What Is Yellow Dandruff and How to Deal with Your Scalp Problems?

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Dandruff is the generic term given to flakes of dead skin that fall from the scalp. It’s estimated that over 50 million Americans suffer from dandruff every year.

Flakes of what we assume to be dandruff can vary in size and be yellow in color or more commonly white, looking like little snowflakes.

Yellow dandruff tends to be greasy and sticks to the hair while white flakes often fall from the scalp. Technically yellow dandruff is the only form of dandruff. Flaking skin caused by psoriasis, dry scalp or product build up are merely just that, pieces of dead skin. It can be easy to confuse the conditions but the underlying cause of dandruff and dry skin can be very different, each with various methods of treatment.

What Do Those Flakes Mean?

Any type of dandruff can be a problem to your scalp. Although dandruff isn’t classed as a serious disease and isn’t contagious, left untreated dandruff can damage the hair and even lead to hair loss or thinning. We may all suffer dandruff-like symptoms at some time in our life but it doesn’t make it any less embarrassing when our hair or clothes show the telltale signs of a dandruff problem.

Yellow flakes of dandruff are actually the only true form of dandruff, formed by a yeast-like fungus called Malassezia that occurs naturally on our scalps. Seborrheic dermatitis is the main cause of yellow dandruff with excess oils known as sebum feeding the dandruff-causing fungus. You may think dandruff being a true form or not is irrelevant but understanding what actually causes the embarrassing flakes on your shoulders can help eradicate the snowfall.

Fortunately most dandruff conditions can be treated at home with over the counter products like medicated shampoos and conditioners, holistic or natural formulas and even with home-based DIY homeopathy remedies. Knowing which type of dandruff you have, or even whether it’s really dandruff, can help control the problem. Chronic conditions like psoriasis with scale-like features rather than flakes of dandruff will normally require medical attention or advice for the relief of irritation on the scalp.

Small white flakes falling from the scalp are typically caused by a dry scalp condition. Many factors trigger or cause a dry scalp including colder weather conditions, using shampoos with harsh chemicals, diet, stress or a build up left behind by many styling products. Fortunately exfoliation and rehydration of the scalp often resolves this condition. To get rid of yellow dandruff we must first attack the fungus that’s causing it.

What Is Seborrheic Dermatitis?

Seborrheic dermatitis, also known as seb derm, seborrheic eczema, seborrhea or pityriasis is actually a form of eczema. It’s thought to affect about 3 percent of the population with a higher occurrence in our third or fourth decades of life. For many people this condition can come and go throughout their lives. It’s not a dangerous or contagious condition and can even affect babies, known by the more user-friendly term, cradle cap.

Yellow dandruff is the main symptom of seborrheic dermatitis. Compared to the flakes of skin, or ‘dandruff’ caused by dry scalp they’re larger and more scaly or oily. If you run your fingers through your hair when you have dry scalp you’ll more than likely see a small shower of grainy white flakes falling off the scalp. Try doing the same with dandruff caused by seborrheic dermatitis and the dandruff flakes will more likely be stuck underneath your fingernails.

Seborrheic dermatitis can be found anywhere on the body where sebaceous glands are present including the scalp, forehead, chest, sides of the nose, armpits and the upper back. In addition to yellow dandruff, the skin will exhibit red, inflamed patches that can get incredibly itchy during a particularly bad flare up. Malassezia, the dandruff-causing fungus or yeast, is fed by the excess sebum which the sebaceous glands create as the body tries to fight the infection threatened by the yeast.

What Causes or Triggers Seborrheic Dermatitis and Yellow Dandruff?

There’s still much research to be done before we can be sure of what causes this common skin disease. Factors that scientists do know play a part in the onset of seborrheic dermatitis include:

  • An overproduction of sebum oil by the sebaceous glands.
  • A yeast-like fungus, Malassezia, occurs naturally on the skin especially near oil-producing glands like on the scalp.
  • A thinning of the skin which causes a reduction in its natural barrier or protection.
  • Genetics; if your parents suffered from dandruff, you’re more likely to get it.

