Medicine has its mysteries, and believe it or not, dandruff is one of them. That's right, the socially embarrassing avalanche on your shoulders cannot be definitively explained by science. There are theories. Some argue that the overgrowth of a fungus causes irritation and inflammation. Suddenly cell-shedding gets chaotic, accelerated and disorderly, with live cells being sloughed off along with dead. Others say the oil-loving fungus is simply taking advantage of a scalp that's producing too much lubrication thanks to hormonal imbalances or genetics.
We do know for sure that using harsh shampoos, lots of hairspray, gel and hair dyes can up your flake quotient. So can stress, tension, food allergies and nutritional deficiencies.
Redness, scaliness or itching around the eyebrows and eyelashes, nose, neck or even groin means your dandruff has graduated to seborrheic dermatitis. You need help from a health pro. Same goes if you're dropping large, silvery scales - that's a sign of potential psoriasis. Redness, swelling, scabbing or gooey stuff on your scalp could indicate ringworm.
Keeping dandruff at bay means getting your B vitamins, zinc and selenium and watching out for allergic reactions to dairy products, nuts, shellfish, chocolate, wheat and other common allergens. Essential fatty acids from flax or fish oil will help keep your scalp healthy. Taking a probiotic supplement slows down fungus overgrowth in general.
Improve circulation to your scalp by giving your head hot and cold rinses when you shower, doing headstands (if you can) and brushing your hair regularly. Avoid harsh shampoos, including anti-dandruff formulas - instead get the gentlest shampoo you can find, add a few drops of tea tree oil and let the solution sit on your scalp for a few minutes. Or use herbs as suggested by our experts.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"Dandruff is caused by an overproduction of the scalp's natural oil, due to hereditary or hormonal factors. Stress is one of the main underlying causes. The worst thing you can do is leave your hair wet, because combined moisture and oil will encourage fungus growth. Take rosemary, sage, bergamot, thyme or sweet orange essential oiland massage them into your scalp, neat or mixed with coconut oil. You have to give it at least a month, doing it two or three times a week. Medicated shampoos have synthetic chemicals that irritate the nervous system. They might get rid of the dandruff, but will raise your stress. Essential oils send messages to your oil glands to calm down."
NELLA ARANGIO, Aveda esthetic & spa specialist, Civello Spa director, Toronto
"Use a gentle, non-detergent-based organic shampoo daily. Take a good handful of an anti-fungal herb like dried calendula,thyme, rosemary,or lavender,soak in a litre of apple cider vinegar for a few days, strain, and rinse with that after shampooing. Finish with a light water rinse. Some people wrap a towel on a vinegar-treated scalp once a week and sit with that for an hour. The vinegar helps balance the skin pH and breaks down scalp oil, which is important because fungus thrives in that oil. Or steep one of those herbs, about two tablespoons per cup, in olive oil for a few days. Once a week massage your scalp with one to two tablespoons fragrant oil, wrap a towel around your head for an hour, shampoo and give a vinegar rinse. It's a spa treatment."
DANETTE STEELE, clinical herbalist, Halifax and Toronto
"If a layperson wanted to treat dandruff, a common remedy is a tissue salt called Kali Sulphuricum . Take the 6x potency three times daily for a few weeks. Use homeopathic calendula cream for relief of itching. If the dandruff doesn't lift after a few weeks, get constitutional homeopathic treatment. (There may be) eczema or psoriasis involved."
DANNY MURPHY, homeopath, Toronto
"Medically speaking, the most common cause of dandruff is a yeast, Malassezia furfur. When our immune system is weakened, organisms can turn pathogenic. Often when there is a scaly skin condition, there's a food sensitivity component to it. The main culprits are usually refined sugars, wheat, dairy, corn, citrus, peanuts and eggs."
JYLL WEINBURG, naturopathic doctor, Toronto
"We differentiate four types of dandruff in Chinese medicine. First is too much heat in the blood triggered by stress, a hot spicy diet, a constitutional predisposition. The next type is a damp heat pattern (related to digestion). Accompanying symptoms could be constipation, diarrhea, belching, acid reflux or a thick, greasy tongue coating. The third, dryness in the blood, can develop as a consequence of not treating the first type of dandruff. The fourth type is the fire toxin pattern. This often spreads to the rest of the body, and there could be weeping sores. For a mild case of dandruff, I recommend a medicated shampoo. If it's beyond mild, you need an internal treatment."
ADINA STANESCU, Chinese herbalist, director, TCM Skin Clinic, Toronto