Guru Kate: Dry scalp or dandruff?

Both dry scalp and dandruff make can result in snowy shoulders. However, their sources are fairly opposite.

Dandruff comes from over-production of sebum (oil) in your scalp, which feeds a nasty fungus known as Malassezia. This fungus mixes with dead cells, which then slough off and make a mess.

Dry scalp, on the other hand, comes from under-production of sebum. This makes the skin cells around the hair follicles fall away from each other and sprinkle all over.

It is important to differentiate color between flakes. Flakes from dandruff can be light yellow to orange. These colors come from the fungus. However, dry scalp flakes are simply white.

Cold, wintry weather can exacerbate both dry scalp and dandruff, so it’s important to keep good hygiene as freezing temperatures approach. Washing your hair frequently can prevent your own personal case of termination dust. Shampooing your hair can help keep dandruff fungus from accumulating, and conditioning your scalp will help moisturize the skin cells to prevent dry scalp.

When regular shampoo and conditioner doesn’t work, it is likely dandruff is a more serious problem that can’t be addressed by this guru. Seeking advice from a dermatologist is the next best step.

The dermatologist will possibly prescribe a shampoo with an active ingredient like zinc pyrithione. This anti-fungal will block a membrane transporter in the fungus, which disables its ability to utilize energy.

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If the dermatologist would prescribe zinc pyrithione, why don’t I just use it to prevent dandruff before it happens?

Zinc pyrithione is old science. It was discovered in the 1940s.

Recent studies point to the notion that the mere presence of fungi on the scalp is not bad. In fact, there is an entire group of fungi (in the Ascomycota phylum) which cause no problems and are naturally found in the scalp.

When shampooing with an anti-fungal shampoo, the zinc pyrithione can’t differentiate between the fungi that is harmful and the fungi that is just hanging out.

Lastly, even if you have these fungi on your scalp, you may not be at risk for dandruff. Keep in mind that the fungus needs the sebum to feast on, so if you don’t have an oily scalp, you’re likely in the clear.