People more at risk of seb derm and the resulting yellow dandruff or triggers that can cause a flare up may include certain autoimmune diseases like HIV/AIDS, stress or fatigue, extreme cold or dry weather conditions, diet (in particular a lack of B vitamins and zinc) and some nervous system disorders including Parkinson’s disease or a stroke.

Other common triggers include washing your hair too much, causing skin irritation or thinning, washing your hair oto infrequently causing a build up of fungi or bacteria and even the chemicals in a swimming pool can irritate the scalp and cause a change in its pH balance.

How to Control Seborrheic Dermatitis and Get Rid of Yellow Dandruff

First the bad news; there’s no cure for yellow dandruff or seb derm but fortunately it can be quite easy to bring under control. Although unsightly yellow dandruff itself isn’t a danger to our health, other symptoms and irritations of dandruff may lead to secondary infections or possible hair loss through constant scratching and use of harsh chemical treatments.

Malassezia yeasts occur naturally on the scalp but in a dermatitis seborrheic sufferer the body sees this as a threat and produces more sebum in an attempt to force it away. The increased oils can feed the fungus which causes it to grow and spread to more of the scalp where it appears as yellow greasy dandruff. To reduce the dandruff and control the seb derm, we must fool the body into not seeing the yeast as a threat thus discouraging the growth of the yeast.

As yet, scientists have not found a way of fooling the immune system but there are many ways you can create a hostile environment. Removing or reducing the food source for the yeast, preventing the yeast from forming a protective barrier and attacking or killing the yeast can all be viable ways of getting rid of dandruff and controlling seborrheic dermatitis.

Ways to Kill Yeast and Reduce Yellow Dandruff

The best way to keep seb derm under control is with antifungal active ingredients that attack and kill the Malassezia fungus your body’s reacting to. By controlling this fungus, you’ll also reduce the flakiness or yellow dandruff.

Over the counter medicated shampoos often include at least one of the following antifungal agents:

  • Ketoconazole.
  • Zinc pyrithione.
  • Selenium sulfide.
  • Coal tar.
  • Ciclopirox olamine.

It’s important when trying to get rid of yellow dandruff to go direct for the cause and kill the dandruff-causing Malassezia fungus. This will also lead to a reduction in the redness and itchiness of the scalp which causes yet more flakiness. Once you’ve got rid of the yellow dandruff, you can then worry about little white flakes of skin that dry scalp causes by moisturizing your fungus-free scalp.

Natural treatments also contain many antifungal agents along with antibacterial and anti-inflammatory compounds that fight the fungi and reduce the irritation of the scalp. Essential oils like tea tree oil, coconut oil or argan oil are very effective weapons in the fight against yellow dandruff. Adding lemon juice or witch hazel can act as astringent to counterbalance the fatty acid contents of oils that may feed the fungus.

How to Remove Yellow Dandruff from Your Scalp

Dry white skin flakes or dandruff easily fall from the scalp and are responsible for most of those embarrassing fashion faux pas when living with dandruff. Yellow dandruff is greasier and tends to stick to the hair strands and the scalp. Exfoliation or UV treatments which dry up the greasy dandruff can assist with the removal of yellow dandruff.

Salicylic acid found as the active ingredient in many dandruff shampoos will exfoliate the skin by softening and stripping back the crust. This will also help the antifungal ingredient in a combination shampoo penetrate deeper into the scalp to attack the fungus at the root. Overuse of salicylic acid can unfortunately dry the scalp if the shampoo is used too often.

A scalp brush may also be used to loosen and get rid of a crusty build up of yellow dandruff. The brush will remove flakes, build up and dirt while redistributing the all important sebum oil around the scalp. A UV comb, as often used in cases of psoriasis, combines the combing or brushing effect with the natural benefits of UV light that helps to control the yeast that causes seborrheic dermatitis and yellow dandruff.


Yellow dandruff may not look good, sometimes it may give off a slight odor too, and it definitely doesn’t feel good, but it’s not going to kill you. Seborrheic dermatitis which causes yellow dandruff can easily be tackled with many medicated or botanical shampoos that aim to kill the fungus that causes yellow flakes. If you find greasy yellow flakes of dandruff chances are that you suffer from seborrheic dermatitis. Large silvery scaling of the skin which may often appear with a yellow hue is down to the less common complaint of psoriasis, a completely different ball game.

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