Three etiologic facets of dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis: Malassezia fungi, sebaceous lipids, and individual sensitivity

J Investig Dermatol Symp Proc. 2005 Dec;10(3):295-7. doi: 10.1111/j.1087-0024.2005.10119.x.


Application of new molecular and biochemical tools has greatly increased our understanding of the organisms, mechanisms, and treatments of dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis. Dandruff results from at least three etiologic factors: Malassezia fungi, sebaceous secretions, and individual sensitivity. While Malassezia (formerly P. ovale) has long been a suspected cause, implicated by its presence on skin and lipophylic nature, lack of correlation between Malassezia number and the presence and severity of dandruff has remained perplexing. We have previously identified the Malassezia species correlating to dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis. In this report, we show that dandruff is mediated by Malassezia metabolites, specifically irritating free fatty acids released from sebaceous triglycerides. Investigation of the toxic Malassezia free fatty acid metabolites (represented by oleic acid) reveals the component of individual susceptibility. Malassezia metabolism results in increased levels of scalp free fatty acids. Of the three etiologic factors implicated in dandruff, Malassezia, sebaceous triglycerides, and individual susceptibility, Malassezia are the easiest to control. Pyrithione zinc kills Malassezia and all other fungi, and is highly effective against the Malassezia species actually found on scalp. Reduction in fungi reduces free fatty acids, thereby reducing scalp flaking and itch.

MeSH terms

  • Case-Control Studies
  • Dermatitis, Seborrheic / etiology*
  • Disease Susceptibility
  • Humans
  • Keratolytic Agents
  • Malassezia / metabolism*
  • Models, Biological
  • Oleic Acid / metabolism*
  • Oleic Acid / pharmacology
  • Scalp / drug effects
  • Scalp / microbiology
  • Sebaceous Glands / metabolism*
  • Sebum / chemistry


  • Keratolytic Agents
  • Oleic Acid