Is Seborrheic Dermatitis Due to Poor Hygiene? Debunking the Myth
Seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin condition that can cause red, dry, flaky, and itchy skin on the scalp, face, and other parts of the body. The condition is thought to be related to a yeast that naturally occurs on the skin and is more common in people with oily skin or who are stressed. You may rightly wonder if poor hygiene plays a role in the development of this condition.
Well-meaning people would say seborrheic dermatitis is not caused by poor hygiene, but it is. More accurately, seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff can be triggered by wrong hygiene practices in susceptible individuals.
What do I mean by this?
Let’s take a deep dive:
- Does poor hygiene cause seborrheic dermatitis?
- What happens when you don't wash your face regularly
- What happens when you don't wash your hair regularly
- Does showering more help seborrheic dermatitis?
- Basic hygiene practices to prevent seborrheic dermatitis flares
Does poor hygiene cause seborrheic dermatitis?
Seb derm is a common skin condition that is characterized by red, flaky patches on the skin (known as a seborrhea) and oily, white or yellow crusty scales on the scalp (also known as dandruff). Although maintaining good hygiene is essential for overall skin health, seborrheic dermatitis has other underlying factors contributing to its development.
If you are not susceptible to seborrheic dermatitis, no matter how dirty your face or scalp is, you will not trigger a seb derm flare.
However, if you already have a predisposition to seb derm, having poor hygiene (i.e not washing enough or not washing properly), or using the wrong products for your skin can definitely play a major role in seb derm flares.
What happens when you don’t wash your face regularly
A major cause of seborrheic dermatitis is your skin’s reaction to Malassezia byproducts. Malassezia growth is exacerbated by the presence of excess of oil on the skin. When you leave your skin unwashed, sebum and other oils accumulate.
Ironically, when you wash your face too much and strip it off its natural oils, your skin overcompensates for this by producing more sebum, also encouraging Malassezia growth.
The Ordinary Squalane Cleanser is one of my favorite cleansers. It takes makeup off and cleanses my face without drying it out:
While sebum is crucial for protecting and hydrating the skin, excessive sebum may also contribute to the development of acne. To keep your skin healthy and minimize the risk of seborrheic dermatitis, try to maintain a consistent and gentle facial cleansing routine, avoid harsh skin care products, and address other potential triggers. We’ll talk more about this later.
What happens when you don’t wash your hair regularly
When you don’t wash your hair regularly, you will encourage the buildup of dirt, oils, and hair care products on your scalp, which can potentially affect scalp health, hair growth and create an unpleasant odor over time.
Similar to an oily face, an oily scalp encourages Malassezia growth, exacerbating dandruff, which is a mild form of scalp seb derm. However, it’s not about washing your hair every day.
You need to strike a balance in your hair washing routine. Washing daily may be recommended for some, while others may find that doing so leads to a dry scalp and brittle hair. The ideal frequency of hair washing varies depending on the person.
The best way to know how often you should wash your hair is by using your senses. If you start feeling a slight itch or tingle in your scalp, it’s time to wash your hair. By the time your hair looks drab and oily, a hair wash is usually overdue.
If you’re using medicated shampoos containing ingredients such as salicylic acid, ketoconazole, or selenium sulfide, you still need to wash your hair regularly. In fact, these shampoos can dry your scalp out, causing sebum overproduction. You may find that you need to wash your hair even more often because of this.
It’s crucial to be aware of how your hair and scalp respond to your washing routine and adjust your habits as needed.
Does showering more help seborrheic dermatitis?
Alas, if only it was that simple. Showering more frequently is not the answer to improving seborrheic dermatitis. In fact, excessive washing or using harsh soaps can strip the skin of its natural oils and worsen the condition.
Most people only need shower one to two times a day at most, maybe slightly less in winter.
There is however, a caveat to this.
If you’ve been working out, or have just come in from a warm and humid external environment, having a shower will wash away the oil, sweat and grime that has built up. In these instances, having more frequent showers will very well help with seb derm control.
Just make sure you use a gentle body wash that doesn’t overly strip your skin of its natural oils. It doesn’t have to be medicated but if you have difficult-to-control seb derm on your body, you may find a tea tree oil body wash useful.
Basic hygiene practices to prevent seborrheic dermatitis flares
I’m sure most of us are clean enough. In fact, some of us may be too clean. Either extreme is not good for seb derm control. Here are some general principles to maintain a proper hygiene routine that is suitable for your skin type and lifestyle:
Use gentle hygiene products
Opt for gentle, fragrance-free skincare products, as harsh chemicals and strong fragrances can potentially irritate your skin and worsen seborrheic dermatitis. Natural products are generally better for you anyway.
Harsh cleansers also strips your skin off its natural oils, causing sebum overproduction to compensate. You may well end up with more oil than you started with.
If you find that your skin is tight after your wash, the product is too drying.
Avoid excessive scrubbing, especially on seb derm-affected areas.
Wash as often as needed
You may need to shower and shampoo more often in the summer, if you’re exercising, or if you live in a warm and humid environment.
However, if you live a relatively sedentary lifestyle, it’s winter and you don’t feel like there are any excess dirt or oil to wash of, you may not need to wash with cleansers or shampoo as often.
Obviously if you had makeup or sunscreen on, you’ll need to make sure you take it all off at the end of the day.
Use lukewarm water
Bathing or washing with hot water will strip your skin’s natural oils. In fact, people have found their seb derm rash worsens immediately after a hot shower.
Cold water has many benefits but I get that it’s not something to look forward to on a cold winter morning. In all seasons and most situations, lukewarm water does a great job and is safe for seb derm.
Read more about hot showers here: Does hot water worsen seborrheic dermatitis?
Don’t use commercial anti-fungal products
This one’s a bit controversial. While most people recommend using commercial anti-dandruff shampoos like Head & Shoulders, Selsun Blue etc. After going through years of trying out these products, I am left with the conclusion that they do work to control seb derm in the short term.
However, in the long run, these products tend to dry your skin out, causing drier skin, sebum overproduction, and the need to wash more often.
Now, I use a gentle shampoo with a few drops of tea tree oil and have no issues.
By incorporating these practices into your daily routine, you can optimize your hygiene and potentially reduce the severity of seborrheic dermatitis symptoms.
You may also be interested in: A seborrheic dermatitis skincare routine that actually works