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Rosemary for dandruff: checking the facts

Written by Ross Goodhart

Ah, rosemary. A sprig of this unmistakable, woody-scented herb is perfect for roasted potatoes, fresh focaccia, and…scalp care?

It may sound outlandish, but the aromatic plant best known for its culinary appeal has also been used for ages as a natural remedy. In fact, rosemary is among several medicinal plants in the mint family long used in home treatments (lavender is another). When it comes to wellness, this powerhouse herb offers considerable health benefits for both body and mind.

But can rosemary really relieve the flaking and itching associated with dandruff? We’ll get there shortly. But first, let’s review why dandruff happens and how rosemary can be incorporated in your scalp care regimen.

Dandruff: the how, what, & why

You already know the telltale signs of dandruff: an itchy scalp and those pesky white flakes on your clothing and hair.

Dandruff flakes are simply the result of your scalp becoming irritated. This irritation causes your skin cells to flake off in large pieces. But what causes scalp irritation in the first place? There are actually many possible answers to that question. Some of the risk factors for dandruff are: 

Your genes

Skin sensitivities and dandruff seem to run in families, so it’s believed your genes probably play a role in making you more or less likely to experience an itchy scalp and flaking. (Thanks, mom and dad!) 

Hormones

Hormonal fluctuations at different stages of life seem to make dandruff more likely. Many infants develop a form of dandruff called cradle cap. The onset of puberty is another time when dandruff symptoms often arise. Many people who struggle with dandruff as young adults see their symptoms decline as they age. 

Certain skin & health conditions

Several different skin conditions can be underlying causes of flaking. These include psoriasis, eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, atopic dermatitis, and more. 

If you have symptoms on other areas of your body (beyond your scalp and eyebrows, which can both be affected by dandruff), then it’s smart to talk to your doctor or dermatologist and get a clear diagnosis. The same goes for any scalp symptoms that go beyond itchiness, irritation, and little white flakes. 

Some other general health conditions, especially ones that weaken the immune system, also seem to carry an increased risk of dandruff. 

Environmental factors

Air quality can play a big role in skin health. Think about it - your skin spends all day in contact with the outside environment through the surrounding air. 

Pollution and smoking are both known to cause damage to your skin, including premature aging. Dry and cold weather can also ramp up dandruff symptoms, so climate and season are risk factors, too. 

Lifestyle

There are a few aspects of your lifestyle that might make your dandruff symptoms worse or make you more likely to have dandruff in the first place - primarily stress levels and your diet.

While it might be surprising that stress can impact your dandruff, many researchers increasingly believe it’s a contributing factor. It’s no secret that severe or chronic stress can make you feel run down, mentally and physically. In that sense, dandruff is just one of many physical manifestations of your day-to-day mental health. 

The other big lifestyle factor thought to worsen dandruff is your diet. Certain nutrient deficiencies, such as a chronic lack of zinc, may be to blame. Food allergies and diets that promote inflammation in the body are also believed to make dandruff more likely. 

Microbial imbalance

You probably already know that populations of tiny microbes live all over our bodies. They’ve evolved along with us and play a vital role in keeping us alive and healthy. Our skin has its own microbiome, or community of microorganisms, including a yeastlike fungus called Malassezia. People who have dandruff tend to have too much Malassezia, and they may be more sensitive to it than others. 

Dandruff's causes can be complex - but solving it is simple

As you can see, there are many ways to end up with an itchy, irritated, flaky scalp. With so many potential causes and risk factors, you might think dandruff is fairly complicated. In a sense it is, because it’s not always possible to identify what is causing a particular case of dandruff. It can be any one of these factors - or several. 

Regardless of cause, what happens to your scalp when you have dandruff is always the same. There’s irritation of the skin and an overproduction of an oily substance called sebum (which your body naturally produces to help moisturize your scalp and hair). That leads to an overgrowth of Malassezia (which feeds on sebum), and a buildup of dead skin that flakes off your scalp, rather than being shed invisibly as part of normal healthy skin regeneration. 

