Hundreds of years ago, before vitamin C was known to science, sailors would fall ill with the dreaded “scurvy.” Without fresh citrus fruits and vegetables to provide this vital nutrient, they suffered from weakness, exhaustion, bleeding gums, skin ulcers, and even death.
Did they also suffer from dandruff? Possibly!
Vitamin C is an essential nutrient for human beings. If you’re not getting enough in your diet (through fresh fruits and vegetables or through a water-soluble vitamin supplementation), you can run into a range of health complications. Let’s explore how your body uses vitamin C, and why it’s so important for your scalp and hair health.
An Essential Nutrient for Skin & Body
Getting enough vitamin C is crucial to the body’s ability to repair damage, fight intravenous conditions (because it stimulates white blood cells), and produce collagen - a protein that makes up much of our connective tissue and provides our skin with its elasticity and structure.
Today, most Americans are getting their daily recommended dietary allowance of vitamin C. Maybe you take an extra dose as part of a dietary supplement or multivitamin to help fight off the sniffles of a common cold and boost your general health and wellness.
Or you might have come across specialized, skincare products with high levels of vitamin C or vitamin C supplements, especially face serums with large doses of vitamin C content. Applied directly to the skin, vitamin C is famous for its ability to brighten rough, dull, or discolored areas, and for its anti-aging effects. When marketed with the name L-ascorbic acid, it is said to help plump up the skin and reduce fine lines (again, thanks to its promotion of collagen production).
You’ve probably also heard about vitamin C’s antioxidant properties, which can help stave off cellular damage in the skin and throughout the body. Vitamin C’s potency as an antioxidant is also responsible for its immune-boosting powers and some of its anti-aging effects in skin care without very many side effects. Plus, it can help your body with the absorption of iron, which can help treat anemia. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it's been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, tightening the cells lining your blood vessels, and so much more.
Given all these powerful benefits of vitamin C for general wellness and skin health, it shouldn’t be too surprising that it can help your scalp, too. But how exactly does it work? And what’s the best way to get the benefits of this vitamin?
More on that in a moment - but first, let’s get clear on what dandruff is and what causes it.
Scalp Health 101
Little white flakes. If you’re experiencing dandruff, you know and probably dislike them. Those flakes, and the itchiness that comes with them, are due to the irritation of your scalp. It’s not a serious health threat, but it can cause a lot of discomfort.
But few people are familiar with dandruff’s root causes. That may be because dandruff is a bit taboo as a conversation topic, even though over half the population is believed to suffer from it. It turns out that there are many reasons your scalp might get irritated, and they all lead to the same outcome: itchy, flaking skin. Here are some of those risk factors:
Researchers think diets lacking certain nutrients could make dandruff more likely. These may include vitamin C deficiency, as well as zinc, omega 3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and others. Some scientists believe diets that are known to cause inflammation - like those high in sugar, unhealthy fats, processed foods, and allergens - are likely to exacerbate dandruff symptoms, too.
Climate & Air Quality
Humidity levels, air pollution, and sun exposure can play a role in skin health, causing a kind of damage at the cellular level called oxidative stress as well as visible signs of aging. Dandruff tends to get worse for many people in cold weather, dry climates, and in polluted areas.
Your genes can play a role in how prone to dandruff symptoms you are. Skin conditions, allergies, or general skin sensitivities can all be genetic.
Stress is increasingly recognized for the toll it can take on our physical health. For some, stress can cause stomach aches and digestive problems. Others grind their teeth at night or have acne breakouts. And some see dandruff symptoms worsen.
There are many reasons to invest in regular self-care to manage stress - whether that’s time in nature, mindfulness meditation, or exercise - the benefits of which can improve your overall physical health including your ability to fight dandruff.
The “microbiome” of the gut has become a trending topic in health and wellness. You might have heard discussions about how the natural flora in your intestinal tract can impact everything from your immune system to your mood.
The truth is that billions of tiny microorganisms play crucial roles in every part of our body - including our skin. Malassezia is a genus of fungus that naturally occurs on human skin. An overgrowth of Malassezia is thought to play a role in dandruff.
Hormone levels are another likely factor in dandruff, which could help explain why the risk for dandruff varies according to age. For some, symptoms often start during puberty and get less severe over time.
Underlying Skin Conditions
Psoriasis, eczema, and dermatitis can all cause or contribute to flaking. If you have symptoms beyond an itchy, flaky scalp, it’s smart to see your doctor or dermatologist to address your health concerns. But also be aware that it’s definitely possible to have dandruff without having any of these skin conditions.
