All the Reasons You Have Dandruff (And What to Do About It)

It’s not snowing, YOU'RE snowing — from your head.


For many of us, “snow” isn’t just this weird thing that happens in the winter, or a predictable thing that goes on in the men’s room at a Miami nightclub — it’s more of an evergreen phenomenon, and it’s happening on our heads. I’m talking about the other other, year-round type of snow, i.e., dandruff, and if you’ve ever worn a black shirt under fluorescent lighting, you know it’s a complete pain in the butt.

Unfortunately, as annoying as it is, and as unsightly as it appears, dandruff can be just as difficult to eradicate. But in order to defeat your enemy, you must first know your enemy — Sun Tzu said that.

So what exactly is dandruff, anyways, and why does it appear despite the fact that you’re a (relatively) hygienic guy? The conventional wisdom might have you believe that dandruff is the result of simply being too hygienic, that is, because you wash your hair too much with products that dry out both your skin and your hair. And yes, while dandruff can be attributed to dry skin from overwashing with shampoos chock-full of surfactants like sodium lauryl sulfate, it’s more typically the result of a skin irritation like seborrheic dermatitis or a type of yeast, i.e., a fungus, known as malassezia

Now, that last part probably sounds gross, but don’t fret too much — malassezia is found on virtually everyone’s head, though it’s unclear why some people end up with too much of it. What we do know, however, is that “too much” has a direct correlation to “itchy scalp,” and an itchy scalp makes dandruff the way an industrial-sized snow machine makes fresh pow-pow. “As skin becomes inflamed due to yeast overgrowth,” says Robert Brodell of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, “itching might occur and prompt scratching, which in itself produces more inflammation.” 

Now that we’ve pinpointed what dandruff is, Step Two is getting rid of the stuff. Thankfully, in most cases, dandruff can be taken care of by specially formulated over-the-counter shampoos which contain antifungal agents like zinc pyrithione, which can control or even eliminate the malassezia yeast.

If antifungals don’t work, however, another avenue to try is a shampoo with tar, salicylic acid or selenium sulfide, or a combination of the three — or, if you’re into the au naturel lifestyle, tea tree oil — in it in order to reduce the amount of skin that your scalp sheds.

Unfortunately, over-the-counter options don’t always get the job done, and when that happens, it means it’s time to break out the big guns. And when I say big guns, I’m referring, of course, to a trip to see the dermatologist. Because when you’ve tried getting rid of sulfates and you’ve tried antifungals and tar and your shoulders still look like the back bowls of Vail, there’s only one thing left to do: Consult a medical professional.