Malassezia: Introduction, Morphology, Pathogenicity, Lab Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention, and Keynotes


Malassezia is a genus of yeast-like fungi that belongs to the class Malasseziomycetes. These fungi are part of the normal skin microbiota of humans and other animals, commonly found on the skin surfaces, particularly in sebum-rich areas such as the scalp, face, chest, and back. While they are generally harmless and exist in a commensal relationship with their host, Malassezia species (they) can also be opportunistic pathogens under certain circumstances.

The genus Malassezia comprises various species, with some of the most well-known ones being Malassezia globosa, Malassezia furfur (also known as Pityrosporum ovale), Malassezia restricta, Malassezia sympodialis, and Malassezia slooffiae. Each of these species has a slightly different ecological niche on the skin and may be associated with various skin conditions.

One of the most common associations of Malassezia is with dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis. In these cases, an overgrowth of Malassezia on the scalp can lead to inflammation and flaking of the skin. However, the exact mechanisms behind these conditions are still not fully understood and may involve interactions between the fungus, host immune response, and other factors.

Additionally, Malassezia can be implicated in other skin disorders, such as tinea versicolor, a non-contagious fungal infection that leads to patches of discolored skin, often appearing lighter or darker than the surrounding skin. Moreover, it can be linked to some cases of folliculitis, a condition where hair follicles become inflamed.

To diagnose Malassezia-related skin conditions, doctors may perform microscopic examination of skin scrapings or use specialized cultures to identify and differentiate various Malassezia species.

Treatment for Malassezia-related skin conditions usually involves antifungal medications such as topical or oral antifungal agents. Maintaining good skin hygiene and avoiding factors that promote excessive oiliness on the skin may also help prevent Malassezia overgrowth.


They are yeast-like fungi, and their morphology is characteristic of yeast cells. They are unicellular organisms that reproduce mainly by budding, where a small daughter cell forms as an outgrowth from the parent cell. Below are some key features of the morphology of Malassezia:

  1. Yeast Cells: They typically exist as single, oval or round yeast cells. These cells are small, usually measuring between 2 to 8 micrometers in diameter.
  2. Budding: As mentioned earlier, their mode of reproduction is mainly asexual through budding. A bud or daughter cell forms as an extension or outgrowth from the parent cell, eventually separating to become a new individual.
  3. Lipophilic: They have a preference for lipid-rich environments. They are well-adapted to thrive in areas of the skin where sebum (oily substance) is abundant, such as the scalp, face, and upper back.
  4. No Hyphae or Mycelium: Unlike some other fungi, Malassezia does not produce hyphae (filaments) or mycelium (network of hyphae). Instead, they remain as individual yeast cells throughout their life cycle.
  5. Catalase-Positive: They are catalase-positive, which means they produce the enzyme catalase. This enzyme helps them break down hydrogen peroxide, which is thought to be an essential feature for their survival on the skin.
  6. Variable Species: There are several different species within the genus Malassezia, and their morphology can vary slightly between species. For example, M. globosa is smaller in size compared to M. furfur.


They are primarily considered commensal fungi, meaning they normally live harmlessly on the skin surface without causing any health issues. In fact, they are part of the normal skin microbiota of humans and other animals. However, under certain circumstances, Malassezia can become opportunistic pathogens, leading to various skin conditions and infections. The pathogenicity of thsese fungi is associated with their ability to overgrow and trigger an immune response, leading to inflammatory skin disorders. Here are some of the key skin conditions and diseases linked to Malassezia:

  1. Dandruff: One of the most common associations of Malassezia is with dandruff. An overgrowth of Malassezia on the scalp can lead to increased shedding of skin cells and flaking of the scalp. The exact mechanisms are not fully understood, but it is believed that the metabolic byproducts of Malassezia, such as fatty acids, can irritate the scalp and trigger inflammation.
  2. Seborrheic Dermatitis: This is a more severe form of dandruff that affects not only the scalp but also other sebum-rich areas of the body, such as the face, ears, and chest. Malassezia overgrowth is believed to be a contributing factor to seborrheic dermatitis, along with genetic predisposition and immune system response.
  3. Tinea Versicolor: Malassezia can cause tinea versicolor, a non-contagious fungal infection characterized by patches of discolored skin. These patches can be lighter or darker than the surrounding skin and may appear on the chest, back, neck, and arms.
  4. Folliculitis: In some cases, they can infect hair follicles, leading to folliculitis, which is inflammation of the hair follicles. This can cause red, itchy, and sometimes painful bumps to form around hair follicles.

