Causes and Treatments for Dandruff

WRITTEN BY: Dermatology
Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

Dandruff, also known as seborrheic dermatitis, is a common skin condition in which inflamed skin peels in flaky white or yellow scales. The scales form on oily areas such as the scalp, face, or inside of the ear, and can sometimes, but not always, present with red skin. These flaky scales can also appear on:

  • Eyebrows
  • Eyelids
  • Creases of the nose
  • Lips
  • Behind the ears
  • Outer ears
  • The middle of the chest

The exact cause of seborrheic dermatitis is not known, but your hormone levels, a weakened immune system, nutrient deficiency, or problems with your nervous system may play a part in its appearance. Stress, fatigue, weather extremes, oily skin, obesity, and certain lotions are all factors that could put you at risk for developing dandruff, says Arthur Huen, MD, PhD, Department of Dermatology at UPMC.

“If you notice redness or peeling, avoid lotions and other skin and hair care products with alcohol, as these may cause stinging or worsen redness,” he says. “Use caution when your skin is exposed to the sun, try to incorporate more zinc in your diet, and drink plenty of water.”

There are several over-the-counter treatments, including medicated lotions and dandruff shampoos, that you can use to effectively treat dandruff.

“You should use a product that says ‘seborrheic dermatitis’ on the label,” says Dr. Huen “Something that has coal tar, zinc or zinc pyrithione, salicylic acid, resorcinol, ketoconazole, or selenium sulfide in the ingredients will be the most effective since it is specifically formulated to treat dandruff.”

If your dandruff seems severe or persists after over-the-counter treatment, ask your doctor to make a specific recommendation or prescribe a stronger shampoo or lotion, a corticosteroid, or an immunomodulator to suppress the immune system and treat the inflammation.

Dandruff is a chronic condition, but it can be controlled with treatment. Dr. Huen reminds those who suffer from dandruff that treatment may be a little different for each person.

“Dandruff can be managed, and the most important step is listening to your own skin,” he says.



The Department of Dermatology at UPMC diagnoses and treats all kinds of skin diseases and dermatologic conditions. The Department offers services and information in the areas of general dermatology, medical dermatology, pediatric dermatology, dermatologic surgery, dermatopathology, cutaneous oncology, and cosmetic dermatology. Read More