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Flaky scalp: what causes those flakes?

Dandruff is recognizable by visible flakes that can be seen on the hair and shoulders and can be managed with the right shampoo. Dandruff flakes are experienced by almost 50% of people in the world. Read more on dandruff flakes and causes of dandruff.

Young woman with very curly hair holding her hair and looking at the camera concerned.


Everyone’s skin cells go through a natural life cycle where eventually they die, and our bodies shed them. However, dandruff causes an increased shedding of these cells.

Malassezia globosa is a yeast-like microbe, which is found on everyone’s scalp. If you’re sensitive to the oleic acid it produces, then your scalp becomes irritated.

Your body’s natural response to this irritation is to increase the rate at which the skin cells on the scalp are produced. It’s although your body is trying to shed the irritant.

This leads to the visible flakes you see on your head and shoulders, which are often accompanied by other symptoms of dandruff.


Head lice produce eggs called nits. These are often mistaken for dandruff flakes, as they are a similar colour.

How to tell the difference between dandruff and nits:

  • Dandruff flakes are loose; they fall off the hair

  • Nits cling to the hair

  • Nits have a specific teardrop shape

  • Dandruff skin flakes can be found on scalp (where they form) AND hair

  • Nits will be found only on hair fibers

Head lice and nits need to be treated with specially medicated shampoos and manual combing.



The scalp tries to shed the irritant along with the skin cells. In just a few days, a dandruff sufferer can actually produce as many new cells as a healthy scalp produces in a whole month!

The excess skin cells clump together and become the flakes that we recognize as dandruff.

Unfortunately, when new skin cells are being produced so rapidly, they don’t have quite enough time to develop and mature properly. This means that dandruff skin has an unhealthy and more disorganized structure.

The weakened skin is “leaky” – less effective at protecting us from our environment and keeping essential moisture in.

Let’s look at some of the reasons flakes might appear on your scalp:

  • Dandruff. This is caused by a naturally-occurring fungus that lives on our scalp. Yep, everyone has scalp fungus! But 1 in 2 people are sensitive to the oils this fungus produces. Our skin’s sensitivity to these oils causes excessive skin shedding – flakes - and irritation.

  • Dry skin. Just like the skin on the rest of your body, when your scalp’s dry it will flake and sometimes itch.

  • Scalp conditions. Dandruff isn’t the only scalp condition which can cause dryness, flaking and irritation. There are more severe conditions, like psoriasis – a rarer genetic condition – that have similar symptoms. If you’ve already tried washing regularly with Head & Shoulders anti-dandruff shampoo with little results, see your doctor or dermatologist.


Head & Shoulders has been specially formulated to help prevent visible flakes, redness and irritation caused by dandruff.

Head & Shoulders Classic Clean Shampoo is our best-selling anti-dandruff shampoo.

It’s been proven to tackle dandruff and the associated flakes from the first wash, leaving you with soft, manageable and up to 100% flake-free hair.*

You could also try our Smooth & Silky Shampoo – its rich, decadent lather nourishes hair and leaves it shiny and beautiful, while smelling of fresh lavender.

Discover our NEW Derma X Pro Collection, enriched with active Aloe and Vitamin E and powered by a clinically proven anti-dandruff ingredient, Piroctone Olamine. Our formulas, help to reinforce your natural skin barrier and improve moisture retention.

Read more about the symptoms of dandruff

* visible flakes with regular use