Spring is in the air and so begins the beauty checklist to see us into the new season: glowing skin? Check! New make-up? Check! Luscious locks? Erm…
Throwing out the winter bobble-hat might not be so eagerly anticipated for those of us that suffer from dandruff. It affects approximately half of the population at some point in their life and yet it’s still a fairly hushed-up topic. Not anymore! Let’s put dandruff under the Beauty Geek microscope for a better look at this annoying skin condition.

The classic identifier of dandruff is a flaky scalp. We shed dead cells from our skin all the time as part of our repair and renewal processes, and it’s normally not noticeable. So what changes in the case of dandruff? It seems that the speeding up of this shedding process is to blame for the formation of white and grey flakes, but there is no precisely defined explanation for exactly why this happens.

Maybe it is down to the quality of the skin’s internal components? The stratum corteum is the uppermost layer of skin and its role is to act as a barrier to keep moisture in and toxins out. In a healthy scalp, this helps to keep the skin hydrated. Research suggests that the levels of the fatty lipid molecules usually tightly packed in stratum corteum cells are lower in dandruff sufferers. This means that the scalp effectively loses its impermeability to water and dries out more quickly. This could go some way towards explaining the increased dryness and flakiness of the skin. It is a tricky situation to prevent, as a lot of factors are known to have an impact on the scalp’s condition: hormonal changes, stress, UV light and even climate to name just a few. This is not the only theory for the cause of dandruff though…

It’s not a pleasant thought, but our scalp is the perfect niche for a variety of bacteria and y to occupy. Glands in the scalp secrete a number of factors, including sweat and the naturally moisturising oil of the skin known as sebum. Together with these, the thick covering of hair traps a lot of moisture, leading to lovely humid conditions for many microbes. Before you panic and shave your head, most of the microbes are ‘commensals’, wchih simply means they do us no harm.

However, it is thought that an increased population of Malassezia yeast on the scalp can be to blame for dandruff, as it has also been linked to seborrheic dermatitis: another flaking skin condition. The theory is that once this fungus (yeasts are a kind of fungus) reaches a critical level on the scalp, the immune system launches an attack against it to try and clear these guests from the skin. Pro-inflammatory chemicals are released, causing small levels of inflammation within the scalp that lead to an increased shedding of skin. Approaches using cosmetic ingredients such as tea tree oil, which inhibits the growth of such dandruff-associated species, have been shown to work well when tackling this flaky problem, and there are now a variety of tea tree shampoos and other fungus-targeted dandruff therapies on the market! On the surface, this sounds like a logical explanation for the condition, but other studies have since shown that Malassezia can often be the predominant yeast species on the scalps of people who don’t suffer with the condition.

So what makes the difference between those who suffer and those who don’t?
It is now thought that maybe it isn’t the presence of this particular yeast alone that causes dandruff, but its balance among other species. Some research has shown that dandruff is more highly associated with individuals who have not only a higher prevalence of Malassezia, but also an increase in Staphylococcus epidermidis and lower levels of Propionibacterium acnes, which are bacterial species. There is a lot of conflicting information out there on the subject, as the amounts and species of bacteria and fungi on the scalp naturally vary with age and health. For the moment, scientists are finding it hard to say for definite whether these microbes are to blame!

There is thought to be a link between dandruff and acne (as if having one or the other isn’t enough trouble!). Acne can be caused by the blockage of pores, and this occurs commonly with the overproduction of sebum (that natural oil produced by our skin). Sebum blocking the hair follicles and drawing in bacteria is also another factor thought to contribute to dandruff. Zinc is a key element used in acne treatments, as it has antimicrobial properties, but is also a key component in anti-dandruff shampoos, in the form of zinc pyrithione. This compound has been shown to be very effective at tackling the inflammation and dryness that leads to the flaking skin we see as dandruff. There are a lot of reports on internet forums of anti-dandruff shampoos also helping to calm acne breakouts, particularly on the face and back. It looks like zinc compounds may help to solve both problems at once!

The important thing to remember is that in most cases, dandruff is controllable. With a good anti-dandruff shampoo, containing either zinc or another anti-fungal compound like selenium sulphide, symptoms can be kept under the radar. It is perhaps worth noting that over-shampooing can sometimes aggravate dandruff, so it’s best to find a happy medium! Going easy on hair styling products, combined with stress-management and spending time outdoors are also recommended to reduce flare-ups. Hopefully knowing more about what causes the condition and how it can be managed will now make throwing out that winter hat a bit less daunting! Happy Geeking, and get in touch if you’ve found anything particularly useful for fighting dandruff!