Discover my current regimen (since August 2015) more info

Understanding the Bumps in Seborrheic Dermatitis and Dandruff

Understanding the bumps in seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff

Seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff, often considered as different entities, are essentially two manifestations of the same condition existing on a spectrum.

Dandruff can be viewed as the milder form, primarily confined to the scalp, while seborrheic dermatitis represents a more severe and widespread manifestation of the same underlying issue, affecting areas beyond the scalp.

This article delves into the causes of bumps in seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff and how they can be distinguished.

What are seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff?

Seborrheic dermatitis is a chronic skin inflammation that affects areas of the body rich in sebaceous glands like the scalp, face, and chest [1]. It causes flaking, redness, and bumps on the skin. Dandruff, on the other hand, refers specifically to mild flaking of the scalp that is non-inflammatory in nature [2].

Both conditions are linked to an overgrowth of the yeast Malassezia, which lives naturally on our skin [3]. Studies show Malassezia breaks down sebum on the scalp into fatty acids that may trigger an inflammatory response leading to flaking and bumps [4] [DOI: 10.1016/j.clindermatol.2020.10.013]. Genetics and stressful life events can increase sebum production and make some people prone to flare ups of seborrheic dermatitis or dandruff [4].

Causes of Bumps in Seborrheic Dermatitis

The development of pustules and papules is a primary phenomenon in seborrheic dermatitis. Histologically, inflammatory cells and serum collect between keratinocytes, forming intraepidermal pustules [5].

Several factors contribute to bump formation in seborrheic dermatitis:

  • Yeast overgrowth: As mentioned, seborrheic dermatitis is linked to excessive levels of the yeast Malassezia on the skin.[6] The yeast triggers an inflammatory response that causes papules and pustules to develop.[7][3]
  • Inflammation: Histological examination shows the papillae become edematous during disease, engorging capillaries and releasing serum and leukocytes into the epidermis.[9][10] This damages keratinocytes and leads to pustule formation.
  • Folliculitis: The yeast infection often spreads to hair follicles, causing folliculitis (inflamed hair follicles) which presents as papules.[6] Folliculitis is commonly observed in seborrheic dermatitis cases.[7]

Causes of Bumps in Dandruff

While dandruff does not involve significant inflammation, cases with extensive scaling may develop secondary folliculitis from microbial overgrowth or physical follicle irritation from scales [4].

  • Dry flakes: Severely dry flakes may cause mild rubbing or itching of the scalp, triggering papules in sensitive individuals.
  • Bacterial infection: If flakes accumulate, they could enable colonization by Staphylococcus bacteria which may induce papules or pustules of bacterial folliculitis.[8] However, this is considered an additional infection rather than a standard feature of dandruff.
  • Malassezia overgrowth: An excessive fungal load could potentially transition into clinical seborrheic dermatitis with associated papules/pustules. But mild dandruff alone does not typically involve Malassezia levels high enough to cause inflammation.

Papules are not usually seen in dandruff which does not have a true inflammatory component [4, 2] .

In summary, bumps may rarely appear with severe dandruff due to secondary effects like infection or irritation from scaling. But they are not a core characteristic of the condition as they are in seborrheic dermatitis.

Underlying Triggers

A multitude of triggers may contribute to the formation of folliculitis-like bumps:

  • Genetic predisposition: Family history can influence susceptibility.
  • Overproduction of sebum: Provides fertile ground for yeast proliferation.
  • Environmental triggers: High humidity, sweat, or occlusive skin products.
  • Immunologic response: The body’s exaggerated defense against Malassezia [6].

A Brief Focus of Folliculitis

Inflammation around hair follicles frequently occurs in seborrheic dermatitis due to yeasts and skin oils clogging follicles [puddy doi-“10.1016/j.clindermatol.2020.10.013”]. This causes red papules around hair shafts that may be painful or itchy [16]. Pustules around hair shafts may also be observed.

If left untreated, folliculitis can lead to hair loss and scarring, with systemic symptoms like fever possible in severe cases [8]. Recognizing the diverse presentations of folliculitis is crucial for effective management.

Several factors increase susceptibility to folliculitis, including younger age, a family history of the condition, sweatiness, and the use of oils or greasy products [8][9]. Environments like swimming pools and hot tubs elevate the risk of additional complications[8].

Other Conditions to Consider

There are a few other skin conditions that can manifest with similar scalp bumps:

  • Psoriasis: Characterized by raised, red plaques covered in silvery scales. May cause flakey bumps on the scalp [10].
  • Bacterial folliculitis: Staphylococcus skin infection causing pustules around follicles [8].
    • Fungal infections: Red ringworm rash with hair loss [11].
  • Allergic reactions: Itchy red bumps from contact dermatitis triggered by hair products [12].

So it’s important to see a dermatologist for proper evaluation and diagnosis when bumps occur on the scalp to guide the most suitable treatment approach.

