Dandruff VS Dry Scalp: How To Tell The Difference

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The hair is the most alterable feature of our bodies. You can style it in any way you deem fit and restyle it to give you a completely new look. Most times, especially among women, this is necessary to take care of the hair and ensure that it is kept neat, healthy, and clean. Men also have to maintain neatness and keep the hair healthy. The hair should always be kept clean and healthy to prevent a dry scalp or dandruff. A comparison of dandruff vs dry scalp reveals that both of these hair conditions emanate from unhealthy and unclean hair.

An itchy head and falling dandruff can be embarrassing and irritating. However, comparing dandruff vs dry scalp shows that these conditions typically occur due to a variety of reasons and should be treated differently. Most people correlate dandruff with all symptoms that may include dry, flaky, and itchy scalp, however, the two are different. So what makes dandruff and dry scalp different? This article highlights dandruff vs dry scalp, the causes, the differences, as well as the treatment options.

Dandruff VS Dry Scalp: Causes

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Image Source: Pixabay

Image Source: Pixabay


The skin sheds dead skin cells. The scalp is no exception. Dandruff typically occurs when the process of shedding skin speeds up, which causes dandruff flakes that are actually dead skin cells. How fast the scalp sheds off dead skin is directly correlated with how bad the condition becomes. Dandruff is different from psoriasis, a condition characterized by larger flakes of dead skin cells. Even so, some factors have been associated with an increase in the rate at which dead skin is shed off.

The American Academy of Dermatology highlights that the causes of dandruff are not fully established or understood. However, the organization points out specific causes to include oils that are secreted by the scalp region, fungal infections on the scalp, as well as an increase of sensitivity to certain substances, including hair products.

This is why you should be careful when purchasing hair care products. A combination of these factors working together makes the condition even worse. For instance, when a person has fungal infections on the scalp, he or she can develop dandruff faster compared to a person with a very oily scalp.

Many individuals have a fungus known as Malassezia that lives on the scalp but doesn’t cause any issues. However, in people with dandruff, this fungus typically causes flakes and irritation. The irritation is usually due to the manner in which the fungus interacts with other factors. Researchers have also established that there is a close relationship between the presence of some scalp bacteria and dandruff.


Unlike dandruff, a dry scalp is not caused by bacteria or fungus. Instead, it occurs if a person doesn’t have enough oil for the scalp to feel adequately lubricated. Since this is a case of dry skin, a dry scalp causes flaking, itching, and irritation. In essence, a dry scalp is simply dry skin. It is not a medical term and therefore, it should not be used in describing any disease that involves excess scaling that can be noted in one’s hair. In addition, it may also cause the hair to look dry because oil from the scalp helps in hair conditioning. The lack of it is associated with dry hair.

It is important to note that individuals with dry skin are more susceptible to developing a dry scalp. This means that many of the factors that are associated with dry skin can also contribute to a dry scalp. These include excessive washing, dry hair during the winter months, as well as skin conditions that exacerbate dry skin, for example, eczema.

How To Tell The Difference 

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Image Source: Flickr

Individuals who have developed dry scalp may typically notice flakes shedding from the scalp. Unlike flakes that a person with dandruff has, the flakes produced by a person with a dry scalp tend to be whiter and smaller. The dandruff flakes in most cases are larger and instead of being white, they may be yellow-tinged or look oily. Even though both conditions come and go, dandruff that emanates from fungal infections doesn’t get better without treatment. However, for those with a dry scalp, the condition may improve with frequent shampooing.

Both conditions are similar in that they make the scalp irritated and itchy. If the symptoms become more severe, individuals with either condition start scratching their scalp on a frequent basis and it may turn red or even develop small sores. Due to the similarities, many people may not be able to differentiate dandruff vs dry scalp. Besides, it is also possible that the two conditions can co-occur. However, from a generalized point of view, if you have flakes, they are more likely to be dandruff if the scalp feels a bit oily and itching is intense even though it doesn’t feel dry.

Dandruff VS Dry Scalp: Treatments

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Image Source: Pixabay

Image Source: Pixabay

When Should You See A Doctor?

Comparing dandruff vs dry scalp reveals that both conditions can be effectively managed at home. However, some scalp conditions can look like dandruff. For instance, scalp psoriasis can cause flakes, redness, as well as itching but it is typically caused by an autoimmune disorder. Severe dandruff, which is medically termed as seborrheic dermatitis can cause an intense and painful inflammation.

You should see a doctor if you have a flaky scalp that is associated with other symptoms, for example, sores and redness. You can also see a doctor if the condition doesn’t respond to home treatment options, for example, shampooing, and if there are open wounds on the face or head.

Some individuals who may have an autoimmune disorder, as well as chronic illnesses, should consult a doctor prior to treating dandruff. This is because symptoms similar to those of dandruff may be caused by other conditions. A weak immune system increases the likelihood that the scalp condition will significantly worsen over time.


Dandruff can be easily treated at home by using a shampoo. If you have dandruff, you need to shampoo your hair with an anti-dandruff shampoo on a regular basis. Shampooing is effective as it treats the underlying causes of the condition and also eliminates minor fungal infections on your scalp. Anti-dandruff shampoo is easily available online so ordering it won’t be an issue.

You can also treat dandruff with coal tar shampoo. This shampoo may change the color of light hair, which means that people with gray or blonde hair should use another option. However, if you decide on using a dandruff shampoo, you may want to alternate with another non-dandruff shampoo after treatment of the condition. This is because the dandruff shampoo has a strong smell.

If you prefer natural products, you may try tea tree oil shampoo, which has added benefits as it has antimicrobial properties. Using shampoo to treat dandruff doesn’t cause serious side effects. However, if dandruff doesn’t respond to home treatments, you need to see a doctor. Most dandruff shampoos contain medicine that can kill the fungus or remove flaky skin.

Some examples of the medicines include the following:

  • Pyrithione zinc – is antifungal and kills the fungus and is gentle on the skin
  • Ketoconazole – kills fungus and can be purchased over the counter
  • Selenium sulfide – reduces fungus and prevents too many skin cells from dying off, but can change the color of your hair
  • Coal tar – slows down the growth and shedding of skin cells on the scalp
  • Salicylic acid – removes extra scales from the scalp before they flake

Prevention: Dandruff VS Dry Scalp

Poor hygiene is what mostly causes dry scalp or dandruff. This means that you should always maintain a high level of hygiene to avoid these conditions. We recommend that you shampoo your hair regularly. In most people, dandruff is a chronic condition that goes away and then comes back. There is little research on how to prevent dandruff and how to use lifestyle changes to improve the symptoms. You need to prevent a dry scalp by using less irritating hair shampoos, shampooing the hair less often, drinking a lot of water, switching to a moisturizing shampoo, as well as using a humidifier so that the hair doesn’t get dry.


It has been established that dandruff typically occurs when the process of shedding skin speeds up, which causes flaking. Unlike dandruff, a dry scalp is not caused by bacteria or fungus. Instead, it occurs if a person doesn’t have enough oil for the scalp to feel adequately lubricated. You should see a doctor if you have a flaky scalp that is associated with other symptoms, for example, sores and redness and if the condition doesn’t respond to home treatment options.

Treatment of dandruff entails using anti-dandruff shampoo, which kills fungus or removes flaky skin by using medicines like pyrithione zinc, ketoconazole, selenium sulfide, coal tar, or salicylic acid. Frequent shampooing is essential to prevent this condition. However, for a dry scalp, use less irritating hair shampoos less frequently, drink a lot of water, or try switching to a moisturizing shampoo. We hope this article has adequately addressed dandruff vs dry scalp, the causes, the differences, and the treatment options.