By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

Dandruff is nothing more than a social faux pas that keeps you from wearing your favorite black dress or suit, right? Well, yes and no. Dandruff is not a serious health concern, but as with most activities in our bodies, the presence of dandruff can indicate imbalances in our system that we may want to be aware of and take steps to correct.

What is Dandruff?

Dandruff is actually a symptom and not a disease. Dandruff flakes are produced by a mild form of seborrheic dermatitis (inflammation of the skin) that afflicts the scalp. Dandruff is a very common condition that afflicts about one out of every three people at one time or another. The telltale flakes that mark dandruff are actually accumulations of dead skin that have been clumped together by the oily skin of its victims. People who have dandruff tend to shed dead skin cells at an abnormally accelerated rate, and the latest research points to a reaction to a form of yeast that naturally grows on the scalp.

The cause of dandruff has elicited many theories over the years. At times it has been attributed to too much brushing of the hair, not enough brushing; shampooing too often, not shampooing enough; dry skin, oily skin; cold weather, dry indoor heating; the wrong diet; too much stress; blow dryer usage; and the wrong hair treatments and styling products, among others. While there are many exacerbating factors that can contribute to dandruff, the best science now identifies the main culprit as a yeast-like fungus called malassezia, formerly known aspityrosporum. A certain amount of this substance is found on the scalps of most people. Researchers think that folks who struggle with dandruff may be supersensitive to malassezia, and that this reaction leads to an overabundance of irritation that kills unusually large numbers of skin cells. In addition, malassezia seems to grow faster when feeding on the oils secreted naturally onto the scalp by hair follicles. This explains why most dandruff sufferers have abnormally oily skin.

Some studies have also indicated that dandruff may be one way the body gets rid of excess protein that cannot be absorbed and used by our systems. This could explain the high rate of dandruff in this country, where most Americans consume much more protein than the rest of the world, and typically much more than we need. Some researchers also theorize that dandruff may be an indicator of imbalances in our liver and / or kidneys.

What Dandruff is NOT

If you happen to notice white flakes on your clothing, the first thing most of us think of is dandruff. However, there are many skin disorders that can be mistaken for dandruff, so diagnosis is not that cut and dried. Some other conditions that may resemble dandruff include:

  • Psoriasis:  This condition leads to dead skin cells that flake off and resemble silvery scales. Most of the time psoriasis occurs elsewhere on the body, but it can affect your scalp in some cases.
  • Advanced Seborrheic dermatitis:  Dandruff is a mild form of this skin disorder, but more severe forms will exhibit greasy red patches on the skin, typically on or near the eyelashes and eyebrows. It can also manifest its characteristic white or yellow scales on the nose, behind the ears, under the armpits, and in the groin area.
  • Dry skin:  Plain old-fashioned dry skin can also produce itchy skin on the scalp, along with white flakes. One way to differentiate between these flakes is that they are usually smaller and less oily than those found with dandruff.
  • Contact dermatitis:  This is simply caused by an allergy or sensitivity to certain hair care products that can result in white flakes that resemble dandruff.
  • Cradle cap:  Many a new mother has been alarmed by the scaly, crusty flakes from her baby’s scalp, but it is generally not anything to worry about, and usually clears up on its own by the age of one.

What Are the Risk Factors That Contribute to Dandruff?

Besides oily skin, there are some factors that make it more likely for an individual to experience dandruff. These include:

  • Gender: Dandruff is a more common problem for men than it is for women, and the reasons for that are two-fold. Many researchers believe that fluctuations in certain male hormones may play a significant role in creating the conditions that produce dandruff. In addition to that, men have larger sebaceous glands than women. Sebaceous glands manufacture an oil known as sebum, which is a natural skin protectant and conditioner. But when too much sebum is present, it can encourage the process that leads to dandruff. That is why dandruff is associated with sebaceous dermatitis.
  • Age: Not too many folks in the geriatric crowd have to deal with dandruff. This does not mean it is unheard of in seniors, but dandruff is most common amongst those from late teens to middle age. This is probably due to hormonal activity during these years that is not as common in older folks, especially men.
  • Diet: In the last few decades, much research has been done concerning dietary causes of dandruff, and some very interesting discoveries have been made. Certain dietary and nutritional habits have proven to lessen the occurrence and severity of dandruff in some individuals. Some foods seem to worsen the condition as well. Researchers do not fully understand why this is the case, but nevertheless, the facts speak for themselves. Some of the findings are as follows:

ü       Eliminating known food allergens has improved dandruff for many folks. The more we study the immune system, the more we see that it has far-reaching effects on just about every aspect of our bodies. Allergies and their corresponding connection with the immune system are an integral part of our overall health, and it appears that dandruff is no exception.

