Dandruff: a condition characterized by decreased levels of intercellular lipids in scalp stratum corneum and impaired barrier function

Arch Dermatol Res. 2002 Jul;294(5):221-30. doi: 10.1007/s00403-002-0323-1. Epub 2002 Jun 7.


Dandruff is a major problem, yet little is known about the underlying mechanism and subsequent biochemical changes occurring in the scalp skin that lead to its manifestation. The characteristic flaking and scaling of the scalp experienced by dandruff sufferers suggests, similar to the changes classically seen in xerosis, that the desquamation process is impaired. We initiated studies to quantify the biochemical nature of the stratum corneum in the scalp of healthy individuals and dandruff sufferers. Total amounts and relative ratios of stratum corneum lipids species were analysed in scalp stratum corneum samples collected during studies conducted in the UK and Thailand in order to examine ethnic differences. In both populations, dandruff was associated with a dramatic decrease in free lipid levels, with significant decreases in ceramides, fatty acids, and cholesterol. Detailed sub-analysis of the major ceramide species within the total ceramide fraction revealed a decrease in ceramide 1 and increased proportions of ceramide 6i and 6ii. In a separate study, we demonstrated that dandruff sufferers show both an elevated blood flow and an increased reported incidence of itch in response to histamine topically applied to the scalp compared with no-dandruff controls. Taken together these two studies indicate that the quality and resilience of the epidermal water barrier is impaired in the scalp of dandruff sufferers. We propose that the perturbed barrier leaves dandruff sufferers more prone to the adverse effects of microbial and fungal toxins, and environmental pollutants, thus perpetuating their impaired barrier.

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Cutaneous
  • Adult
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cholesterol / metabolism
  • Dermatitis, Seborrheic / etiology
  • Dermatitis, Seborrheic / metabolism*
  • Epidermis / drug effects
  • Epidermis / metabolism
  • Ethnicity
  • Fatty Acids / metabolism
  • Fatty Acids, Nonesterified / metabolism
  • Female
  • Histamine / administration & dosage
  • Humans
  • Lipid Metabolism*
  • Male
  • Permeability
  • Pruritus / etiology
  • Scalp / drug effects
  • Scalp / metabolism
  • Scalp Dermatoses / etiology
  • Scalp Dermatoses / metabolism*
  • Thailand
  • United Kingdom


  • Fatty Acids
  • Fatty Acids, Nonesterified
  • Histamine
  • Cholesterol