If dandruff is the only thing standing between you and a closet full of basic black, you're not alone.

What is it?

At any one time, millions of Australians have this chronic scalp disorder, which is marked by itching and excessive flaking of the scalp. Although dandruff isn't contagious and is rarely serious, it can be embarrassing and surprisingly persistent.

The good news is that dandruff can usually be controlled. Mild cases may need nothing more than daily shampooing with a gentle cleanser. And stubborn flakes often respond to medicated shampoos. What's more, researchers have identified a yeast-like fungus that may cause or aggravate dandruff, a discovery that may lead to better treatments and even to a whole new wardrobe.

What causes it?

At one time or another, dandruff has been blamed on dry skin, oily skin, shampooing too often or not often enough, a poor diet, stress, and the use of too many fancy styling products. Although some of these factors may exacerbate or contribute to scalp flaking, the real culprit may be a fat-eating, yeast-like fungus called malassezia, formerly known as pityrosporum.

Malassezia lives on the scalps of most healthy adults without causing problems. But sometimes it grows out of control, feeding on the oils secreted by your hair follicles and causing irritation that leads to increased cell turnover.

All skin cells die and are replaced by new cells. Normally, it takes about a month for new cells to move from the lowest layer of your skin, where they form, to the outermost layer, where they die and scale off in flakes. Because cells renew themselves slowly, this process usually isn't noticeable.

But on scalps where malassezia thrives, the whole process can take as little as 11 days. The result is a large number of dead skin cells. As the cells fall off, they tend to clump together with oil from your hair and scalp, making them appear white, flaky and all too visible.

Exactly what causes an overgrowth of these organisms isn't known, although increased oil production, hormonal fluctuations, stress, illness, neurologic disorders such as Parkinson's disease, a suppressed immune system, infrequent shampooing, extra sensitivity to the malassezia fungus and even heredity may contribute to the development of dandruff.

What are the symptoms?

For most people, the symptoms of dandruff are unmistakable: white, oily-looking flakes of dead skin that dot your hair and shoulders and an itchy, scaling scalp. But it's not quite that simple — many conditions cause excessive skin scaling, including:

  • Dry skin.
  • Seborrheic dermatitis
  • Psoriasis
  • Cradle cap
  • Scalp ringworm (tinea capitis)
  • Contact dermatitis

Are there any natural therapies?

  • Anti-dandruff shampoo will help treat most forms of dandruff, however more stubborn forms may require stronger tar-based products to remove the greasy scales.
  • Limit sugar and yeast. Sweets and yeast-containing foods such as bread, beer and wine may encourage the growth of the fungus that causes dandruff.
  • Emphasize B vitamins. These are essential for healthy skin and hair. Good food sources include whole grains, egg yolks, soybeans, bananas, avocados, nuts and seeds, and dark leafy greens, such as spinach. B-vitamin supplements are available from this website.
  • Include zinc in your diet. The mineral zinc, found in some dandruff shampoos, helps regulate the activity of your oil glands, keeps your immune system healthy and promotes healing. It's best to get zinc from food sources such as egg yolks, fish – especially sardines – meat, soybeans, sunflower seeds and whole grains.
  • Get plenty of omega-3 fatty acids. Sometimes known as essential fatty acids, these oils are necessary for good health. Among other things, they aid in the transmission of nerve impulses, help produce new cells and lower cholesterol levels. They also help keep your skin and hair healthy. Omega-3 fatty acids are found primarily in fresh, deep-water fish – especially salmon, swordfish, mackerel and herring – and in canola, soybean, fish and flaxseed oils. In addition, many natural foods stores and drugstores carry a variety of fish and vegetable oil supplements.

What else can I do?

  • Learn to manage stress.
  • Cut back on styling products.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Get a little sun.

Did you know?

Dandruff usually begins at puberty — about the same time as acne. It's common throughout adolescence and young adulthood and peaks around age 40. But older adults aren't immune, and for some people, the problem can be lifelong.