Skin conditions associated with malassezia

Author: Hon A/Prof Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand, 2004.

What is malassezia? 

Malassezia refers to a group of yeasts of the genus Malassezia, which has several different species. Species names include:

  • M. dermatis
  • M. equi
  • M. furfur
  • M. globosa
  • M. obtusa
  • M. pachydermatis
  • M. restricta
  • M. slooffiae
  • M. sympodialis
  • M. ovalis (also known as Pityrosporum ovale)

What skin conditions are associated with malassezia? 

Skin conditions caused or aggravated by infection by malassezia include:

Malassezia infections

How are skin conditions associated with malassezia diagnosed?

The diagnosis of skin conditions associated with malassezia is often made clinically, but can be confirmed when skin scrapings reveal malassezia. Microscopy of malassezia, using potassium hydroxide (KOH) preparations, shows clusters of yeast cells and long hyphae. The appearance is said to be like "spaghetti and meatballs". The hyphae filaments used to be called 'Malassezia' and the yeast forms were called 'Pityrosporum', but mycologists eventually realised they were the same organism.

Malassezia species are difficult to grow in the laboratory so scrapings may be reported as "culture negative". The yeast grows best if a lipid such as olive oil is added to Littman agar culture medium.

Predisposing factors to malassezia proliferation

Malassezia species inhabit the skin of about 90% of adults without causing harm. Unfortunately in some people the yeast suppresses the body's expected immune response to it allowing it to proliferate and cause a skin disorder, often with very little inflammatory response. When malassezia is associated with dermatitis, it is thought that irritating metabolites of the yeasts may be responsible.

Predisposing factors to Malassezia skin disease include:

  • Humidity
  • Sweating – hence pityriasis versicolor is common in tropical areas
  • Oily skin – hence it is found mainly on scalp, face and upper trunk

The yeasts produce chemicals that reduce the pigment in the skin,causing whitish patches. These include azelaic acid, pityriacitrin and malassezin. Azelaic acid is however a useful treatment for some skin disorders such as acne and rosacea.

Malassezia may fluoresce on exposure to ultraviolet light e.g., a Wood's lamp. This is due to another chemical, pityrialactone.

Treatment of skin conditions associated with malassezia

Consult DermNet's pages on the individual skin conditions to learn about treatment.

In general, malassezia infections are treated with topical or oral antifungal agents. Seborrhoeic dermatitis may also treated with topical steroids.


Related Information


On DermNet NZ:

Books about skin diseases:

See the DermNet NZ bookstore