Dandruff—even the very word sounds unpleasant. Some women have never had to deal with it, some have found clever ways to hide it, and some have had to swear off their most treasured LBDs because of those embarrassing white flakes. Whatever category you’re in, it’s time to get educated. The road to thick, healthy tresses starts at your scalp, after all, and a dandruff problem can be easily soothed if you know your stuff. To get an expert opinion, we spoke with New York-based trichologist Elizabeth Cunnane Phillips from the Philip Kingsley Clinic. From the most common dandruff mistake to an easy DIY scalp soother, keep scrolling for Phillips’s advice!
“Dandruff is a loose term given to many types of skin flaking,” Phillips explains. “Generally speaking, it’s an annoying presentation that can result in flaking, itching, and redness.” So why does it occur more with some people than others? To answer that, first you have to understand exactly how dandruff happens. The skin on your scalp—like anywhere else in your body—is constantly shedding and being replaced. The only difference is that you don’t usually notice it because you wash the flakes away when you shampoo. However, Phillips says that changes in your scalp’s natural secretions can cause there to be an imbalance of bacteria (or “skin flora”) on your scalp and they multiply. This leads to excessive shedding, or what you might know as “the little white flakes I want to kill.”
Phillips says a lot of things can be to blame for dandruff, though some of the biggest culprits are hormonal changes, cold weather, nutritional habits, and stress. “It’s kind of a ‘chicken or the egg’ situation,” she says. “When your stress levels are high, you don’t always make the most nutritional choices, which means you’ll probably be consuming more sugar, more alcohol, which leads to a dandruff situation, which leads to more stress…you can’t say they’re the cause, but for people who have a natural predisposition, they can act as triggers.” Food-wise, some studies have shown that dairy can make dandruff worse, just like it can exacerbate eczema.
Here’s the thing about dandruff: Most people associate it with a dry scalp (your dry skin flakes and itches, after all), and shampoo less because of it, but that’s actually the complete opposite of what you should be doing. “If we’re going to talk about scalp health for dandruff sufferers, the first thing you need to do is wash more frequently,” Phillips says. “The benefit of having a healthier, cleaner scalp will automatically bring relief. It’s surprising that a lot of people don’t believe that.” Dandruff is usually related to excess oil and not enough washing, so the best way to remedy this without shocking your hair is to use a gentle, purifying shampoo and conditioner. Phillips says to look for ingredients like piroctone olamine, which has anti-fungal properties and helps relieve flaking and itching, and zinc, which can help with excess sebum production.
Using an exfoliating scalp treatment or hair tonic, like Philip Kingsley’s Exfoliating Scalp Mask ($30), one or more times a week will gently purify and soothe your irritated scalp. “We put in ingredients like aloe vera, which moisturizes and soothes, and enzymes that exfoliate the debris sitting on the skin, and a bit of olive oil to supplement and nourish the scalp,” Phillips says.
As for treating dandruff in the long run, Phillips recommends looking at your scalp the way you would look at your skin. If you avoid dairy to keep breakouts at bay or expect pimples around your chin at a certain time of month, apply this same mentality to your scalp. “We like to come at it holistically, where we look for individual drivers our patients may not have thought of before,” Phillips says. “One of the biggest mistakes we as a culture make is that the physical fibers of our hair dictates how we care for it, and therefore our scalp. The inverse is a better place to start.”
And finally, when we asked for any DIY home remedies to treat dandruff, Phillips was straight up and honest. “I’m not a fan of homemade remedies,” she admits. “I take scalp health quite seriously, like any skin condition, and I think most people can access fairly easily the therapeutics needed to treat the condition.” She does say, however, that chamomile tea can soothe your scalp when it’s feeling especially irritated. Just soak a cotton ball in it and apply it to your scalp. “It’s a soother, not a fixer though!” Phillips says.
Keep scrolling to shop our favorite dandruff-fighting products!