 10–14. doi:10.1038/sj.jidsymp.5650048. PMID 18004290.
  5. Ranganathan S, Mukhopadhyay T (2010). "Dandruff: the most commercially exploited skin disease". Indian Journal of Dermatology. 55 (2): 130–134. doi:10.4103/0019-5154.62734. PMC 2887514. PMID 20606879.
  6. "Dandruff: How to treat". American Academy of Dermatology. Archived from the original on 21 October 2017. Retrieved 20 October 2017.
  7. Turkington C, Dover JS (2007). The Encyclopedia of Skin and Skin Disorders (Third ed.). Facts On File, Inc. p. 100. ISBN 978-0-8160-6403-8. Archived from the original on 19 May 2016.
  8. Turner GA, Hoptroff M, Harding CR (August 2012). "Stratum corneum dysfunction in dandruff". International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 34 (4): 298–306. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2494.2012.00723.x. PMC 3494381. PMID 22515370.
  9. "What Is Dandruff? Learn All About Dandruff". Medical News Today. Archived from the original on 10 August 2015.
  10. DeAngelis YM, Gemmer CM, Kaczvinsky JR, Kenneally DC, Schwartz JR, Dawson TL (December 2005). "Three etiologic facets of dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis: Malassezia fungi, sebaceous lipids, and individual sensitivity". The Journal of Investigative Dermatology. Symposium Proceedings. 10 (3): 295–297. doi:10.1111/j.1087-0024.2005.10119.x. PMID 16382685.
  11. Ro BI, Dawson TL (December 2005). "The role of sebaceous gland activity and scalp microfloral metabolism in the etiology of seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff". The Journal of Investigative Dermatology. Symposium Proceedings. 10 (3): 194–197. doi:10.1111/j.1087-0024.2005.10104.x. PMID 16382662.
  12. Ashbee HR, Evans EG (January 2002). "Immunology of diseases associated with Malassezia species". Clinical Microbiology Reviews. 15 (1): 21–57. doi:10.1128/CMR.15.1.21-57.2002. PMC 118058. PMID 11781265.
  13. Batra R, Boekhout T, Guého E, Cabañes FJ, Dawson TL, Gupta AK (December 2005). "Malassezia Baillon, emerging clinical yeasts". FEMS Yeast Research. 5 (12): 1101–1113. doi:10.1016/j.femsyr.2005.05.006. PMID 16084129.
  14. Dawson TL (2006). "Malassezia and seborrheic dermatitis: etiology and treatment". Journal of Cosmetic Science. 57 (2): 181–182. PMID 16758556.
  15. Gemmer CM, DeAngelis YM, Theelen B, Boekhout T, Dawson TL (September 2002). "Fast, noninvasive method for molecular detection and differentiation of Malassezia yeast species on human skin and application of the method to dandruff microbiology". Journal of Clinical Microbiology. 40 (9): 3350–3357. doi:10.1128/JCM.40.9.3350-3357.2002. PMC 130704. PMID 12202578.
  16. Gupta AK, Batra R, Bluhm R, Boekhout T, Dawson TL (November 2004). "Skin diseases associated with Malassezia species". Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 51 (5): 785–798. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2003.12.034. PMID 15523360.
  17. "Genetic code of dandruff cracked". BBC News. 6 November 2007. Archived from the original on 22 December 2008. Retrieved 30 April 2010.
  18. Piérard-Franchimont C, Xhauflaire-Uhoda E, Piérard GE (October 2006). "Revisiting dandruff". International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 28 (5): 311–318. doi:10.1111/j.1467-2494.2006.00326.x. PMID 18489295. S2CID 24519401.
  19. Pierard-Franchimont C, Hermanns JF, Degreef H, Pierard GE. From axioms to new insights into dandruff. Dermatology 2000;200:93-8.
  20. Brannon H. "The Structure and Function of the Stratum Corneum". Dermatology.about.com. Archived from the original on 24 May 2015. Retrieved 21 October 2017.
  21. "Best Dandruff Shampoo: What to Look for, 5 Products to Try". Healthline. 14 May 2020. Retrieved 28 February 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  22. Gupta AK, Nicol KA (January 2006). "Ciclopirox 1% shampoo for the treatment of seborrheic dermatitis". International Journal of Dermatology. 45 (1): 66–69. doi:10.1111/j.1365-4632.2004.02331.x. PMID 16426382. S2CID 6357543.
  23. Gupta AK, Bluhm R (June 2004). "Ciclopirox shampoo for treating seborrheic dermatitis". Skin Therapy Letter. 9 (6): 4–5. PMID 15334279.
  24. "Ciclopirox (Topical Route) Description and Brand Names - Mayo Clinic". www.mayoclinic.org. Retrieved 4 June 2021.
  25. "Ciclopirox Topical: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions, Pictures, Warnings & Dosing - WebMD". www.webmd.com. Retrieved 4 June 2021.
  26. "Anti-Dandruff (coal tar)". WebMD. 16 August 2017. Archived from the original on 12 December 2010. Retrieved 21 October 2017.
  27. "dandruff | dandriff, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. Retrieved 27 April 2015.
  • The dictionary definition of dandruff at Wiktionary
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