There’s a much discussed natural treatment for dandruff that’s all over the Internet.

But is it legit?

That’s the question that one recent graduate of St. Louis University School of Medicine in Missouri, Erica Glenn, MD, asked herself while she was working with a pediatric dermatologist and encountered many parents asking about natural remedies for their babies’ dandruff. So she searched the scientific literature on the topic and made an interesting discovery.

She found that not only does this popular natural treatment not cure dandruff—it actually may make dandruff worse.

To set the record straight, she cowrote a letter that was recently published in a major medical journal, and then I spoke with her to get the lowdown on which dandruff remedies actually work…


Dandruff—dried skin that peels off the scalp—is most frequently caused by an overgrowth of a fungus called Malassezia. This fungus appears on the scalps of many people in small amounts without causing problems, but sometimes stress, illness, excess skin oil, changes in hormones and even just a bad roll of the genetic dice can cause it to overgrow.

The common Web remedy typically instructs people with dandruff to apply about eight to 10 drops of olive or vegetable oil to the scalp, cover the head with a shower cap and then keep the oil on the scalp overnight.

The problem with this treatment, said Dr. Glenn, is that these two oils provide the perfect environment for the Malassezia fungus to thrive! That’s because this fungus consumes saturated fats. (Even though vegetable and olive oils contain mostly unsaturated fats, they contain some saturated fats, too.) To make matters worse, the unsaturated fats in the olive oil and vegetable oil can cause further inflammation and scaling.

So if vegetable or olive oil isn’t the solution, what’s the best way to treat dandruff—and prevent it from forming in the future?


Most people will be able to make “hair dust” a thing of the past by following Dr. Glenn’s tips, below…

  1. Remove the flakes. Get rid of the immediate problem—the white flakes—first. Olive oil and vegetable oil won’t help, but other oils might. Try mineral oil or baby oil from a drugstore, because those don’t contain fats that can be consumed by the Malassezia. Opt for one that’s fragrance-free so there’s less risk of irritating the scalp. Once a day, 15 minutes before showering, apply at most a quarter-sized amount of either oil to the scalp and massage it in. After 15 minutes, brush or comb your hair to remove most of the flakes. Then when you get in the shower, move on to the next steps, below.
  2. Destroy the fungus. Treat the underlying problem and prevent dandruff from forming again by getting rid of the overgrown fungus itself. Use an over-the-counter antidandruff shampoo from any drugstore that contains an antifungal ingredient, such as Head & Shoulders (which contains pyrithione zinc or selenium sulfide) or Selsun Blue (which contains selenium) or Neutrogena T/Gel (which contains tar). Use the shampoo as directed, and if it doesn’t eliminate your dandruff completely after a few weeks, your doctor can give you a prescription-strength antidandruff shampoo.
  3. Soothe the scalp. Finally, after using the antidandruff shampoo, use a conditioner that says “moisturizing” on the bottle. That will soothe your scalp, since it’s likely dry and may be irritated. Just avoid conditioners that list olive oil, vegetable oil—or any other oils that contain saturated or unsaturated fats—as ingredients because those will only make dandruff worse.