Beauty IRL: Dandruff Is My Worst Enemy

My mother, bless her, has a terrible habit of scratching her head. I have watched her many times in silent horror as she steers the minivan with one hand and insistently scratches her head with the other, a snowfall of flakes falling to her shoulders.

“Mom! Your SHIRT!” my sisters and I scream in horror.

“Oh,” she says, brushing it off. “Let’s go.” She pulls into a parking spot and gets out of the car, walking slowly towards Ranch 99, my sisters and I in tow, her shoulders still covered in white.

Dandruff is annoying, it’s gross, and it’s also something that a lot of people are forced to deal with. I find it more embarrassing than anything else I must reckon with, beauty-wise. I feel comfortable and empowered by discussing my chin hairs and my big thighs, but I will never, ever “own” the fact that, most of the time, if I scratch my head, some flakes will fall. Like my beloved mother, I am plagued with dandruff. It’s fine. It’s easily maintained, kept in check with vigorous scrubbings of Neutrogena T-Gel every other day or so, but just the same, it’s mortifying. Something about it feels unclean. Dandruff is for greasy-nosed basement janitors and mealy-mouthed pickup artists you meet at bars. Dandruff is dirty, like head lice or bedbugs. It’s shameful.

If you tend towards obsessive behavior, dandruff is your worst enemy. In my life, I have lost countless hours staring in the mirror, searching the part in my hair for errant flakes, and it’s never just one. The one big flake you find lingering in your bangs begets a small flurry, and once you’ve upset the delicate balance, it’s over. Black clothes, a staple in my wardrobe, are problematic. I am sure I’ve gone into job interviews and other important events with my shoulders dusted in a horrifying amount of flakes. I feel slovenly somehow, even though I’m certainly not.

There are things that can be done to combat it. Special shampoo works to some degree, but your body’s chemistry is trickier than you will ever know. Seasonal dandruff, for me, is very real. Every spring, with the appearance of pollen and seasonal allergies, my scalp revolts against me, expelling a shower of dead skin that seems never-ending. By August, or so, it rights itself, just in time for cooler temperatures and the return of sweater weather. It’s a never-ending cycle that can only be somewhat tamed.

I’ve tried all the shampoos. Head and Shoulders makes my hair feel like straw and works for about a week before the beast returns. Neutrogena’s T-Gel and T-Sal can do the job, but only when they feel like it, and that seems to depend entirely on the weather, whether or not I have my period when I’m using it, and how often I’ve been brushing my hair. Lush makes a bar shampoo called Soak and Float that smells like campfire and requires you to briskly rub the bar into your scalp. It’s all natural, and for that reason alone, I don’t trust it. On a tip from a trusted source, I rubbed tea tree oil purchased on a late night run to the bodega into my scalp, expecting the miracle of Mother Nature to take care of my problem. The next morning, my scalp was tingly, but still flaky. This kind of scourge requires chemicals.

Persistent ailments that are out of your control can make you feel especially bad about yourself. Acne that persists well into the 30s wrests the control I try to execute over my appearance out of my hands. But, unlike dandruff, that one huge zit I have on my cheek or on my chin can be eliminated relatively painlessly and without much consequence. The shitshow on my scalp is another matter entirely.

Humans spend their entire lives plunked into a world where control, for the most part, is ceded to the universe. There are things we can do to exert tiny measures of control over various parts of our lives, but to have a complete, dictatorial grip around everything is an exercise in futility. Beauty rituals are a way of exerting authority over the one thing that you can influence directly — your appearance. We trim back the hair that grows in thickets in undesirable places or beat back the appearance of age through hair dye and carefully placed highlights. Discovering your limitations when it comes to your body can be enough to make you spiral. Stress, like the weather, begets dandruff and acne and that bloated feeling when you eat too many of the free snacks at work. The control you worked so carefully to achieve slips out of your hands.

Summer is nearing, and the flaky situation atop my head is in a state that I can manage. I’m just hoping it stays that way.