Vitamin C can be a powerful aid in breaking the unhealthy skin cycles that often lead to dandruff symptoms.
Every Dandruff Case is Unique - But The Treatment is The Same
Dandruff isn’t curable. And with so many potential risk factors, it can be hard to pinpoint precisely what’s behind any one case. Fortunately, dandruff can be easily managed. It’s entirely possible to keep flakes and irritation in check using a proven scalp treatment in combination with small lifestyle changes.
The process leading to scalp itchiness and flaking generally includes a buildup of excess sebum on your scalp and too much of a fungus that feeds on it (Malassezia). This fungus then produces waste that the scalp can find especially irritating, leading to itching and flaking.
Treating the symptoms associated with dandruff effectively means interrupting this process. The key is regular use of a scientifically formulated product including the active ingredient, Zinc Pyrithione, that helps remove excess sebum and dead skin while taming Malassezia overgrowth.
How Vitamin C Can Help
The effects of Vitamin C can be powerful at breaking the unhealthy skin cycles that often lead to dandruff symptoms. Common good sources of vitamin C include ascorbic acid and ascorbate. These compounds are crucial to the body’s ability to repair damaged tissues. Aside from vitamin C supplementation, it can be found in foods such as brussels sprouts, red peppers and, most famously, citrus fruits.
Here’s how the special properties of vitamin C might help address dandruff:
A Potent Antioxidant
Oxidative stress - a type of damage occurring within the cells of our body - is thought to play a central role in aging, including many age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration, cataracts, cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, and more. Oxidative stress from sun exposure, smoking, and pollution is also behind many of the visible signs of aging in the skin, including dark spots, loss of elasticity, and wrinkles.
Vitamin C is thought to combat this type of damage. As one of the most potent antioxidants in the skin, it helps neutralize molecules called free radicals that cause oxidative stress. This may help promote wound healing, and can help strengthening the scalp and hair through increased collagen production.
Collagen provides essential structure in the body. It is also a major element in skin and helps keep it strong, elastic, and moisturized - elements we associate with a youthful and healthy appearance.
High doses of vitamin C seems to boost collagen production, which can help fight the appearance of dryness and rough skin on a scalp with dandruff.
Immune System Regulator
The immune system is thought to play a role in dandruff, in part because people with seriously compromised immune systems are more likely to suffer from the condition. Some researchers think the immune system in dandruff sufferers may actually be overreacting to an overgrowth of the Malassezia fungus on the scalp. This would explain the resulting irritation.
While it’s still not clear exactly how the immune system works in causing or contributing to dandruff, strengthening your body’s ability to fight infection is never a bad idea. Vitamin C’s role in boosting immunity may have some benefit in addressing dandruff.
Vitamin C is known to be “immunomodulatory” - in other words, it doesn’t just boost your immune function, it can help to better regulate it. So whatever the immune system’s role in dandruff, it’s possible vitamin C can help.
Since fungal overgrowth is linked to dandruff, it’s wise to look to antimicrobial ingredients to help control the condition. Vitamin C is known to fight infections, including those from bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
Should I Try Vitamin C Skin Serum on My Flaky Scalp?
Although vitamin C can be a useful part of your skin care routine, it’s not a good idea to simply pour it on your scalp, especially without medical advice from a health professional or your healthcare provider. Instead, look for this ingredient as part of a balanced chemical formulation built with your scalp health in mind which will lower the risk of adverse effects.
The pitfalls of going DIY with scalp care are significant, especially for people who already have sensitive or irritated skin. Using vitamin C in high concentrations directly on the scalp can lead to increased irritation.
Through clinical trials, vitamin C intake on its own is proven to not be very shelf stable and will break down quickly if not combined with other ingredients to help stabilize it. This is another reason to look to professional anti-dandruff formulas; they’re designed to stay fresh and keep the vitamin C they contain active.
But the most important risk of going DIY with your dandruff remedy is that it just won’t work. A professionally formulated anti-dandruff product is the key, and you need one containing Zinc Pyrithione, a proven dandruff-fighting active ingredient, and tested in the lab to ensure it’ll really kick your flakes to the curb.
Don't Be Flaky
It's important that your anti-dandruff product treats your flakes and itching but also nourishes and indulges your hair and your senses at the same time. Look for the powerful active ingredient Zinc Pyrithione to help fight dandruff, paired with calming, luxe ingredients like vitamin C and vitamin E to leave your scalp and hair looking its best.