An itchy, flaky scalp is one of those things that people consider a bit taboo to talk about for some reason, even though it's a) really common and b) not necessarily a sign of bad personal hygiene. Maybe because of this, I thought dandruff was the only cause of a flaky scalp. And maybe because of this, I had skin snow flurrying from the back of my head for the better part of a year, and no idea how to make it stop.
I imagine it's most people's default reaction when they see flakes on their shoulders or speckled through their roots: buy anti-dandruff shampoo. I bought Head & Shoulders shampoo, and their conditioner as well, and used them diligently — with no results.
I bought expensive Kiehl's anti-dandruff haircare, only to discover it, too, used zinc pyrithione as its active ingredient — meaning I'd essentially just spent $60 on a product I already had.
At this point, I started Googling dandruff and other causes of flaky scalp. I got pointed right back to xoVain, to Wendy's article on common causes of itchy scalp. A lot of my Googling confused me, though; some sites say that dandruff is different to seborrheic dermatitis, but it's actually just an un-inflamed form of it. Either way, once I realized that zinc pyrithione wasn't making a dent, I suspected it might have been something else entirely.
Scalp psoriasis often closely resembles dandruff, and that's easily managed with topical application of coal tar, so out came the Neutrogena T-Gel. T-Gel feels like it's going to be effective; it smells medicinal, despite what the bottle says about its pleasant scent, and the brown color brings to mind old-school glass medicine bottles. In my case, unfortunately, it wasn't. Psoriasis was another thing to strike off the list of potential causes.
By this point, I was many months deep in my scalp crisis, not touching my head in public in case it caused another flurry, and constantly brushing off my shoulders.
In an entirely unrelated decision, I got about two inches of hair from my nape shaved off in an undercut. I went to my parents' place after the cut, and Mum exclaimed that my scalp was looking pretty gnarly. She declared that I had ringworm, and a visit to a medical professional confirmed it.
Warning: gross photo ahead.
Is there anything quite as unpleasantly named as ringworm? Maybe this is why everyone's so keen to diagnose every scalp problem as dandruff. Thankfully, there are no actual worms involved. Ringworm is the colloquial term for a fungal infection known as tinea; it's called tinea capitis when it's on the scalp.
Tinea capitis is more common in children than adults, so it's not most people's first thought when it comes to scalp conditions. (Mum's a teacher, which explains why she recognized it; also mothers magically seem to know everything). It requires more intensive treatment than dandruff, although some people have success with zinc pyrithione.
After using an antifungal cream for several weeks, the infection subsided massively, my relief grew massively, and I started tying my hair up again. I had to wonder where the ringworm came from, though.
Tinea infections are caused by dermatophytes, a type of fungus that feeds on keratin, which is found in hair, skin and nails. The most common fungi are Microsporum canis and Trichophyton rubrum. The M. canis is carried by cats and dogs, but I've only got a pet cat very recently.
T. rubrum, however, is passed from person to person, and one thing on Wikipedia stood out to me: "It may be spread ... by sharing contaminated brushes and combs." And where did I spend the first half of last year? Learning makeup artistry and hairstyling, sharing hair tools with a bunch of other people. While we were taught proper hygiene and kept our tools in sterilization jars, I suspect not everyone was as vigilant as they could have been. Gross.
I'm not a doctor, obviously, so while I'm not saying that if you think you have dandruff and it won't go away that's it's definitely ringworm; just that it's something to consider. This is really just one long lesson in not sharing hairbrushes, or washing them very thoroughly when you do so.
- Do you currently have a flaky, itchy scalp?
- Have you ever had ringworm?
- WHY must it be called that?