Can Winter Cause Dandruff? We Asked The Experts

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Looking down at your cute black outfit and seeing little specks of dead skin flaking onto the fabric can feel decidedly un-cute. And though no one is judging you for it (in fact, they probably haven’t even noticed), nothing can snap you out of feeling chic and put together quite like being humbled by shedding skin. Of course, we’re talking about dandruff
Dandruff is a simple term used to describe the skin condition where small pieces of dry skin flake off the scalp. About 50 per cent of the population will experience dandruff at some point in their lifetime — which is to say, it’s extremely common.
Though dandruff can often feel like an embarrassing affliction, there are other equally good reasons for wanting to find a cure: itching, irritation, redness, and general discomfort, as well as the aforementioned flakes tumbling onto your clothing, are just a few. But there’s unfortunately a sort of mystique around managing the problem, which can sometimes feel like an exercise in futility. Toss winter skin dryness into the mix, and frankly, dandruff just becomes yet another annoying issue to 'fix'.
In an effort to debunk some dandruff myths and find real, actionable ways to manage it (winter-induced or otherwise), we tapped two experts to get to the bottom of what might be causing your dandruff and get on top of it, once and for all.

What causes dandruff?

Though dandruff is an extremely common skin condition, it has a few different causes, which perhaps adds to the difficulty of finding a fix. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, “It can develop due to multiple reasons, including some medical conditions, your hair care habits, or oily skin”. Examples of skin conditions that may cause dandruff are seborrhoeic dermatitis and psoriasis, explains Dr Shreya Andric, a dermatologist at Northern Sydney Dermatology and Laser.
One common cause of dandruff is fungal overgrowth, specifically, caused by malassezia. “Malassezia is a common culprit behind dandruff, as it feeds on the oils secreted by the scalp and causes an inflammatory response,” explains Helen Reavey, a trichologist and the founder of Act + Acre. “The yeast-like fungus can accelerate the turnover of skin cells on the scalp.” She adds that product buildup from using heavier shampoo and conditioner, and stress can also play a part. 

Can winter cause or exacerbate dandruff?

The short answer to this question is yes, but the longer answer is a little bit more complicated. It’s worth noting that a flaking scalp can be exacerbated by winter-induced dryness, but dandruff is commonly a result of having an oily scalp, which means in some cases it can actually improve in the colder months and become worse in summer. 
If your flaking scalp is caused by dryness, winter could make it worse because “your scalp can lose moisture faster than it would otherwise”, explains Andric. “This leads to cracked skin where your dead skin cells are pushed out, resulting in flaky skin on the scalp.” Reavey adds that a “shift in seasons can definitely exacerbate a dry scalp”. 
The simplest way to tell whether you’re suffering from a dry scalp or dandruff is by the appearance of the flakes. “Dryness typically causes the scalp to feel tight and itchy and often causes flakes,” explains Reavey. “These flakes often appear to be smaller and lighter in colour than dandruff flakes. Dandruff flakes are large and yellow, and the condition causes irritation and itch on the scalp which can be worsened in summer months if you’re washing your hair less.”

How can you treat dandruff?

There are a few ways to treat dandruff, or soothe the itching and irritation caused by dandruff, but figuring out what is causing your flaking scalp is a good first step. Next, look at your current hair and scalp care routine, and make adjustments according to what may be causing the irritation. “Avoid products made with lipids, oils and heavy fragrances,” suggests Reavey. “The yeast in dandruff feeds off lipids in our products but also in our natural oils, so it’s incredibly important to shampoo daily when suffering from dandruff.” She also suggests looking for products that are fragrance-free, where possible.
As for treating the problem, the answer may be sitting in the aisles at the chemist. “Any of the medicated dandruff shampoos that contain ketoconazole, selenium sulphide, or zinc pyrithione tend to work well at reducing the fungus and build-up on the scalp,” explains Reavey. Andric adds that “when you are using these shampoos, apply them to the scalp and leave in for five to 10 minutes then rinse out”, before following with your preferred conditioner.
Andric also explains that finding the right shampoo for your needs may take some trial and error, so alternating between antidandruff shampoos that have different ingredients may be helpful in finding the right one. Some experts suggest trying each for a month, so you can accurately assess whether it is working. 
Reavey also has a few tips for managing irritation symptoms, such as using a cooling serum like her Act+Acre Microbiome Cooling Scalp Serum, $113, and if you have less to spend, you could try the Dermal Therapy Scalp Relief Serum, $17. “I also recommend a weekly scalp treatment, specifically a chemical exfoliant such as our Salicylic Acid Scalp Exfoliator, $80, as a weekly maintenance for dandruff,” she says, adding that salicylic acid exfoliates the scalp to remove flakes and balance oil production. Again, if you’re looking for a salicylic acid treatment at a lower price point, you could try The Inkey List Exfoliating Scalp Treatment, $28.
If you’re struggling to get on top of your dandruff at home, visiting a dermatologist is a good idea. “Your dermatologist may prescribe stronger anti-dandruff shampoo or medication,” explains Dr Andric, adding that they will also be well-placed to figure out the root cause of the issue. “Your dermatologist also knows whether your dandruff is a sign of a medical condition, such as seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, fungal infections of the scalp, or eczema.”
This article contains general information, and should not be construed as medical advice. Each individual's circumstances are different and should be discussed with a medical practitioner.
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