If you’ve spent any time researching dandruff treatments, you’ve probably come across articles praising probiotics. Some claim they’re the perfect natural tool for soothing a flaky, itchy scalp. But wait...aren’t probiotics what you find in yogurt and kombucha? What does good digestion have to do with healthy hair?
Probiotics - i.e. beneficial bacteria - are, in fact, used in all sorts of fermented health foods. But they’re also cropping up in more and more skin and hair care products to treat things like acne, eczema, rashes caused by skin allergies, and scalp issues.
In this article, we’ll explore why and how probiotics are a rising star in scalp care. But first, let’s cover some basics. What role does bacteria play in a healthy human body?
The human microbiome: your personal rainforest
The human body is made up of trillions of cells, but you might be surprised to learn that you have nearly as many microbes inhabiting your body, as well. This includes bacteria, fungi, and even viruses coexisting inside you.
These tiny organisms come in a full spectrum - some are beneficial, some are neutral, and some are pathogenic (i.e. they cause illness). Their interactions are so complex that we’re just beginning to understand the myriad of roles they play in our health. The whole ecosystem is called a microbiome - and it’s every bit as complex as a rainforest.
Your microbes aren’t inherited the same way your genes are. Your microbiome changes and grows throughout your life. It can be affected by your diet, exposure to toxins, medications, stress, the amount of sleep you get, and countless other variables.
The more we learn about our dynamic relationship with our microbiome, the more benefits we see to maintaining it properly. That’s why so many people take a probiotic dietary supplement and eat foods rich in naturally occurring probiotics.
Probiotics: an ancient food & wellness technology
Our fascination with probiotic bacteria might seem like a recent health trend. But in fact, people have been putting bacteria to good use for thousands of years. Age-old fermented foods (think yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and tempeh) are all made by introducing beneficial strains of bacteria and yeast into foods to make them healthier and extend their shelf life. (It’s also how we produce alcohol.) These fermentation processes make use of the very same probiotics found in our GI tract. And the outcome - healthy food that doesn’t spoil easily - has been important for many human groups during times of food scarcity.
So how exactly did humans discover this food preservation technique? Yogurt was first produced as far back as 9000 BCE, and was likely formed accidentally when people used a goat or sheep stomach to store milk. These animals’ stomachs contain the same beneficial bacteria Lactobacillus found in human digestive tracts. Once Lactobacillus bacteria are introduced to milk, they lower the pH below what pathogens (like the “bad bacteria” Salmonella) can tolerate. They also digest the milk protein lactose, making the final product easier to digest.
Dairy is just one of many foods that probiotics have helped us preserve. Humans have also fermented vegetables since the Neolithic period - a major discovery for ensuring a steady food supply during long, cold winters. These fermentation techniques harnessed the same Lactobacillus bacteria, which prevents disease-causing pathogens (like dangerous bacteria and mold) from colonizing food.
Of course, the science of how this food preservation technique works wasn’t understood by Europeans until the 17th century. Élie Metchnikoff was the first person to study the bacteria found in soured milk. He postulated that by including them in our diet, we were better able to fight off the harmful strains of bacteria that made us ill. And over the years, more and more research has come out to support this initial hypothesis.
Antibiotics: medicine with a dark side?
Early antibiotics (i.e. substances used to kill bacteria) were also formed from beneficial microorganisms. As far back as ancient Egypt, the topical application of moldy bread was used to treat wounds, helping them heal faster and preventing infection. And of course, modern penicillin (which is derived from a type of mold), has saved countless lives since it was found to fight off infectious bacteria. Since then, natural and synthetic antibiotics have been used to combat infections that the immune system can’t handle on its own.
Today, broad-spectrum antibiotics are often prescribed. And while the health benefits of these drugs can’t be overstated, they also kill indiscreetly, which can wreak havoc on the beneficial microorganisms in your gut.
On top of that, the modern diet is filled with refined grains that have been stripped of fiber, and many people don’t eat enough fruit or vegetables to make up for it. The microbes in your GI tract depend on fiber for food - and without it, many of them will die off. All of this is a recipe for microbiome dysfunction.
Your microbiome is crucial to regulating the way your body works. And just like any other working ecosystem, your body needs to maintain a natural balance to keep the harmful microbes in check. Fortunately, the damage we do with antibiotics and poor eating habits isn’t permanent. Many of the effects of declining gut populations can be reversed - and probiotics just might be a crucial tool in that effort.
