Facial dandruff—or any dandruff in general, really— is arguably one of the least sexy topics in the world, but the condition affects up to 30 percent of the population and deserves a discussion. It's not just an aesthetic annoyance, either. Facial dandruff can also trigger itchiness, irritation, and sometimes mild pain. We spoke to two dermatologists about what causes facial dandruff and the best way to treat those annoying flakes once and for all.
What Is Facial Dandruff?
Generally speaking, dandruff is a nonmedical term that refers to white flakes that are often paired with itchiness, redness, and sometimes discomfort or pain. Facial dandruff is most likely to occur in our eyebrows, the beard area in men, nose, ears, and nasolabial folds. In some cases, dandruff is simply the result of excessive dryness or irritation caused by external factors, such as cold air and certain ingredients in our products.
In other cases, dandruff is actually caused by a medical condition called seborrheic dermatitis. Long story short, this is an inflammatory skin condition that causes redness and flaking on top of the skin, especially in areas where we have a lot of oil glands and/or grow hair. "Commonly affected areas include the scalp, face, and chest, and [in rare cases] genitalia or body creases," says Melanie D. Palm, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and medical director of Art of Skin MD in Solana Beach, Calif. "Seborrheic dermatitis is worsened by the overgrowth and imbalance of yeast on the skin." This yeast (malassezia) is already present on our skin, but if it becomes imbalanced, dandruff thrives
Factors that can create an imbalance include hormones, genetics, poor hygiene, stress, and aging. "When in overabundance, it causes skin cells to multiply at a much faster rate and excess oil builds up," explains Scott Paviol, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Paviol Dermatology in Charlotte, N.C. "That excess oil causes skin cells to accumulate and the [skin] sheds more than usual. The white, or sometimes yellowish, scales then flake off and cause dandruff."
How to Treat Facial Dandruff
Treating facial dandruff requires knowing what's causing the flakes. As mentioned, there are two primary causes: dryness and irritation, and the skin condition seborrheic dermatitis.
How to Treat Facial Dandruff Caused by Dryness and Irritation
Treatment is a matter of nixing (or scaling back) any potential irritants you may be applying to your facial skin. Common irritants may include alcohol, fragrance, potent preservatives, dyes, and detergents. These are more likely to affect people with sensitive skin or allergies to any of the above.
Additionally, overuse of acids, enzymes, retinoids, and benzoyl peroxide, among other exfoliants, can lead to dryness, sensitivity, redness, and flaking. These ingredients can be amazing for our skin in moderation, but they should be used as instructed. When in doubt, read the label directions and scale back if you notice it's causing facial dandruff or irritation.
And of course, always equip yourself with moisturizers. A humectant, such as hyaluronic acid, paired with emollient ingredients, such as oils and butters, can help boost hydration and retain moisture. Ingredients that bolster the skin barrier, such as ceramides, peptides, and niacinamide, can further protect your skin and help nix those flakes. Try Versed Dew Point Moisturizing Gel-Cream ($15; versedskin.com) and Dr. Zenovia Peptide + Ceramide Repairing Moisturizer ($79; sephora.com).
How to Treat Facial Dandruff Caused by Seborrheic Dermatitis
Tackling this type of facial dandruff requires rebalancing the yeast on your skin. The above information still applies (avoiding irritants and being religious about moisturizing), but you'll also want to incorporate a special medicated product. While there's technically no cure for seborrheic dermatitis, you can alleviate discomfort and greatly reduce its appearance.
"I recommend using a topical antifungal cream to treat the yeast. You can also use a zinc or sulfur cleanser to target yeast and inflammation," says Dr. Palm. "However, do not use topical steroids on this condition. It may initially improve seborrheic dermatitis, but the skin will get conditioned to steroid use, the steroid 'feeds' the yeast, and it is difficult to taper off without triggering another flare-up."
Dr. Palm's favorite products for treating facial dandruff include Noble Formula's 2% Pyrithione Zinc (ZnP) Original Emu Bar Soap ($13; amazon.com) and Glytone Acne Treatment Mask ($36; dermstore.com), which is formulated with sulfur to target excess oil production.
Dr. Paviol adds that if you're already using a medicated shampoo or conditioner, you can use it to treat facial dandruff as well. He recommends Head & Shoulders Clinical Strength Dandruff Defense Intensive Itch Relief Shampoo ($9; target.com) and Selsun Blue Dandruff Shampoo ($7; amazon.com).
Either way, your dermatologist can provide you with personalized insight into why you're dealing with facial dandruff and get you on the right track for treatment and long-term management. "If after a month you aren't improving, you should make an appointment with your local dermatologist to see if you need a prescription product to treat more resistant cases," says Dr. Paviol.