It’s important to note that while Malassezia can contribute to the development of these skin conditions, other factors such as individual susceptibility, environmental conditions, and the overall health of the individual play a role in determining whether someone will experience symptoms or not.

Lab Diagnosis

The laboratory diagnosis of Malassezia-related skin conditions involves the identification of the fungus from clinical samples. There are several methods commonly used to diagnose Malassezia infections:

  1. Microscopic Examination: This is the most common and straightforward method for identifying Malassezia. Skin scrapings or scales from the affected area are collected and placed on a glass slide with a drop of potassium hydroxide (KOH) solution. The KOH helps dissolve the keratinized material, making the fungal elements more visible under the microscope. Malassezia cells can be observed as round to oval yeast cells, often with a characteristic “spaghetti and meatballs” appearance, where the yeast cells (spaghetti) are surrounded by clusters of smaller spores (meatballs).
  2. Culture: In some cases, especially if the presence of Malassezia is uncertain or if the infection is severe, a fungal culture may be performed. The collected sample is inoculated onto specialized culture media that promote the growth of Malassezia. This allows for the isolation and identification of specific Malassezia species. However, they can be slow-growing, and the culture may take several weeks to produce results.
  3. Molecular Methods: Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays and DNA sequencing techniques can be used to detect and identify Malassezia at the species level. These methods are highly sensitive and specific, allowing for accurate identification, especially in cases where traditional methods may be inconclusive.
  4. Wood’s Lamp Examination: In some instances, a Wood’s lamp (black light) examination may be performed. They produce fluorescence under a Wood’s lamp, and this can be helpful in diagnosing tinea versicolor.

The choice of diagnostic method depends on the specific clinical presentation and the expertise available in the laboratory. Microscopic examination is often the first-line approach due to its simplicity and reliability. However, if the infection is severe or other fungal infections are suspected, culture and molecular methods may be employed to confirm the diagnosis and identify the specific Malassezia species involved.


The treatment of Malassezia-related skin conditions aims to reduce the overgrowth of the fungus and alleviate the associated symptoms. The choice of treatment depends on the specific condition and its severity. Here are the general approaches to treating Malassezia infections:

  1. Antifungal Medications: The primary treatment for thsese infections involves using antifungal medications. These medications help to kill or inhibit the growth of the fungus. Topical antifungal creams, lotions, shampoos, or foams containing active ingredients like ketoconazole, ciclopirox, selenium sulfide, or zinc pyrithione are commonly used for mild to moderate cases of Malassezia-related conditions like dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis. For more severe or widespread infections, oral antifungal medications may be prescribed.
  2. Shampooing: In cases of dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis, regular shampooing with an antifungal shampoo can help control the Malassezia overgrowth on the scalp and other affected areas. Shampoos containing ketoconazole, selenium sulfide, or zinc pyrithione are effective options.
  3. Steroid Creams: In some cases of seborrheic dermatitis, where there is significant inflammation and itching, a short course of mild topical steroid creams may be used to reduce inflammation and relieve symptoms. However, these should be used under the guidance of a healthcare professional, as prolonged use of steroids can have side effects.
  4. Maintenance Therapy: For chronic or recurrent Malassezia-related conditions, maintenance therapy may be necessary. This involves using antifungal agents at regular intervals to prevent the return of symptoms.
  5. Avoiding Triggers: Identifying and avoiding triggers that may exacerbate the overgrowth of Malassezia can be helpful. These triggers may include stress, certain cosmetic products, hot and humid environments, and excessive oiliness on the skin.
  6. Treating Underlying Conditions: Some Malassezia-related skin conditions, such as seborrheic dermatitis, may be associated with other medical conditions, such as immune disorders or neurological disorders. Treating the underlying condition can help manage the skin symptoms more effectively.

It’s essential to follow the treatment plan prescribed by a healthcare professional and use the medications as directed. Improper use or premature discontinuation of treatment can lead to recurrence of the infection. Additionally, it’s essential to maintain good skin hygiene and overall health to minimize the risk of Malassezia overgrowth.


