What triggers seborrheic dermatitis?

Seborrheic dermatitis is a condition that affects the skin, causing it to have an excessive amount of oil and flakes. The cause of seborrheic dermatitis is not fully understood, but it appears to be related to an overproduction of oils by the skin’s sebaceous glands. Some people are more prone to seborrheic dermatitis because they have a family history of the condition or certain risk factors like HIV/AIDS or Parkinsons Disease.

Seborrheic dermatitis can be triggered by a variety of factors but what triggers it in some people and not in others remains a mystery. The most common triggers of seborrheic dermatitis are stress, exhaustion, humidity, hormonal changes and certain medications or food.

Let’s take a deep dive:

What triggers seborrheic dermatitis?

Seborrheic dermatitis of the face or scalp (the mild form is known as dandruff), is a common skin condition that most people experience at some point in their lives. It can be triggered by a variety of factors but what triggers seborrheic dermatitis in some people and not others is unknown.


Stress increases the cortisol levels in our body which lead to increased sebum production. This can cause a flare in seborrheic dermatitis.

A French study looked at the link between stress and dermatitis flares, confirming that seborrheic dermatitis is often preceded by stress or a stressful event. Another study found that there was significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety in patients with seborrheic dermatitis. Whether depression caused seborrheic dermatitis or vice versa is unknown.

Have chronic anxiety, especially when it comes to your children? This is how one mom deals with it.

Hot temperatures

The sun is supposed to improve seborrheic dermatitis, possibly by reducing the levels of Malassezia yeast on our face and scalp. In fact, seborrheic dermatitis sufferers might find refuge in summer.

However, if you live in a tropical climate where it is not only hot, but also humid, hot temperatures can flare your dermatitis.


When the air is humid, you tend to sweat more. Humidity also envelops the skin with heat and moisture, causing your pores to expand and increases sebum production. Malasezzia love this environment and breaks down the excess oil and sebum into fatty acids, which is thought to be the trigger for inflammation to occur.

Further reading: Is seborrheic dermatitis a fungus?

Dry winters

Dry winters i.e low temperature, low humidity, can also trigger seborrheic dermatitis flare ups. When your skin is dry and cracked, your sebaceous glands will automatically start producing more sebum. Cold and dry environments generally worsen any dermatitis anyway as your skin gets irritated and itchy.

It’s for this same reason that sitting in front of an air conditioner or strong fan can trigger your seborrheic dermatitis.

Hormonal changes

Increased androgenic hormones i.e testosterone, increases sebaceous gland activity. This explains why men is twice as likely than women to get seborrheic dermatitis.

In women, stress, your hormonal cycle and underlying diseases like PCOS causes hormonal imbalances that can trigger seborrheic dermatitis. You might find your risk of seborrheic dermatitis flare is highest in the week preceeding your period and also during the week of menstruation.


Chronic illnesses like HIV, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, Hepatitis C, depression and psoriasis can increase your risk of having seborrhoeic dermatitis in the first place.

However, any acute illness like a bacterial or viral infection like COVID that weakens your immune system temporarily can trigger a flare.

Poor skin hygiene

People like to reassure seborrheic dermatitis sufferers that it’s not their fault and it’s not because they are dirty. However, poor skin hygiene does play a part. If you don’t wash your face and hair regularly, you are more likely to have oily skin and hair. Dead skin and dirt also accumulates on your face, increasing your risk of seborrheic dermatitis and acne.

Read more: Is Seborrheic Dermatitis Due To Poor Hygiene? Yes It Is

Wrong skin and hair products

On the other extreme, we have people who do too much to their skin and hair. When you have seborrheic dermatitis, especially if you have frequent flares, your skin is very sensitive.

If you use products with irritating ingredients, products that are too drying, or ones that don’t allow your skin to breathe well like Vaseline, it can trigger a flare. Olive oil can also worsen SD.

It’s a fine line between not doing enough for your skin and doing too much.

Further reading: Does moisturizer help seborrheic dermatitis?


There is a whole list of medications that are known to trigger seborrheic dermatitis. Some of the more common ones are psoralen, chlorpromazine, cimetidine, haloperidol, lithium and methyldopa.

However, any new medication could trigger your dermatitis so if you are taking anything new, monitor for reactions.

Lack of sleep

Lack of sleep doesn’t only make you foggy and fatigued, it can also aggravate seborrheic dermatitis.

Among other things, lower quality sleep can upset the hormonal balance in your body. When your body hasn’t had the chance to rest, it is stressed and will produce higher cortisol levels.

But really, it’s not only sleep that we need. But rest. Read about the 7 types of rest.

Foods/ diet

There are very few studies linking the food you eat to seborrheic dermatitis flare ups. In fact, there has been no direct cause found.

Having said that, studies have found that people who ate lots of fruits were at 25% reduced risk for seborrheic dermatitis and those who were on a ‘Western diet’ i.e processed foods had a higher risk of seborrheic dermatitis.

But who are we trying to kid? You know as well as I do that food plays a huge part in our health and our life. Even if the food we eat is not a direct trigger for seborrheic dermatitis, food affects our hormone levels and immue system, and I argue, eating unhealthily for long time is the main reason why we have seborrheic dermatitis in the first place.

Further reading: How to stop eating junk food

Vitamin deficiency

There is evidence that deficiencies in some vitamins and minerals can worsen or trigger seborrheic dermatitis flares. B vitamins, especially biotin, and Vitamin D are the 2 vitamins with the strongest link to seborrheic dermatitis. However, deficiencies in vitamins A and C, zinc, selenium, iron and even essential fatty acids may all worsen SD. 

Take a deep dive into how vitamin deficiencies can affect seborrheic dermatitis

Hard water

A whopping 85% of the USA have hard water. If you find your hands slimy after washing with soap, tiny crystals on your scalp, and difficulty controlling your seborrheic dermatitis, hard water may be the reason.  

To wrap up

Whle the triggers for seborrheic dermatitis is not fully understood, there are a number of factors that are known to contribute to a dermatitis flare. Unfortunately (or fortunately) everyone has their own personal triggers so the best thing you can do is track and monitor your flares to see if there is a pattern preceeding it that is triggering your seborrheic dermatitis. 

Further reading: Is seborrheic dermatitis curable?

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