How I got rid of my dandruff and itchy scalp

I’ve been struggling with an oily, itchy, dandruff-y scalp since I was about 30 and I almost can’t believe it. But after trying just about every anti-dandruff shampoo on the planet, I now got rid of my itchy, oily, head of hair by doing just about the opposite of what is the common belief you should do. How? I’ll explain.

First, what is dandruff and what is the cause of it?

About 50% of men in their twenties have dandruff. 2/3 of all people “suffer” from it at one point in their live. Dandruff usually presents itself as white flaky particles that, in bad cases, can become very noticeable. The flakes are dead skin cells that have been shed from your scalp.  A lot of people think dry skin is the cause of dandruff, but that’s not true – dry skin can cause some flaking, but the particles are usually too small to see. Most people with dandruff have oily skin, and latest research shows that the real culprit is probably a tiny fungus called malassezia globosa that needs fat (=oil!) to grow. Now, this isn’t anything nasty – every human being has this little bastard on its skin. It only becomes a problem when the fungus grows too rapidly, and our natural renewal of cells is disturbed. It causes skin-cells to renew too fast, and dandruff will start to show, because the skin cells bond with the oil on the surface of your scalp. Result: a formation of white flakes.

When looking for ways to get rid of this annoying flaking, you usually read things like: Wash your hair daily, massage shampoo in well and leave in for some minutes, use anti-dandruff shampoo (duh), and so on.
Anti-dandruff shampoo’s can contain a lot of ingredients that, according to the cosmetics companies, cure dandruff: Coal Tar extract, Salicylic Acid, Selenium Sulfide, Sulfur, Ketoconazole, and Zinc Pyrithione, of which the last one is probably best known: this is used in most normal drugstore shampoos like Head & Shoulders, Pantene, L’Oreal, and so on.  Well, while these  ingredients might keep the dandruff under control, it certainly won’t help you get rid of it forever. And it’s a lot of work to wash and style your hair daily! It can’t really be healthy either, putting all that stuff on your head time and time again.

Do you think your (grand)parents washed their hair every day? They didn’t. The hair-washing “epidemic” only started in the 70’s and was made up by some very smart marketing people with big $$$ in their eyes.

So called anti-dandruff-combAs you might notice, I was getting pretty desperate. I even bought an anti-dandruff comb in the US, that “leaves behind copper particles to kill the fungal infection”. Well, it did nothing for me except combing my hair (which it did and still does well), and I guess not for anybody else either. You see, companies are very good at making up stuff so they can make money on us silly believers. Because if you ask me, one of the biggest pranks the cosmetics industry pulled on us, is how they got us all addicted to shampoo.

Normal, healthy hair and scalp have a natural balance that is disturbed every time you wash them. Did you know that normal shampoos contain chemicals (mostly sulfates, like sodium lauryl sulfate) that are identical to the ones found in detergents you clean your kitchen with? They completely strip your hair and scalp  from its natural oils and destroy the balance. This makes you want to use conditioner and styling products – usually made with petrolatum and mineral oil – which act as a substitute for the oils you just rinsed out of your hair. But after washing, your body also starts making sebum (oil) like crazy to restore the natural balance. So what happens? Your hair will become very oily very fast again and within a day your scalp will be a great place  for… the fungus causing dandruff  to have a little party in. Hmmm…!

 So you wash your oily, itchy hair, stripping it from its oil, use all their fake-oily styling products, your hair becomes oily again very fast, you get flakes and itchiness, and then the whole circle starts again from the beginning: we have become addicted to shampooing our hair! When I realized that.. it made me think: what if I could break that cycle?

I decided to do an experiment.

1. I stopped using normal shampoo’s (containing aggressive ingredients) and anti-dandruff shampoo’s entirely and switched to using natural / organic shampoo’s without silicones, sulfates like sls, and other nasty chemicals, like Rahua.

Hair after cold rinse -> and after warm rinse

2. When washing my hair, I first make it wet with luke-warm water. Then I very gently massage in the natural/organic shampoo (don’t use your nails) so I don’t irritate the skin. Then, and this is very important: rinse out with cold water. As cold as you can handle. Cold water will close the cuticles of the hair and skin pores, which makes it much easier for them to keep out dirt or any harmful substances that may cause negative reactions like dandruff. Your hair will be softer, silkier, sleeker and shinier then after a warm water rinse – so you also need to use less or even no styling products.

3. I stopped washing my hair so often. I started with every other day. Then two times per week. Then even less. This was pretty hard in the beginning – my dandruff got worse and my hair got really oily. But just when I was about to give up, I noticed a radical change:  my itchiness was gone and my hair looked .. healthy! Apparently my scalp realized something had changed and didn’t need to produce so much oil anymore. Hooray!