ü       Limiting highly acidic foods such as citrus fruits and tomatoes seems to help cases of dandruff as well.

ü       Lowering animal proteins is also good for dandruff, including eliminating many types of seafood.

ü       Using alternative protein sources such as beans, legumes, and whole foods is also an enemy of dandruff.

ü       Dandruff gets worse for some individuals when they consume high amounts of milk and other dairy products.

ü       Staying away from fatty snacks and junk food helps too.

ü       Avoid excessive amounts of sugar and salt in the diet as well.

ü       Alcohol is also an aggravating factor in many dandruff cases.

ü       Lots of Vitamin B-complex is great for dandruff.

ü       Another great “tonic” for dandruff is Flaxseed oil. High in omega-3 fatty acids, flaxseed oil is actually excellent for all kinds of skin problems.

  • Certain Illnesses: Another very interesting facet of dandruff is the fact that people with some other medical problems seem to get dandruff more easily than the general population. One of these is the common neurological condition known as Parkinson’s disease, and the reason for this is not known for sure. Others include any disease that compromises the immune system, such as HIV, lupus, diabetes, or fibromyalgia. Folks who are in recovery from a stressful health situation such as major surgery, heart attack, or stroke are also at greater risk of getting dandruff. It is easy to understand why dandruff is not classified as a disease, but rather a symptom or other things going on in the body. Dandruff may be just one way that our bodies communicate with us that something else under the surface is occurring.

What Treatments Are Available for Dandruff?

Being the common condition that it is, and taking into consideration Madison Avenue and the mass media marketing of the dandruff “epidemic,” there are seemingly endless products available to deal with the nasty white flakes that will certainly be the ruin of your business and social life. There are a slew of medicated shampoos that are offered to dandruff sufferers, but many of them contain chemicals or drugs that have risks of their own. The most common dandruff shampoos are composed of either selenium sulfide or zinc pyrithione. Both of these compounds are known as cytostatic agents, which means they act by slowing down the growth of the outermost layer of skin, in this case on the scalp. One of the problems with these potions is that they can be very irritating to some people’s skin, and therefore result in making the original dandruff problem worse instead of better. Antibacterial or antifungal shampoos are also sometimes prescribed to go after the malassizia, but they often destroy helpful bacteria on the scalp that throws the natural balance off and can create additional skin problems.

The doctors and drug companies pull out the heavy artillery for especially difficult cases of dandruff. They convinced the FDA to allow them to manufacture and prescribe shampoos containing coal tar, which is a known carcinogen. I don’t know about you, but I would rather deal with the issue of dandruff than to expose my body to a known carcinogen.

Are There Any Safer, More Natural Alternatives to Fight Dandruff?

There most definitely are. Some practical steps that can help to control or prevent dandruff include:

  • Shampooing often, especially if you have oily hair and skin. Just be sure to choose a natural product that does not contain harmful chemicals that can be dangerous to your health. Shampoos containing Tea Tree Oil (Melaleucca) are very good for your scalp, and will help improve dandruff and many other skin disorders. This substance is very soothing, and even acts as a natural antiviral and antifungal agent.
  • Sunshine: A limited amount of sunshine is very good for the body in general, and for the health of the scalp specifically. At least twenty minutes a day is suggested, but not during the peak times of 10am-2pm. Sunshine provides many benefits to the body.
  • Try to use as few hair care products as possible. Many of these are toxic to your system, either when applied to the scalp or when inhaled while spraying them on. In addition, they often can encourage dandruff or worsen existing cases.

Dandruff is not the end of the world, and we can certainly suffer from much worse health issues. I recommend dealing with it in as natural and noninvasive ways as possible, and be sure to avoid any remedies that may expose you to other health concerns such as toxic chemicals. If all else fails, stay away from black.

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