So whatever triggers this runaway process, you have to practice scalp care to ensure a healthy, thriving scalp. And that leads us back to rosemary. Here’s how the fragrant plant from your herb garden or kitchen pantry can help promote a healthy scalp.

Rosemary essential oil contains several chemical compounds known for their health benefits. Research has shown that they may help protect the liver, fight cancer, and improve mental clarity and memory. 

The many health benefits of rosemary

Rosemary is a woody, flowering evergreen shrub with needle-like leaves that grows naturally in the Mediterranean region and in many other parts of the world. (Its scientific name changed to Salvia rosmarinus from Rosmarinus officinalis in 2017, so you might see both terms used to describe the same plant.)

Rosemary is most often used for its health benefits in the form of rosemary essential oil, a concentrated rosemary extract. The essential oil is created through a steam distillation process using rosemary leaves and sometimes the upper parts of the plant. The dried leaves are exposed to pressurized steam, and the medicinal compounds and oils in the plant evaporate along with the steam. As the mixture cools, the water separates from the essential oil, which floats to the top.

Rosemary essential oil contains several chemical compounds known for their health benefits. Research has shown that they may help protect the liver, fight cancer, and improve mental clarity and memory. 

Here’s a breakdown of those health-boosting rosemary compounds - and how they can add to your skin and scalp care.

Antioxidants can help heal damaged cells

Rosemary oil contains the phenolic compound carnosic acid, a powerful antioxidant. Antioxidants can help boost your cells’ natural healing process by fighting damage caused by free radicals and oxidative stress. Those are both contributors to aging at the cellular level that also cause visible skin aging. 

By healing the underlying tissue and nerves, antioxidants like carnosic acid may help restore skin health and promote hair growth. Phenolic compounds are also thought to fight the growth of cancer cells.

Anti-inflammatory properties can help soothe your scalp

Several compounds in rosemary extract can help calm inflammation and even relieve pain through analgesic effects. These include carnolic acid, oleanolic acid, bornyl acetate, and other chemical components. 

Reducing inflammation on your scalp can ease that destructive cycle taking place and help get things back to normal. (And a little pain relief won’t hurt, either). 

Stimulate circulation to promote healthy hair and skin growth

Rosemary essential oil has been proven in studies to stimulate hair growth. In fact, it’s been found just as effective as the active ingredient in some commercial hair-growth medications. 

Rosemary’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties are thought to boost both the immune system and circulation. (That boost in blood circulation may be exactly how rosemary helps promote hair growth.)

Restore your scalp’s microbiome balance

Rosemary has proven antimicrobial properties, including anti-fungal powers, confirmed in clinical studies. Since people experiencing dandruff usually have too much of the common skin fungus Malassezia, the antimicrobial effects of rosemary might help get your scalp’s microbiome back in balance. 

Your scalp is not a science fair project

With all of these potential benefits of rosemary - and perhaps a few sprigs of the dried culinary herb sitting in your kitchen - should you start experimenting with DIY dandruff remedies? 

No. And here’s why: rosemary essential oil can be a great benefit for scalp care, but using the extract directly on your skin can cause irritation. If you’re already suffering from a sensitive, irritated scalp, it’s important to use a proven formula to address your symptoms.

The biggest risk of taking matters into your own hands when it comes to dandruff remedies is that your kitchen table concoction just won’t work. Rosemary is one of several ingredients that can play a positive role in scalp health, but it’s not the one you need when you’re dealing with the serious itchiness and flaking of dandruff.

How to banish flakes (and feel good doing it)

To keep flakes at bay, your dandruff and hair care regimen should include a well-balanced, scientifically proven formula. It should harness the powers of the proven dandruff-fighting ingredient Zinc Pyrithione to combat flaking combined with additional premium ingredients like rosemary to soothe your scalp.

Your dandruff care products shouldn’t just “get the job done” clinically. They should delight your senses, so you actually look forward to showering every day.

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