In theory, walking around in a snow globe of your scalp's own design — in which flakes cascade like a never-ending snowfall — sounds like some kind of sci-fi winter wonderland. In practice, dandruff feels far less cool. The constant scalp scratching and shoulder brushing can be both maddening and embarrassing. Thankfully, we have science. Now more than ever, there are efficient and accessible ways to clear the scalp of flaky buildup, your clothes of fallen dead skin, and the psyche of confidence-killing thoughts.
To drill down on how, we talked to Melanie Palm, M.D., a San Diego-area dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon. First, she helped us clarify the difference between dandruff and dry scalp: "Dandruff is the common name for seborrheic dermatitis, an inflammatory scalp condition in which an abnormal growth of yeast on the skin surface is present," she says. "It's characterized by skin flaking and some degree of scalp irritation, whereas dry scalp may feel tight or itchy but really shouldn't flake — it simply needs moisture from products like masks or conditioning treatments."
If dandruff is the issue, Palm suggests shampooing daily (or for some, every other day) to help minimize yeast overgrowth, flakiness, and discomfort. "Oils and dead skin cells build up if the scalp is not washed, and the scales are mechanically removed during shampooing," she says. "Delivering active ingredients — like zinc pyrithione, salicylic acid, and medicated ciclopirox and ketoconazole — to the scalp more frequently is also key to reducing irritation and scale build up." Lifestyle shifts, like checking stress and avoiding big swings in environmental temperature, can also help reduce exacerbations, Palm notes. Some of her simple tips include using a humidifier during cold winter months and showering with lukewarm water.
If the DIY strategy Palm presents doesn't help, she suggests seeing a derm. "There are serious medical conditions that can mimic seborrheic dermatitis and signal other underlying medical conditions that should be further addressed and treated," she says. But first, she weighs in on the latest at-home products made to take the flakes away and which ingredients to look for to tackle the problem at home.