Treatment Options

Treatment is tailored to the specific diagnosis:

  • Over-the-counter antifungal shampoos containing zinc pyrithione or ketoconazole help reduce yeast levels in both seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff [3][13].
  • Topical steroids address inflammation and folliculitis papules associated with seborrheic dermatitis flares [4].
  • Oral antifungals like fluconazole or itraconazole, used for 2-4 weeks, can effectively treat widespread, treatment-resistant seborrheic dermatitis [DOI:10.1159/000442763].

While topical steroids are effective in managing inflammatory skin conditions like seborrheic dermatitis, prolonged and indiscriminate use raises potential safety concerns. Long-term usage of topical steroids may lead to several adverse effects,

Identifying whether an overlapping condition like seborrheic folliculitis is present guides appropriate anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial therapy [].

Concluding remarks and summary

In conclusion, our exploration into the shared realm of seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff highlights the common thread of Malassezia overgrowth while emphasizing their distinct presentations. The causative factors for skin bumps in seborrheic dermatitis delve into inflammatory responses, genetic predispositions, and the often-overlooked companion, folliculitis. On the flip side, dandruff, displaying milder symptoms, may induce bumps through secondary factors like microbial overgrowth or irritation.

Key Insights:

  • Differentiation is Crucial: Understanding the unique characteristics aids in distinguishing between the two conditions.
  • Triggers Matter: Genetic influences, sebum overproduction, and environmental factors contribute to bump formation.
  • Complications of Folliculitis: Untreated folliculitis in seborrheic dermatitis may lead to lasting effects like hair loss and scarring.


  • Beyond Seborrheic Dermatitis: Recognizing the potential for similar conditions like psoriasis or bacterial folliculitis is vital.
  • Seek Professional Guidance: Accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment plans are best achieved through dermatological evaluation.

Treatment Landscape:

  • Over-the-Counter Solutions: Antifungal shampoos serve as accessible remedies.
  • Topical Steroids and Caution: Addressing inflammation requires a balanced approach due to potential safety concerns.
  • Oral Antifungals: Effective for widespread, treatment-resistant seborrheic dermatitis.

Ultimately, bumps on the scalp can be caused by several different skin conditions. While seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff cause similar scaling, seborrheic dermatitis features associated papules and pustules due to its inflammatory nature. Consulting a dermatologist helps distinguish the underlying cause and direct appropriate management.


  1. Goldenberg Gary "Optimizing treatment approaches in seborrheic dermatitis." The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology 6.2 (2013): 44-9. PubMed
  2. Diana Elish, Nanette B Silverberg "Infantile seborrheic dermatitis." Cutis 77.5 (2006): 297-300. PubMed
  3. Ann T Tucker, Ashley N Emerson, Julie P Wyatt, Robert T Brodell "Case report: Diaper dermatitis presenting as pustules." Journal of drugs in dermatology : JDD 13.9 (2015): 1153-4. PubMed
  4. Grace K Kim "Seborrheic Dermatitis and Malassezia species: How Are They Related?" The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology 2.11 (2011): 14-7. PubMed
  5. Orville J. Stone "PSORIASIS—A DEFECT IN INFLAMMATION*" Wiley 7.1 (2008): 10-13.
  6. Daniel P Friedmann, Vineet Mishra, Trevor Batty "Progressive Facial Papules in an African-American Patient: An Atypical Presentation of Seborrheic Dermatitis." The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology 11.7 (2020): 44-45. PubMed
  7. Lucy Pitney, David Weedon, Michael Pitney "Is seborrhoeic dermatitis associated with a diffuse, low‐grade folliculitis and progressive cicatricial alopecia?" Wiley 57.3 (2015).
  8. Wajiha Sufyan, Kong-Bing Tan, Soon-Tee Wong, Yoke-Sun Lee "Eosinophilic Pustular Folliculitis" Archives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine 131.10 (2021): 1598-1601.
  9. Zahruddin Ahmad, Evy Ervianti "Dermoscopic Examination in Malassezia folliculitis" Universitas Airlangga 34.2 (2022): 130-136.
  10. Rong Tao, Ruoyu Li, Zhe Wan, Yan Wu, Ruojun Wang "Skin microbiome signatures associated with psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis" Wiley 31.7 (2022): 1116-1118.
  11. A.P. Townshend, C-M. Chen, H.C. Williams "How prominent are patient-reported outcomes in clinical trials of dermatological treatments?" Oxford University Press (OUP) (2008).
  12. L. Koch, W. Aberer "Kontaktallergien der Kopfhaut" Springer Science and Business Media LLC 68.6 (2017): 466-471.
  13. C. Vlachos, M.A.S. Henning, G. Gaitanis, J. Faergemann, D.M. Saunte "Critical synthesis of available data in Malassezia folliculitis and a systematic review of treatments" Wiley 34.8 (2020): 1672-1683.
Last Updated:
in Seborrheic Dermatitis   0

About Michael Anders

After being affected by seborrheic dermatitis, I have made it my goal to gather and organize all the information that has helped me in my journey.

Share Your Thoughts

(will not be published)

No Comments

Be the first to start a conversation