Does Malassezia cause dandruff? What the science says

Written by Ross Goodhart

Reviewed by Julie Karen, M.D.

Malassezia. It may sound exotic, but you’ve already got an intimate relationship with this fungus. It lives on all human skin, and is a natural part of your skin’s microbiome - the ecosystem of tiny organisms that live in and on your body, and are essential to your health. 

If you have dandruff, however, Malassezia has seized control of your scalp, contributing to the irritation of your skin - and ultimately to flaking and itching. People with dandruff tend to have too much Malassezia, a sign that their scalp’s microbiome is out of balance. 

So does Malassezia actually cause dandruff? What makes it run rampant? And what’s the best way to restore health and comfort to your suffering scalp and its delicate microbiome? Let’s take a deep dive into the science of Malassezia and scalp health - and look at how to regain a more balanced relationship with this fascinating fungus.

Malassezia 101

Malassezia isn’t just one fungus. The name actually refers to a whole genus of fungi, many of which live on the skin of humans and other animals. 

Different species of Malassezia in different numbers may live in your scalp depending on your geography and environment. Interestingly, one study comparing cases of dandruff in India found that people in the country’s north had more Malassezia restricta, while people in the country’s south had more Malassezia furfur. (Other species, including Malassezia globosa, are also linked to dandruff in various parts of the world.)

The fungus Malassezia furfur is also known to cause seborrheic dermatitis - which can lead to dandruff - and other human skin conditions. (Not-so-fun fungus fact: a close relative to that species, Malassezia pachydermatis, is a common cause of ear infections in dogs and skin conditions in other animals. In fact, it was first identified in a rhino with a bad case of dermatitis.)

When it comes to Malassezia and dandruff, one thing is clear. Whatever combination of different Malassezia species your skin microbiome might include, if you have dandruff, you’ve got too much of the fungus on your scalp. Scientific research has consistently shown that people with an itchy scalp and flaky skin have more Malassezia than people with healthy, dandruff-free scalps. 

The microbiome & health

Malassezia is just one example of how a balanced microbiome is essential to healthy human bodies. 

Often, we think of our bodies as independent of our environment. But the truth is that the communities of microorganisms on our skin, in our digestive tract, and elsewhere in our bodies have significant impacts on our health. They are crucial to digestion, our immune systems, and likely even to our psychological well-being.

Many different factors can affect your microbiome, from your diet to your environment to antibiotic medications and other medical treatments. Increasingly medical researchers are using probiotics to restore health to the microbiome, as a way to treat health problems and boost wellness. 

It’s a fascinating area of research. Fortunately, researchers already have a fairly solid understanding of the link between microbiome imbalance and dandruff - and how to restore health to your scalp.

Scientific research has consistently shown that people with an itchy scalp and flaky skin have more Malassezia than people with healthy, dandruff-free scalps.

The link between excess Malassezia & dandruff

To understand dandruff and Malassezia’s role in it, let’s look at how healthy scalps compare to those with itching and dandruff flaking.

In a healthy scalp, dead skin cells shed constantly as new ones grow. The sloughing off of dead skin cells usually goes unnoticed - the particles are tiny and the process doesn’t cause any visible flakes or irritation. The lifecycle of skin cells on the scalp is usually around a month. 

In people with dandruff, though, this process happens much faster and with more destructive results. Some studies have shown that people with dandruff grow and shed skin cells in the scalp in a matter of days or a week. 

Malassezia’s role

An overgrowth of Malassezia is thought to be fueling this rapid skin growth cycle. Malassezia feeds on sebum, the natural moisturizer secreted by your sebaceous glands. These glands are attached to every hair follicle, which is why the hairier parts of your body tend to be more oily. Sebum provides natural moisture to the hair shaft and the skin and helps protect them. 

People with dandruff have too much sebum on their scalps. This encourages an overgrowth of Malassezia. Many people are sensitive to one of the waste products this fungus leaves behind on the skin, oleic acid, which can become even worse when there’s a population explosion of Malassezia

Unhealthy buildup

Put it all together and you’ve got a lot of unhealthy buildup in your scalp - of sebum, Malassezia, and irritating oleic acid. 

Researchers think your skin reacts to the irritation by trying to grow more and more new skin cells to help purge the irritants. This is one explanation for why those experiencing dandruff have such accelerated life cycles for the skin cells on their scalps compared to people with healthy scalps.  

Unfortunately, your scalp’s desperate efforts to grow and purge irritants don't really work. Instead, you end up with a buildup of excess dead skin cells, along with itchiness and irritation. The pesky white flakes and itching from dandruff are the result. 

Rebalancing your scalp's microbiome

Getting rid of dandruff means giving your scalp a little help to restore its healthy microbiome. There are lots of ingredients that promote a healthy scalp - from salicylic acid to vitamin C to spearmint and rosemary essential oils. These can all play a role in caring for your scalp and hair. 

But reams of scientific studies show there’s a crucial active ingredient no dandruff shampoo should be without: Zinc Pyrithione. Zinc Pyrithione is fungistatic - meaning it keeps the cells of fungi from dividing, stopping their growth. In other words, it’s your key to taming the Malassezia in your scalp. Reducing Malassezia lets you reduce oleic acid wastes and the irritation they cause, soothing your irritation. 

This is why regular use of a dandruff shampoo containing Zinc Pyrithione is the best way to get rid of dandruff for good. 

Tame Malassezia with a spa-quality treatment

Most anti-dandruff shampoos smell, feel, and look medicated: they might be chalky, runny, and have a bad fragrance you don’t want following you around. And they don’t necessarily provide the best care for your scalp and hair. 

Even if these mainstream dandruff treatments use Zinc Pyrithione for effectiveness, they tend to contain unsafe ingredients like parabens and phthalates, and are often so unappealing that people don’t want to use them regularly. Without regular use and compliance, these drugstore brands won't even work. Other treatment products that target the scalp focus more on lovely-sounding natural ingredients - and just don’t work without the powerful active ingredients.

This is why we created Jupiter. Jupiter is the first elevated dandruff and scalp care brand that takes a truly complete approach to your hair and scalp. Our dandruff care products treat flakes and itching, while our scalp care products nourish your locks and scalp.

Jupiter products take advantage of all that nature has to offer for great scalp and hair health, including ingredients like moisturizing coconut oilfragrant lavender, and more. Jupiter’s dandruff treatments tame Malassezia and nix flakes the proven, science-based way, with Zinc Pyrithione. And our products never contain artificial fragrances, dyes, sulfates, phthalates or parabens. Learn more about what sets us apart.

The “Gotta Get” Set

If you have light-to-moderate flaking, dry scalp, redness or irritation, this is the go-to duo for you. Formulated as a pair, our medicated shampoo tends to your dandruff, while the conditioner adds needed moisture to your scalp and hair. The net result = a clean, hydrated scalp and healthy, shiny hair. Check out The "Triple Threat" Set if you flake on the regular and could use a bit more control.

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The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice, nor is it a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician with any questions you may have about the information contained herein, as well as the risks or benefits of any treatment.

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