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Dandruff: Causes and Treatments
Written by Dr Jenny Schmidt-White   

Target the specific cause of your dandruff.

woman with her hands in her messy hair

Dandruff, or pityriasis simplex capillitii, is characterized by scalp itchiness and the shedding of dead skin cells in visible white or yellowish clumps from the scalp. It is a common complaint affecting approximately half the population. Individuals affected with dandruff have a more rapid turnover rate of skin cells on the scalp. Dandruff can be exacerbated by extreme temperature changes, dry climates, and hair products and detergents.

Three Main Causes of Dandruff

There are three known causes of dandruff: malassezia fungi, sebaceous (or oil) gland secretions, and individual sensitivity. Let’s look at each in detail:

  1. Fungus: Malassezia globosa fungi are present on all human scalps, but are more proliferative in men, individuals who naturally produce more oils from their scalps, and people with suppressed or poor immune systems. The fungus produces enzymes that degrade the sebum (oil) that is naturally produced by the scalp. The enzymatic process results in a fat called oleic acid, which penetrates the superficial layer of skin on the scalp and triggers a more rapid turnover of cells in susceptible individuals, causing dead skin cells to clump together and fall off in large flakes.
  2. Sebaceous gland secretion: Sebaceous gland secretion is influenced mainly by androgenic (or male) hormones. An excess of testosterone can be found in men and women and is usually accompanied by symptoms including acne, male pattern baldness, facial hair growth in women, and feelings of agitation or easy anger.
  3. Individual sensitivity: The combination of individual variations of sebaceous gland secretions, susceptibility to increased fungal growth on the scalp, and overall hormonal and immune function all contribute to the symptoms of dandruff.

Treatment and Prevention

Probably the most common dandruff treatment is the use of medicated over-the-counter shampoos that contain specific ingredients to combat the cause of the individual’s dandruff. These shampoos contain ingredients like zinc pyrithione, which slows the turnover rate of skin cells and disrupts the fungal cycle, selenium sulfide, which has anti-seborrheaic properties, or ketoconazole, an anti-fungal which disrupts the cell membranes and growth of malassezia fungi.

Naturopathic medicine can also help to treat the underlying causes of dandruff. Hormone levels can be tested, and imbalances corrected to address over-secretion of scalp oils. Another approach is nutritional assessment, with dietary recommendations typically including foods high in zinc and selenium such as sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds, wheat germ, dark chocolate, wild salmon, lamb and oats. Correction of poor immune function can also help prevent the overgrowth of malassezia on the scalp.

Other preventative options include topical application of organic coconut oil, which contains anti-fungal medium-chain fatty acids, and washing hair with cool to warm water. Dandruff is a common problem that can be helped with the use of therapeutic shampoos as well as addressing individual susceptibility. Consult your healthcare provider for personalized treatment advice.

Dr Jenny Schmidt-White -

Dr. Jenny Schmidt-White is a Naturopathic Doctor in downtown Vancouver at an integrative health centre, helping patients to achieve optimal health through correcting hormone imbalances, optimizing digestion and nutrition, detoxification, and enhancing immune function. Visit www.drjennynd.com for the latest health information, or call 604.647.2236 for an appointment. She is located at 700-890 West Pender Street.

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