Preventing Malassezia-related skin conditions involves taking steps to reduce the overgrowth of the fungus and minimize the risk of developing symptoms. Here are some preventive measures:

  1. Regular Skin Hygiene: Keeping the skin clean is essential in preventing Malassezia overgrowth. Regularly wash and cleanse the skin with mild, soap-free cleansers. Focus on areas that are more prone to oiliness, such as the scalp, face, chest, and back.
  2. Avoid Excessive Oiliness: Malassezia thrives in oily environments. Avoid using heavy oil-based skin products or hair products that can contribute to excessive oiliness on the skin and scalp.
  3. Use Antifungal Shampoos: If you are prone to dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis, use antifungal shampoos containing ketoconazole, selenium sulfide, or zinc pyrithione regularly to help control Malassezia overgrowth on the scalp.
  4. Reduce Stress: Stress can impact the immune system and potentially contribute to the development of Malassezia-related conditions. Practice stress-reducing techniques such as meditation, yoga, or hobbies that help you relax.
  5. Avoid Triggering Factors: Identify and avoid factors that can exacerbate the condition. For example, excessive sweating, hot and humid environments, and wearing tight-fitting clothing can worsen symptoms.
  6. Treat Underlying Health Conditions: Some medical conditions and immune disorders can increase the risk of Malassezia overgrowth. Properly manage and treat any underlying health issues to help prevent skin infections.
  7. Maintain a Healthy Diet: A balanced diet rich in nutrients can help support a healthy immune system and overall skin health.
  8. Rotate Hair Products: If you use hair styling products, consider rotating them occasionally to avoid potential buildup on the scalp.
  9. Limit Use of Hats and Helmets: Wearing hats or helmets for extended periods can create a warm and moist environment on the scalp, which may promote Malassezia growth. If you need to wear them, try to keep the scalp dry and clean.
  10. Seek Medical Advice: If you have a history of recurrent or severe Malassezia-related skin conditions, consult a healthcare professional for proper evaluation and personalized preventive strategies.


Here are some key points (keynotes) on Malassezia:

  1. Microbiota Member: It is a genus of yeast-like fungi that is a natural part of the normal skin microbiota in humans and animals.
  2. Lipophilic: Malassezia thrives in lipid-rich environments, such as areas with high sebum production like the scalp, face, chest, and back.
  3. Commensal and Pathogenic: While typically commensal (harmless), Malassezia can become an opportunistic pathogen, causing various skin conditions and infections under certain circumstances.
  4. Common Skin Conditions: It is associated with several skin conditions, including dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, tinea versicolor, and some cases of folliculitis.
  5. Morphology: It appears as oval or round yeast cells and reproduces mainly through budding.
  6. Catalase-Positive: It produces the enzyme catalase, which helps them break down hydrogen peroxide.
  7. Diagnosis: Microscopic examination of skin scrapings with KOH and culture are common methods to diagnose Malassezia infections. Molecular methods, such as PCR, can provide species-level identification.
  8. Antifungal Treatment: Antifungal medications, such as topical creams, shampoos, or oral agents, are used to treat Malassezia-related skin conditions.
  9. Hygiene and Prevention: Maintaining good skin hygiene, avoiding excessive oiliness, and using antifungal shampoos can help prevent Malassezia overgrowth.
  10. Individual Variation: Not everyone with Malassezia on their skin will develop symptoms or infections. Susceptibility to Malassezia-related conditions can vary from person to person.

Further Readings

  1. Gupta, A. K., & Kohli, Y. (2004). In vitro susceptibility testing of ciclopirox, ketoconazole, miconazole, econazole, and clotrimazole against fungi causing onychomycosis and other superficial mycoses. International Journal of Dermatology, 43(S1), 39-42.
  2. Leeming, J. P., & Notman, F. H. (1994). Malassezia furfur: a fungus of dandruff significance. Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, 45(3), 203-219.
  3. Crespo, E. R., Crespo, E. R., Rodríguez, E. R., & Fernández, R. S. (2002). Seborrheic dermatitis: an approach to its diagnosis and treatment. Actas Dermo-Sifiliográficas (English Edition), 93(3), 159-166.
  4. Gupta, A. K., & Nicol, K. (2004). The use of sulfur in dermatology. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, 3(4), 427-431.
  5. Sugita, T., Tajima, M., Takashima, M., Amaya, M., & Saito, M. (2004). A new yeast, Malassezia yamatoensis, isolated from a patient with seborrheic dermatitis, and its distribution in patients and healthy subjects. Microbiology and Immunology, 48(9), 579-583.
  6. Hay, R. J., & Graham‐Brown, R. A. (1975). Pityrosporum ovale, dandruff and seborrhoeic dermatitis: the bacterial flora of the scalp, and the response to shampooing. British Journal of Dermatology, 93(5), 525-532.
  7. Pinto, G. M. S., do Carmo, M. R. C., do Espírito Santo, E. R. L., Schubach, T. M. P., de Paula, C. R., & Quintella, L. P. (2007). Tinea versicolor. Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia, 82(5), 461-474.
  8. Gaitanis, G., Magiatis, P., Hantschke, M., Bassukas, I. D., Velegraki, A., & Pappas, P. (2012). The Malassezia genus in skin and systemic diseases. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 25(1), 106-141.

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