Quote from a book written in 1955: “to keep them healthy, wash your hair and scalp once every ten days.”

4. I towel dry my hair with a clean towel, or a towel that I only used on my hair. This is to make sure no bacteria and stuff from hands or other parts of the body reach the hair. Do this very gently. Don’t rub, just pad and let the towel absord the water.

5. Styling – since I don’t strip my hair from its oils, I hardly need styling products.  Only if we go out and I want to look even more sexy then I already do (ugh), I use a little bit of Balm Balm with Tea Trea – this works great as a hair styling product!  Tea Tree has great antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiseptic qualities and thus will create a climate that’s not attractive for the fungus to grow in.

6. Last tip. Water contains minerals like calcium, and natural / organic, sulfate free shampoo’s are less good at removing these from your hair. So when you have water like this – very hard water like here in Berlin – you might start to notice your hair seems to slowly turn a bit…. grey!? OMG! You can pobably imagine Ingy teasing me non-stop when this started to happen. But, then I started to see small particles of calcium, which can be mistaken for dandruff. But I knew I wasn’t turning grey just yet!

Well, I’m glad to tell you, there is a very easy solution for this buildup of minerals. As you might know, sour liquids take very good care of getting rid of calcium – next to the water tap for example. (By the way, did you know we use Dr. Bronner lemon soap to clean the kitchen, floor and parts of the bathroom with? Mixed with water this makes a perfect, toxic free, cheap  household cleaner that is totally safe for children. Read more at this awesome blog: Anyway, I remembered my mom sometimes rinsed her hair with a vinegar mix when I was little… and I had another aha moment! So I went to the supermarket and bought some organic apple cider vinegar. I think it was 2 euro for a liter.. in Germany you can just get it even at Lidl! It works absolutely great. Once every two weeks or so, after shampooing, I simply make a little mix of 1/4 vinegar and 3/4 water, put it in my hair, leave it in for a minute, and rinse it out – with cold water of course. This makes hair look amazing: shiny and healthy – just the way we want it.

Good luck!

Most important sources:

My head
My mom

Update – I learned some more… and respond to a lot of similar mails and comments I got from readers.

I did a test and tried to see if I could “cause” a flare up by using normal, or even anti-dandruff shampoo. Turns out, yes I can! I washed my hair with head and shoulders and I have to admit, cleaning my hair and scalp vigorously like that felt pretty good. So two days later I did it again. And like clockwork, my scalp became itchy, redy and started flaking again. The first thing that came to mind was to use the H&S shampoo again, but I resisted and used my normal shampoo again. It took me almost a month to restore balance!

Some readers mailed me saying their scalp resonds badly to coca betaine. That’s no surprise really. People can indeed be sensitive to all sorts of surfactants. Coca betaine is a lot milder though compared to SLS and usually causes less problems. But I know there are people for who it’s the other way around.

I learned that even though I have my dandruff pretty much under control, I’m still sensitive to it. I am always trying to keep the balance so the complaints don’t come back. I managed to do this by using only Rahua’s voluminous shampoo, which after trying many shampoo’s, seems to work the best. It also contains citric acid (which is sour) – just enough to remove the minerals from my hair so there is no need for extra rinsing (I do not particularly enjoy the smell of vinegar in the morning). I agree it’s expensive for a shampoo but I only wash my hair once or twice a week, and use just a little bit. The trick is to leave it in for 2 to 5 minutes before rinsing it out so the surfactant can do it’s work. This way a little goes a long way and a bottle lasts me months.

Every now and then, I do feel that I might be loosing control and dandruff comes back a bit. What really helps then is using a shampoo containing 2.5% selenium sulfide, but no SLS. But I use this only once! This helps enough for months, because I certainly don’t want to use that stuff a lot, so after that I go back to my regular shampoo. I did this 3 times in the last year. (I also tried a 1% selenium sulfide shampoo but this did not help at all.) The difference between selenium sulfide and other active ingredients in anti-dandruff shampoo’s is that the selenium sulfide actually fights the cause of dandruff, the fungus, while other actives like Zinc Pyrithione (which most over the counter anti-dandruff shampoos use) only clean the scalp really well. They remove the flakes, but that’s it! They do not fight the cause. So basically, they’re useless and you have to continue using them all the time. Anyway, this means that you can do a test: use a shampoo contaning selenium sulfide and if it helps, the cause of your dandruff is the fungus. If it doesn’t help, it’s something else, like irritated skin.

Knowing this, is the first step to getting back control because it can help you on your way to solve the problem!


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