A Curly Girl's Guide to Dandruff


It's embarrassing, it's itchy, it's everywhere. I've had dandruff since I was a teenager, and as my personal care routine has evolved to suit my body's needs my dandruff has stubbornly persisted. When I was shampooing every day? Dandruff. When I went months without shampooing? Dandruff. Tea tree oil? Dandruff. Special shampoos? Dandruff. I want to get to the root (ha) of this problem, and solve my itchy, flaky scalp without destroying my precious curls. Many women, myself included, will tell you they've spent years perfecting their hair care routine. It's a science, a long series of experiments and tweaks to help our hair be healthy and strong. I don't want to lose all the progress I've made in that routine, so the challenge here is really to fix the dandruff without sacrificing the health of my hair. Challenge: Accepted.

I started researching the causes of dandruff and, it turns out, there are not 1, not 2, but 4 potential causes of dandruff (Mayo clinic). This means that you'll have to experiment with different treatments to find what works for you! Ok, so let's take a look at those causes:


EW! According to the Mayo Clinic, one cause of dandruff is "A yeast-like fungus, Malassezia, which lives on the scalps of most adults. But, for some, it irritates the scalp and can cause more skin cells to grow. The extra skin cells die and fall off, making them appear white and flaky in your hair or on your clothes. Why malassezia irritates some scalps isn't known." Ok, so we all have some fungus on our heads, and allegedly this is the primary cause of dandruff for most adults (especially if you're following a solid haircare routine to begin with). What can we do if it's a problem?


There are a lot of natural treatments for this type of dandruff, including:

  • Tea tree oil. My SO uses this highly concentrated kind, rubbing it into his scalp after a shower about once a month.
  • Apple Cider Vinegar. It makes your skin glow! It helps digestion! It cures cancer! I know, I know, ACV is practically the coconut oil of 2017. But allegedly the acidity helps kill the fungus, and prevent it from growing so quickly. Lemon juice also works for this. Mix with equal parts water and spray onto scalp ~15-20 minutes before showering.
  • Medicated Shampoos. You've seen them at the drug store. You're looking for one that contains ketoconazole, selenium sulfide, or pyrithione zinc. It's recommended you use it as often as your hair can handle, which for me is honestly only once a week (even then, the next day is rough). If it helps, awesome! If not, read on.


According to 2016 study published in Nature, bacteria (mainly Propionibacterium and Staphylococcus) can contribute more to dandruff than Malassezia (Study).


Dry Scalp

Symptoms here are small, less-oily white flakes with no redness or inflammation. It's especially likely that this if your culprit if you're prone to dry skin on other parts of you as well.


Irritated, Oily Skin

AKA seborrheic dermatitis. According to Mayo Clinic, this is the most common cause of dandruff, though I'm skeptical of this. The symptoms include red, irritated, greasy skin covered by flaky white or yellow scales, and is often found on other hairy parts of the body, not just your scalp (think: eyebrows). In other words, you would know if you had this, and would definitely want to do something about it. Hence, skepticism. But if you take a close look at your scalp in the mirror and do notice redness or greasiness, this could be what's causing your dandruff!


This is worth seeing your doctor for, and following what they prescribe.


This is just when you don't shampoo enough, so dead skin cells and oils build up then flake off. Honestly, when I was only shampooing once a month, I didn't notice my dandruff get better or worse. I'm guessing, if you're reading this, that this isn't your issue. But it is a common cause of dandruff for the less-than-tidy among us, and knowledge worth having in your back pocket for all those times friends ask you for advice on getting rid of dandruff.


Literally just shampoo more. Any shampoo.

Bad Reaction to Products

I suspect this is kind of rare, and once again that you would know if you had this, but many hair products contain harsh chemicals that your skin may be reacting to. If you think this might be the case, or haven't used a new shampoo in a while, I especially like Dr.Bronner products for natural soaps and shampoos.

General Treatments

There are a few things you can do to keep your body healthy, and prevent some dandruff in the process. These are all things you already know you should be doing, but if dandruff is really the kick in the pants you need to change some habits then do it!

  • Get enough sleep
  • Drink enough water
  • Eat a balanced diet, including lots of fruits and vegetables.
  • Exercise

What Worked for Me

Whew! Ok, so a lot of things could be causing dandruff. I was pretty sure that my dandruff wasn't being caused by buildup or a reaction to any products I was using, and was relatively sure that it wasn't dry scalp (since my scalp was still oily). The Fungus seemed like the most likely culprit based on my symptoms and the fact that it's so common, and since I like using natural products I gave tea tree oil a shot first.

I used 100% tea tree oil, and would just dab it on my scalp 1-2 times each week, and rub it in. This helped a little bit, but not as much as I had hoped. It was also relatively expensive, especially for how much oil I had to use for each use. This was definitely a "There must be a better way!" situation.

Next I tried using baking soda as a scalp scrubber. I would use about 2 tbsp of it in the shower, scrubbing my scalp for a minute or two then rinsing it out. This wasn't a bad solution, but it was definitely kind of messy and left my hair feeling a little dry. On the plus side, though, I discovered that it does make a great (occasional) face scrub, which I used about once every 2 weeks or when my face is feeling especially bumpy or oily. So not bad, but not great either.

The next step was to try a natural anti-dandruff shampoo. I've always been wary of using shampoo, since curly hair tends to do better with minimal shampooing and doesn't hold up well to harsh chemicals and lathering agents common in shampoos (sodium laureth sulfate is basically my hair's worst nightmare). But I found a shampoo that didn't have any of the harsh chemicals I had been conditioned to avoid, was reasonably priced, and had tea tree oil as it's main anti-dandruff combatant. Coincidentally at the same time, I decided to get a scalp scrubber similar to one my boyfriend uses, which turned out to be super useful. I use the shampoo 2x/week, and use the scalp scrubber to lather it and make sure that I get it over all of my scalp. This was the solution I had been waiting for! My hair didn't dry out (and, in fact, I got a new conditioner that makes it super soft and lovely), and my dandruff was gone. Gone gone. No more itching, no more flakes everywhere, no more oily finger and gross keyboard. I cannot overstate what a miracle these 2 products have been for me!


In the end, it was just a matter of trying different things that fit my lifestyle and needs until I found a solution that works. Regardless of what's causing your dandruff or if you even have dandruff, I highly recommend getting a scalp scrubber (the one linked works for me, but shop around for one that works for you!). It helps circulate blood to your scalp, and I've noticed significant improvement in the volume and health of my hair as well as my scalp since using it (your mileage may vary). But for $8 you may as well, right? Then, looking into a natural anti-dandruff shampoo, most likely with tea tree oil, is another good step if you're looking for things to try. I like this one, but again find something that works for you!

So that's it folks! I hope this helps you in your own hair and dandruff journey