How probiotics restore harmony
When your microbiome gets out of balance, harmful bacteria can run rampant and normally beneficial bacteria may turn harmful. These imbalances are also associated with bloating, constipation, diabetes, depression, anxiety, and increased cancer risk.
So can probiotics help bring back harmony to the gut flora, thus promoting overall systemic health? That’s the hope which has driven so much research and discussion over recent years - particularly around the health effects of beneficial bacteria in our digestion.
Research has already shown that probiotics can beneficially alter our hormone activity, which may have a range of positive health impacts. Probiotics can also synthesize vitamins that the body can immediately put to use. This includes vitamins B and K, the presence of which in your gastrointestinal tract can boost mood and enhance the functioning of both nervous and immune systems.
This is just the beginning of a complex field of research. Even so, it’s clear that probiotics have a role to play in keeping our microbiomes working in harmony. That’s why so many doctors now recommend taking a probiotic dietary supplement to introduce billions of colony-forming units of live probiotic cells to boost the population of friendly bacteria in your body.
But what about dandruff? Is microbial imbalance really a factor, and can probiotics help to balance your scalp?
Topical application can directly boost the population of friendly bacteria to help bring balance back to your scalp, and taking probiotic supplements orally may help balance your immune response.
Dandruff & your microbiome
Microbes don’t just play a starring role in your gut - they are present throughout your entire body. For instance, an imbalance of your oral microbiome can cause tooth decay and periodontal disease. Researchers have also found that people with asthma and cystic fibrosis have a different population of microbes in their lungs than healthy individuals. No surprise, then, that skin and scalp health require a balanced microbiome as well.
When your scalp becomes irritated, it begins to flake. That’s dandruff in a nutshell. The underlying issue behind your irritation can include dry scalp, psoriasis, eczema, and seborrheic dermatitis. But whatever the cause, the result is scalp irritation that leads to itching and flaking.
Research has demonstrated that people with dandruff have bacterial and fungal dysbiosis, which is an imbalance of beneficial and harmful microbes in the scalp. In other words, dandruff is a microbial problem - not unlike the gut flora imbalances we discussed above.
One of the key players in the turf war over your scalp is Malassezia yeast. When you have dandruff, Malassezia can thrive out of control, feeding on excess oils produced by your scalp glands. And the more fungus you have growing on your scalp, the more your body’s immune system reacts (or overreacts) to it. This further inflames your scalp, and plays a key role in worsening your dandruff.
The good news is that probiotics might help break this cycle. Topical application can directly boost the population of friendly bacteria to help bring balance back to your scalp, and taking probiotic supplements orally may help balance your immune response. This also lowers the pH of your scalp to make the environment less hospitable for harmful microbiota. This, in turn, can help strengthen the skin’s natural barrier and increase the moisture content of your skin cells. It can also promote hair growth and strengthen hair follicles.
What about home remedies?
The chemistry of your scalp microbiome is incredibly complex. And even beneficial bacteria can cause problems if used incorrectly. Balance is the key here, and a well-balanced formula takes professional expertise to design. If you start tinkering with your own homemade scalp probiotics, you might end up seeing your flakes get worse, rather than better.
Probiotics are just one piece of a larger puzzle, and they will only benefit your scalp in conjunction with scientifically-proven dandruff-fighting tools. The most effective thing you can do to treat dandruff is use a product with the active ingredient, Zinc Pyrithione - a proven powerhouse in the fight against dandruff.
There are some helpful things you can do at home in conjunction with your dandruff treatment to make for a calm and soothed scalp. For instance, taking doctor-approved probiotic supplements can help regulate your immune system, which may ease your flaking. They can also improve your general health by boosting your mood while reducing stress and anxiety. Stress has a wide range of physiological effects on your body, and that includes flare-ups in skin and scalp conditions.
Of course, daily mindfulness can also reduce stress, and self-care plays a big part in that. Eating healthy food to nourish the beneficial bacteria of your gut is also smart - as is getting plenty of sleep.
It's important to use scalp and hair care products that are designed by expert chemists using active ingredients known for their dandruff fighting properties. Adding a probiotic can further help stabilize your microbiome.
Your dandruff and scalp care products should also be be blissful to use, with mood-boosting ingredients like lavender and rosemary. After all, it's important that every step of your scalp care isn't just effective, but enjoyable too.