We don't know about you, but the words facial dandruff call to mind a picture of skin so dry that it scales and steadily flakes off like salt from a shaker. However, that's not necessarily the case. According to dermatologist Sonia Batra, MD, MSC, MPH, facial dandruff can make itself known through "redness, itching, and scaling" on small areas of the face. "The most common sites on the face are between the brows and at the corner of the nose and the nostrils, or the creases of the upper lip," she says. That sounds much more common and maybe even a little familiar, right?
As our experts tell us, facial dandruff isn't all that scary. In fact, it's relatively easy to treat and prevent.
Meet the Expert
- Sonia Batra, MD, MSC, MPH is a board-certified dermatologist in Los Angeles, California. She operates her private practice and also contributes to dermatological publications such as the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
- David Lortscher, MD, is a dermatologist and CEO of Curology, a skincare brand that caters to clients' specific skin needs at an affordable price.
- Katie Sobelman is a California-licensed esthetician and skin care educator, who exclusively uses clean and organic skincare products, focusing on anti-aging and facial modalities, and specializing in oxygen and microcurrent facials.
Keep reading to learn more about facial dandruff and how to stop it from happening.
What Exactly is Facial Dandruff?
First things first—facial dandruff isn't just dry skin. You can't treat or prevent it by simply applying more moisturizer to the affected areas of your face. "This very common problem is officially called seborrheic dermatitis," says Lortscher. "Seborrheic dermatitis occurs in areas of the body that are rich in oil glands, so the central face is a prime target. Many people also have itching and flaking in the scalp, although both areas are not necessarily affected; the central chest may be involved as well." The onset of this problem varies with age, usually heightening around puberty, and many suffer from it well into adulthood.
The cause, Batra says, is the "overgrowth of yeast that lives on the skin." This yeast is normal and always present on the skin. "However, when someone's immune system is off-balance, such as when they are sick, stressed out, or sleep-deprived, the yeast overgrows and the balance tips," Batra explains. "When a person's system recognizes too much of this yeast, it mounts a response, which is what causes redness, itching, and scaling."
Use a Zinc Cleansing Bar
There are a number of different treatment options, depending on the severity of the case. Lortscher recommends using a Vanicream Pyrithione Zinc Cleansing Bar two to three times per week. It's specially formulated for treating seborrheic dermatitis.
"Avoid bars that contain cocoa butter, which can trigger acne breakout in some people. Lather the bar soap in your hands, apply it to the face, and leave it on for a minute or so before rinsing off. If your skin is not becoming dry or tight, your skin might tolerate a zinc bar soap more often," he says. As for subscribers of Curology, they have access to other effective treatments. "Zinc pyrithione is available in some of our medications, providing antimicrobial action against both bacteria and fungus. Azelaic acid, another ingredient found in certain Curology formulas, also helps combat fungus, as well as direct anti-inflammatory properties, helping both acne and seborrheic dermatitis." Read more about its prescription-grade ingredients here.
Try an Anti-Dandruff Shampoo
"I always tell my patients that if their skin is 'hospitable' and prone to facial dandruff, it will periodically flare, and the best treatment is to maintain by keeping yeast counts low," Batra says. To do this, try an anti-dandruff shampoo like Head & Shoulders Classic Clean Dandruff Shampoo. "A good maintenance option is using an over-the-counter anti-dandruff shampoo with zinc or selenium as a face wash. It can be left on for five minutes before rinsing off about two to three times per week."
Seek Out a Natural Remedy
You could also try a natural remedy: apple cider vinegar. It "has natural antiseptic properties and because it contains alpha-hydroxy acids, is also an exfoliant for flakes," Sobelman says. "The key is to dilute it (one part vinegar to three parts water), or it will smell." To incorporate this ingredient into your skincare routine, just mix one tablespoon of Apple Cider Vinegar with 1/4 cup of warm water and apply it to the face. Wash off the mixture a few seconds later with warm water.
Focus on Barrier Repair
Katie Sobelman, Esthetician & Skincare Educator, says that when it comes to treating Seborrheic dermatitis, it's important to focus on repairing your skin's barrier and looking for products that soothe inflammation and restore skin.
"The Sublime Oil by Luzern uses a blend of rosehip seed oil, a fantastic wound healer; sugarcane derived squalane, which occurs naturally in the skin’s lipid barrier preventing transepidermal water loss, and a blend of protective antioxidants," explains Sobelman.
"Luzern’s Force de Vie Crème Luxe is a hydrating lightweight moisturizer that helps replenish the protective barrier with a complex of ceramics and lipids," adds Sobelman. "It increases cellular activity and oxygenation through a blend of peptides, enzymes, hyaluronic acid, probiotics, and vitamins. "
Consider LED Light Therapy
Sobelman also recommends trying LED light therapy treatment to help with Seborrheic dermatitis. "Blue light treatments are known for their antimicrobial activity, but red and infrared treatments are my favorite, as they are deeper penetrating and excellent at neutralizing inflammation in the body, in addition to a host of anti-aging benefits," she shares.
Exfoliate a Few Times a Week
When it comes to exfoliating, Sobelman suggests using a scrub a few times a week to remove any superficial build-up of dead skin. "Opt for a creamy scrub, as it will help moisturize the skin while physically removing debris, and always avoid scrubs that use nut or shell particles as their base, as these fragments are sharp and can damage the skin," she explains.
Sobelman says that she prefers the L'Essentials Micro-Exfoliant for exfoliating. "It’s a creamy SLS-free cleanser paired with micro-jojoba spheres that efficiently exfoliate the skin while imparting hydration and moisture."
Is there a connection between acne and seborrheic dermatitis?
"Seborrheic dermatitis is not related to acne, although it is significantly more common in acne patients than in control subjects," Lortscher says. Both seborrheic dermatitis and acne "may be made worse by Pityrosporum," so treatments targeted to decrease it might also help alleviate acne.
When should you seek help from a dermatologist?
Those susceptible to facial dandruff might experience frequent flare-ups, as the yeast will more easily be thrown out of balance. "Symptoms may be worsened by weather extremes, especially during cold seasons," Lortscher says. "Other aggravating factors may include stress, hormonal changes, or illness." If yours isn't going away, or you feel that it's reappearing too often, it's best to see a dermatologist, as you might require a prescription in severe cases.
What ingredients should you avoid during a flare-up of seborrheic dermatitis?
Sobelman suggests avoiding any harsh ingredients, specifically Sodium Laurel Sulphate. She says that this ingredient "strips the skin of the oils meant to protect its surface." Also, avoid using retinol products as those tend to contain harsh ingredients.
Cleveland Clinic. Seborrheic dermatitis. Updated May 29, 2020.