Monday, January 14, 2019

Dandruff as You Make It

Last year I did a gross post on fingernails and wanted to continue my trend of weird, gross science by talking about dandruff today.

I'm always looking for new topics to discuss and write about, and the topic of dandruff came up recently.    I had gone to get my hair fixed and the stylist had exclaimed, "Oh.  You have dandruff."

That's not a great thing to hear.  It would be sort of like a dentist casually observing your breath is terrible.  Way to make me feel self-conscious, stylist, thanks a lot!  Now I have to live with that forever.

Dandruff isn't a new thing.  I don't mean for me, specifically.  I mean in general.  It's been around since the dinosaurs; the oldest known dandruff is about 200 million years old and can be viewed at the world's worst museum.

And yet, we still don't know what the hell causes it.  Don't get me wrong, we know what it is: it's little flakes of dead skin.  Everyone's skin is sloughing off all the time, and certain hair types are more likely to capture flakes, and hair is naturally oily so of course dead skin is going to clump together.

Artist's depiction of your skin doing what it does.

But some people have it better and some people have it worse, and we don't know whether that's due to genetics or the scalp's microbiome (you have lots of bacteria all over your skin) or fungus (you also have lots of yeast all over your head) or what.  If you click on the links in this article, you'll see multiple fungal culprits that are "identified" as the cause.  What's more, it's not even necessarily easy to say whether or not flakes in your hair means you have dandruff.  Dandruff is often confused with seborrhoeic dermatitis, a similar, related condition that's more severe and includes inflammation.

Instead of a gross picture of an inflamed scalp, here's Thor getting a haircut.

 The movies diverged a lot from the comics.

If you have dandruff, there's not much you can do.  It's not a curable condition.  Washing your hair more often makes it less noticeable, but contrary to popular belief, it's not dryness that causes dermatitis, so you can toss away all those fancy conditioners you spent so much money on.

Speaking of money, it might interest you to know that Head and Shoulders, the #1 selling anti-dandruff shampoo, moves over 29 million units a year, and in turn, pulls in maybe a hundred million dollars a year for its parent company, Proctor & Gamble, which made a total of $66.83 billion last year.  Head and Shoulders claims to know the cause of dandruff; according to their website, it's a fungus called Malassezia.  The Malassezia genus has 14 species, and our friends over at H&S specifically think the cause of dandruff is Malassezia globosa.  They claim to have "cracked the genetic code" in 2002, which is super weird because it took me less than five minutes of digging on the internet to find the genome, which was published in 2007.  (I'm not saying they didn't do it, because they did.  The scientists who sequenced the genome work for Proctor & Gamble.  I just find this to be a weird discrepancy.)

In 2016, however, independent scientists suggested that bacteria, not fungi, probably play a great role.  Which is fine, because most antifungals play double-duty as antibacterials.

To be fair to H&S, malassezia fungi are a really good candidate for being the cause of dandruff, although it's probably not that simple.  Malassezia, as a fungus, eats fat, and so it loves the sebaceous glands on your head, which produce oil, ie, fat.  Anti-dandruff shampoos like Head and Shoulders have anti-fungal ingredients like zinc pyrithione.  But not everyone sees the same results.  And there are plenty of natural remedies for dandruff, including, but not limited to, limes (an anti-fungal due to the acidity), vinegar (also an anti-fungal), coal tar, and salicyclic acid (a plant hormone).  These don't just act as anti-fungals, though.  They also have antibiotic properties, and can aid the sloughing of the skin, dislodging the flakes in your hair so your dandruff, while not at all "cured," is certainly less noticeable.

You could also just wear a goddamn hat.
Google "greyhounds wearing hats" if you love yourself.

And ultimately that's how brands like Head and Shoulders make their money: not by "curing" your "disease" but by promising you to make it less noticeable, and by making themselves sound credible by flinging science words in your face.  Dandruff is not a condition that can hurt you or even one that you should really care much about (assuming it's not causing you to itch).  Dandruff is relatively benign, and somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of people have it.  It waxes and wanes, just like most normal human skin conditions.  And yet one-third of people with dandruff wear clothes based on what is best to hide their condition, and one-fifth said they would rather have a headache or heartburn.

