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Dandruff vs. Dry Scalp: How Can You Know the Difference?

BY Felicia Ler

Disclaimer: The information provided is not intended as medical advice. For any medical concerns, always contact your doctor.

If you can’t, for the life of you, differentiate between dandruff vs. dry scalp (wait, they aren’t the same thing?), welcome to the club.

Many of us mistake dandruff for dry scalp and vice versa. In our defense, both of these scalp issues exhibit almost the same symptoms — hello, flaking and itchiness. But once you pause and look closely, you’ll realize that each scalp problem is unique, from the causes right down to the treatment options.

In this guide, we’ll decode the differences between dandruff and dry scalp once and for all. You’ll come away armed with facts so that dandruff and dry scalp will no longer pull a fast one on you.

Dandruff: What It’s Really All About

Let’s start with the first half of the dandruff vs. dry scalp debate. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, dandruff is “a common scalp condition in which small pieces of dry skin flake off of the scalp.” Medically speaking, dandruff is a mild form of seborrheic dermatitis. Where seborrheic dermatitis affects body areas that produce high amounts of sebum (such as the face and upper chest), dandruff is solely restricted to the scalp region.

As a chronic, inflammatory scalp condition that comes and goes, dandruff — and by extension, seborrheic dermatitis — is actually pretty common. In fact, roughly 50% of all adults globally experience dandruff.

Many people might assume the root cause of dandruff is a dirty scalp. Although infrequent hair washing can build up more sebum and worsen dandruff, the reality is that dandruff isn’t a mark of poor personal hygiene. Rather, sebum overproduction and yeast fungal infection are the two most likely causes for this scalp problem.

Here’s how it works:

  • Many people with dandruff have higher-than-normal sebum levels. Research indicates that these natural oils contain fewer triglycerides and squalene, and comparatively, more free fatty acids and cholesterol. The excess oil makes it easier for dead skin cells to build up, clump together, and create distinctive dandruff flakes.
  • Malassezia, a fat-loving yeast, feeds on sebum and is present in everybody. But this yeast can grow rapidly on dandruff-affected scalps, mostly due to sebum overproduction.

As you can imagine, the vicious cycle of more oil and fungal activity allows dandruff to persist and possibly worsen into more severe seborrheic dermatitis. Other possible causes of dandruff also include chronic stress and harsh hair care products.

This leads to common symptoms of dandruff such as:

  • White to yellow dandruff flakes that look greasy; sometimes they appear as scaly flakes of skin
  • An oily, itchy scalp — the itchiness may sometimes extend to the brows 
  • Red, inflamed patches (usually a sign that dandruff has progressed into the more serious seborrheic dermatitis)

The good news is that there are scalp treatments for these conditions. More than that, you can take steps to prevent unwanted symptoms of dandruff from making an appearance, which we’ll talk about later.

Dry Scalp: Not What It Seems

Dandruff vs. dry scalp: Photo of long, blonde hair

Now, let’s look at the causes and symptoms of dry scalp to show you why it’s different from dandruff.

When talking about dry scalp, take note that it isn’t a medical condition. Rather, it’s simply a result of your scalp not being able to maintain a balanced moisture level. For all intents and purposes, you’re dealing with skin dehydration in the scalp area.

The common causes of dry scalp include:

  • A genetic predisposition to dry skin
  • Excessive hair washing, which can strip away your scalp’s natural oils
  • Contact dermatitis (an allergic reaction to certain haircare products)
  • Low humidity due to cold weather conditions

People with dry scalp usually experience:

  • Itching
  • Small, white flakes that are less visible than dandruff flakes
  • Dried-out strands

Thankfully, a dry scalp can resolve on its own with subtle changes to your haircare routine and the right products.

How to Treat and Prevent Dandruff

It goes without saying that the treatment and prevention methods for dandruff vs. dry scalp will differ for each issue. Here are some general do’s and don’ts that can address uncomfortable dandruff symptoms. As always, see a dermatologist if your condition doesn’t improve.

Use an Anti-Dandruff Shampoo

The best defense is a good offense, which is why you need to add an anti-dandruff shampoo to your haircare routine ASAP.

Anti-dandruff shampoos are available over the counter and specially formulated to reduce sebum and fungal overgrowth to promote a healthy scalp microflora.

