Expert Advice

Unlocking the Dandruff Gene: Scientists ID Fungus

Web Editor | July 10, 2011 | 6:20 PM

Scientists at P&G Beauty have studied the nature of dandruff for years, and recently brought their investigation right down to the molecular level in sequencing the genome of the fungus that causes the flakes. Their goal: stop dandruff before it starts.

Researchers have discovered how dandruff works. A fungus (Malassezia globosa), feeding on scalp oils, leaves a deposit on the scalp surface that irritates the scalp. But why does more than half the population suffer from the condition? Thomas Dawson, principal scientist at P&G Beauty, talked about some of the group’s latest findings.

Q. What is the scientific definition of dandruff?

A. Dandruff is an irritating condition that causes itching, tightness and excessive skin flaking of the scalp. Dandruff is caused by a combination of factors triggered by the presence of a common fungus called Malassezia, a naturally occurring microscopic fungus that’s part of the normal human scalp flora. Everyone has Malassezia on his or her scalp, but not everyone is irritated by it. Research by P&G Beauty has pinpointed the exact species, Malassezia globosa.          

Q. How does this fungus cause dandruff?

A. To have dandruff, three factors must be present: sebum, the Malassezia fungus and a personal predisposition to irritation. The fungus feeds on the scalp’s natural oils and creates by-products and acids that irritate the scalp. Your immune system reacts to the irritation by accelerating the amount and rate of flaking of dead skin cells.

Q. What’s the best way to get rid of dandruff?

A. The most effective treatments are shampoos with antifungal ingredients. You can’t stop your head from creating sebum, and it’s difficult to change your immune system, but shampoos with ingredients like pyrithione zinc can go right to the source of the irritation—the fungus.

Q. What are the implications of the genome study for dandruff treatment in the future?

A. [We have] a fully stocked library of genetic information where there was none before. Instead of one target—the fungus in general—there are now more than 4,000 genetic doors opened as possible treatment routes that can be selectively targeted to stop the fungus from working.

Instead of eliminating the fungus from the scalp to treat dandruff, it may be possible to restore a more natural balance.

While the sequencing of the genome is revealing possibilities for further advancement in the way we care for dandruff, it is still recommended that clients use an anti-dandruff shampoo every time they cleanse. Clinical studies have shown that only 26 percent of dandruff sufferers maintain this regimen, yet the same studies prove that consistent use of a good anti-dandruff shampoo can effectively treat the condition in more than 90-percent of people who have flakes and itch.

For more information on the sequencing of the M. globosa genome or about P&G Beauty, visit

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