How to tackle dandruff with your diet6 minute read

Did you know that there’s a 50% chance you’ll experience dandruff in your life? We tend to associate the condition with men, but it’s just as common in women.

Dandruff—a mild form of the condition seborrheic dermatitis—presents as itchy, flaky and sometimes scaly skin. Dandruff is that name given to the condition when it appears on the scalp, but it can also crop up on the face, chest, back, underarms and groin areas.

And, as anyone who has experienced it will tell you, it’s a nuisance. Not only can the itchiness be distracting, but spotting unsightly flakes on the top of your shoulders can be embarrassing, or even distressing. They’re certainly not a favourable addition to an outfit.

The typical treatment for dandruff is a shampoo that contains anti-fungal or anti-septic agents. While this can help symptoms to abate in the short-term, it’s not a long-term solution. As soon as you stop using the shampoo, the flakes will return.

A better approach is to consider why your skin is struggling in the first place. And—as with many dermatological conditions—the answer tends to lie on the inside. By providing your body with good nutrition, you’re effectively giving it the tools it needs to repair itself from the inside out.

With that in mind, here are a few simple steps to help you become flake-free:


1) Identify any food intolerances

70% of your immune system resides in your gut. That means that if you’re eating a food that doesn’t agree with you, you’re likely to have some form of immune reaction. The resulting inflammation doesn’t necessarily stay contained within your gut, but can appear anywhere on your body. Red, itchy lesions on your scalp are just one example of this.

Although there are no controlled trials involving adults with dandruff and food intolerances, a study of 187 children with cradle cap (the infant version of dandruff) found that once allergenic foods had been removed from their diets, it took just one week for the condition to completely clear in the majority [1].

Some of the most common intolerances include wheat, cow’s milk, peanuts, eggs and shellfish [2]. If you suspect a type of food might be an issue for you, the best approach is to eliminate it for 2–3 weeks. After that, reintroduce it and monitor how it affects your dandruff. If it rapidly reappears or worsens, it’s likely that food is having an impact.


2) Cut down your sugar intake

One study found that those who suffer from seborrheic dermatitis tend to eat more sugar than those who don’t have the condition [3].

There are a couple of reasons why sugar could be an issue. Firstly, due to its hormonal impact, consumption of excess sugar can exacerbate inflammation [4]. Secondly, dandruff is associated with the presence of yeast. One type, Malassezia, lives on the scalp and is believed to feed on hair oil [5]. Others, however, can affect the condition from where they live in the gut—and these types of yeasts love to feed on sugar.

As well as sugary foods—such as fizzy drinks and sweets— it’s best to avoid starchy foods and products made with white flour, as these are treated like sugar during digestion. Instead, base your diet around good quality protein, lots of fresh vegetables and some whole grains. For many people, this alone is enough to clear up those pesky flakes.


3) Increase your intake of good fats

Although dandruff can be associated with oily areas, 59% of those who suffer from the condition experience the feeling of a dry or tight scalp [6].

Essential fats not only enhance the integrity of the skin, but they also moisturise it from within. Sources of good fats include oily fish, chia seeds and flaxseeds. Some people find that just 1–2 tablespoons of flaxseed oil daily effectively combats their dandruff. These can easily be incorporated into smoothies, or drizzled over salads.


4) Boost your B vitamins

There are lots of different B vitamins, and many of them have been associated with the development of dandruff. A deficiency of biotin (vitamin B7), for example, has been found to lead to skin lesions that resemble seborrheic dermatitis [7], while folic acid (vitamin B9) has been found to improve the condition.

B vitamins are found in a host of natural, whole foods, including vegetables, pulses, nuts, seeds, chicken, fish, eggs and some whole grains. Aim to eat as wide a variety of these as you can manage. If you’d also like to supplement, make sure you choose a formulation that includes all the B vitamins (rather than one or two in isolation), as they all work together.


5) Take a probiotic

It’s well known that an imbalance of bad to good bacteria in our guts can contribute to inflammation [8], which has a knock-on effect on dandruff. Further to this, it also appears that certain types of good bacteria can actively help to fight dandruff.

A randomised, placebo-controlled trial found that a type of probiotic called Lactobacillus paracasei reduced the severity of dandruff, as well as alleviating other symptoms such as redness, itching and greasiness [9]. Interestingly, the levels of Malassezia yeast (associated with dandruff, see above) also decreased.

It’s tricky to buy the particular strain of Lactobacillus paracasei used in the study, but you can find other strains as part of a probiotic blend. Other types of Lactobacillus can help to fight the Malassezia yeast too. Look for a formulation that contains 20–50 billion colony forming units (CFUs).


Other considerations

Shampoo ingredients. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is the ingredient that’s responsible for making shampoos lather. Although many people like this lathering effect, it can damage the skin’s acid mantle, which is designed to keep bacteria and fungi in check. If your dandruff is particularly severe, try switching to an SLS-free shampoo while you go through the steps listed above.

Alcohol. Excess consumption of alcohol is known to deplete B vitamins. It also depletes zinc, a mineral that plays a role in maintaining a healthy scalp. It’s easy to forget having the odd glass of wine, so for one week write down everything that you drink. You may find it’s more than you think. If necessary, develop an action plan for cutting down (for the sake of both your dandruff and your general health).

Circulation. Blood carries the nutrients that nourish the skin. If blood flow is affected, the integrity of the skin can suffer. There are two sure-fire ways to increase blood flow to the scalp: one is regular hair-brushing, and the other is exercise. Whether it’s going for a brisk walk or dancing along to your favourite song, do something to get your blood pumping every day.

Interested in skin? Learn more in my book.

Related Posts

Dr Thivi Maruthappu


Dr Thivi Maruthappu is the UK’s first and only dual-qualified Consultant Dermatologist and Nutritionist, and the pioneer of the (much-needed!) Nutritional Dermatology field. She runs busy NHS dermatology clinics, conducts academic research and delivers lectures worldwide. She’s also recently authored her first book, Skin Food, which aims to make holistic skincare accessible for everyone.



Porter magazine called her a ‘Global Skincare Expert’, and Caroline Hirons described her as ‘one of the best facialists in the world’. In the skincare industry, Marie Reynolds is in a league of her own. I had the privilege of experiencing one of Marie’s facials as a young journalist—and I can still remember every exquisite detail more than a decade later.

Cherries for Happy Skin From Within

Give your skin a treat

Want the jumpstart guide to eating for great skin (plus updates from me)? No spam, ever, I promise.