Why are we so self-conscious about a common, benign condition?  In the above study about how self-conscious people with dandruff are, only about one in ten knew the cause (naturally occurring fungus on the skin, probably), whereas half were worried that people who saw their dandruff would think they have poor hygiene (which we know does not cause dandruff).  Where the heck did they get such an idea?


Oh, snap.  It was Head and Shoulders all along.

Remember how I said Head and Shoulders makes a hundred million a year?  They did that by convincing us in their advertising that dandruff is shameful and we needed their product in order to navigate social situations effectively.  Fear sells.  And H&S knows that.

I hope you appreciate the ridiculous amount of time I spend 
creating stupid graphics like this one for my posts.

It wouldn't be fair of me, of course, to blame Head and Shoulders alone.  That would be like trying to pin dandruff on Malassezia globosa.  Other companies are guilty of using the same tactics; nearly any large pharmaceutical that trades in body care products has probably convinced you that you are either imminently about to die of your condition or that your condition is grotesque and shameful.  Take Listerine, for example.


Listerine is owned by Johnson & Johnson, one of the top competitors of Proctor & Gamble.  Listerine was originally marketed as a general antimicrobial solution, and advertisers recommended it for everything from bad breath to bad skin to bad vaginas to bad kitchen floors.  (Yes, really.)  But they found their niche as an oral product in 1920, when they came up with the idea of halitosis and began warning everyone that they had bad breath.

where they proudly boast about coming up with the word "halitosis."

Before this, no one was especially worried about bad breath.  It was the roarin' twenties and no one could smell anything anyway because everyone was a smoker back then.  The idea that your breath should be minty at all was insane; normal human mouths do not smell like mint.  But Listerine's aggressive ad campaigns convinced people it should.  Before that, toothpaste was made of chalk, baking soda, activated charcoal, or even soap, and it wasn't even necessarily a paste; prior to WWI, toothpaste was a powder, and if you didn't want to buy it from a pharmacy, you could make it at home.  Then, in the 1920s, Pepsodent began mass-marketing their paste with mint flavor added.  Alongside Listerine and Lifesaver (think about the name of that one... life-saver.  For god damn mints!), the oral hygiene moguls of the day managed to convince people that, unless their mouths tasted like spearmint all the time, there was something wrong with them.  And it worked.  People buy toothpaste, gum, mints, and mouthwash in droves... when the toothpaste alone would be sufficient for most people to prevent any sort of tooth decay.


Even Vaseline got in on the dandruff wagon for a while, during the '30s and '40s.  Owned by the pharma giant Unilever, Vaseline petroleum jelly promoted itself as a cure for dandruff because of its moisturizing abilities.  However, once it was disproven that dryness causes dandruff, Vaseline quietly retreated back into its usual role as a topical aid for chapped lips, cuts, bruises, and diaper rash.  (And, one can only assume, as a lubricant for all of the closeted homosexuals in the military during the 1940s.  Although KY Jelly, a water-based lubricant, has been around since 1904, its original intended purpose was to be used as a surgical lubricant.  Vaseline was hugely popular and available in WWII because it could be used to dress wounds as well as lubricate machine gears, uniform zippers, and flirty snipers.)

So I guess what I'm trying to say here is, a lot of our concerns about our appearance are not logical, and have been ingrained by advertisers who are playing off of our natural pathos.  Advertisers know we want to be liked and know we're self-conscious and paranoid.  They are more than willing to play on that paranoid to sell more shampoo (or toothpaste, or petroleum jelly).

When my stylist said she saw dandruff, I was mortified.  But when I thought about it, I realized the following.

...she worked for Proctor and Gamble all along.

Dandruff does not bother me.  I don't even think I have it.  If I do, I've never noticed, and neither has anyone else in the last thirty years.  So what do I care?  The answer is, I don't.  And you shouldn't either.

There are plenty of things to be worried about in this world, but if you follow money trails, you'll often discover that your fears are nothing more than an artificial pathos created by industries who are playing off your emotions to sell a product.  And then you can put those fears to rest.  I changed stylists instead of changing shampoos, and guess what?  My hair looks great.  Don't listen to ads that make you feel bad about yourself.  They're trying to make a buck, at the expense of your self-esteem. 

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