Usually, these shampoos include ingredients such as:

  • Salicylic acid: One study shows that combining salicylic acid with ciclopirox olamine led to more effective itch relief than the standard dandruff treatment Nizoral (which contains ketoconazole, an antifungal medication).
  • Zinc pyrithione (or pyrithione zinc): At a shampoo frequency of twice per week, test subjects who washed their hair with a zinc pyrithione-infused shampoo witnessed a significant reduction in dandruff than those who did not.
  • Tea tree oil: In one study of 126 participants, 5% tea tree oil shampoo remarkably improved dandruff severity, itchiness, and greasiness. The antifungal properties of the oil also helped with scalp scaliness.

During your search for the right anti-dandruff shampoo, you may come across other ingredients like coal tar and selenium sulfide. While these are common ingredients to treat dandruff, you should note their less-than-desirable side effects:

Shampoo More Frequently, If Possible

As mentioned earlier, dandruff is the product of sebum buildup and fungal activity. To get the most out of your anti-dandruff shampoo, wash your hair more often to clear out the buildup.

That said, you should keep your hair type in mind before upping the frequency. For example, fine-haired folks can probably get away with daily shampooing, but curly-haired types may only do well with hair washing once or twice a week. Experiment and see what works best for you.

When shampooing your hair, remember to work the product from the roots to the tips. Gently scrub your scalp to slough away dead skin cells more effectively. It’s also a great way to relieve the itch without going overboard. (Ahh…)

P.S. Check out our tell-all guide on how often to wash your hair

Play Less With Styling Products

To bring the scalp buildup under control, apply styling products less often. Gels, mousses, and creams can trap skin cells and sebum, likely worsening the dandruff situation.

Instead, go au natural. Ease off the blow-dryer and air-dry (or towel-dry) your mane. Try heat-free hairstyles for the perfect ‘do without breaking out the hot styling tools. For more inspiration, hop over to our full list of no-heat hairstyles.

How to Aid and Prevent Dry Scalp

The treatments for dandruff vs. dry scalp differ in various ways. This section is reserved for those battling scalp dryness. Below, we share tips and tricks on how to keep dehydration at bay.

Choose Gentle, Moisturizing Haircare Products

Given that a lack of moisture is the root cause of dry scalp, revamp your haircare routine to focus on shampoos and conditioners that can hydrate your dried-out scalp.

When analyzing product claims, look for ultra-moisturizing ingredients such as:

At the same time, be sure to avoid potentially irritating and drying ingredients such as:

  • Sulfates
  • Parabens
  • Mineral Oil
  • Drying alcohols

Take a look at our comprehensive “no” list of ingredients that you will never find in any Function of Beauty products.

Dial Down the Hair Washing

One key difference regarding the treatment options for dandruff vs. dry scalp lies in the frequency of hair washing. For dry scalp, less is more when it comes to shampooing your locks.

If you’re currently washing your hair every day, tone it down to once every other day and see if it helps with your dry, flaky scalp. Use cool to lukewarm water in place of hot water, which has an affinity for removing scalp sebum. Switch to baths instead of hot showers on self-care nights, and pull your mane into a toweled updo to avoid the oh-so-warm water — your scalp will thank you for it.

Add a Humidifier to Your Shopping List

There are times when you have done all you can to save your moisture-ravaged strands but still bow down to the mercy of the heavens (aka cold weather). But a humidifier could be just what you need to combat the dry air and winter hair issues. Your options are endless here. A portable humidifier is the perfect desk accessory, especially if you’re working from home. Meanwhile, larger units ensure even more warm, hair-friendly air.

Dandruff vs. Dry Scalp: They Aren’t That Hard to Differentiate

Now that you’re all caught up on the ins and outs of dandruff vs. dry scalp, the next time your bestie poses a question about the difference, you can easily tell her which scalp issue she’s experiencing.

As a chronic skin condition, dandruff requires proper scalp treatment to completely eradicate the symptoms. Start with over-the-counter products before working your way up to prescription-strength ones under the close eye of a licensed dermatologist.

On the flip side, dry scalp is usually the result of insufficient moisture, which may be easier to resolve. Moisturizing hair products are your best bet, coupled with less frequent hair washing. And depending on the weather conditions you live in, a humidifier could help. Take our hair quiz to create your own 100% customized shampoo and conditioner that can help you achieve your personal hair goals.