Dandruff vs Dry Scalp: Causes, Treatments, and How to Tell the Difference
Finding flakes in your hair (or on your shoulders) is common, but it’s probably not quite the look you’re going for – not to mention, a dry, itchy scalp can be uncomfortable. And while you probably want to get rid of those flakes ASAP, you should first take the time to figure out whether they stem from dandruff or dry scalp, so you can determine the most effective remedy.
“Do I have dandruff or dry scalp?” The guide below digs into how to tell dandruff from dry scalp, as well as the causes, treatments, and prevention methods for both conditions.
Dandruff vs Dry Scalp: What’s the Difference?
The main symptoms of dry scalp and dandruff are the same: flakes and an itchy head. However, dandruff and dry scalp are actually two different conditions – which means treating and preventing them require different regimens. So how do you discern between dry scalp flakes vs dandruff, so you can determine which to treat? Here’s a breakdown:
Dandruff is a common condition that, in most cases, isn’t serious. However, it can be uncomfortable and annoying, so it’s smart to learn how to quickly identify and treat it.
You might first suspect you have dandruff if you notice white flakes of skin in your hair or on your shoulders – but how do you know it’s really dandruff? Here are the most common dandruff symptoms:
- Large, oily flakes: Compared to dry scalp flakes, which are generally smaller and dry, dandruff flakes are large, oily, and either white or yellow.
- Itchiness: With dandruff, you may also experience an itchy scalp.
- Irritation: In severe cases, you may even have raised red or yellow bumps near your hairline.
What Causes Dandruff?
Surprisingly, dandruff generally isn’t a result of dry skin. Here’s what commonly causes dandruff:
- Oily scalp: Sebum or oil overproduction can lead to seborrheic dermatitis – another term for eczema that affects the scalp. This causes scaly patches to form and then flake off.
- Infrequent or inefficient cleansing: Dandruff can also stem from not cleansing your hair often enough. If you use a traditional shampoo, failing to wash your hair regularly or use enough product can allow oil and buildup to accumulate and then flake off as dandruff
- Yeast overgrowth: Malassezia is a type of yeast that lives on all people’s skin and scalp. However, having too much of it, or developing a sensitivity to this type of yeast can result in dandruff.
How to Get Rid of Dandruff
You’re probably familiar with traditional shampoos that are marketed specifically as dandruff treatments. The most common, over-the-counter brands contain antifungal and antibacterial ingredients (like pyrithione zinc, selenium sulfide, ketoconazole, or salicylic acid) that attack dandruff-causing yeast. While these shampoos can be effective in the short term, some people find that they have to rotate regularly between different products to keep the dandruff at bay.
A more effective way to get rid of dandruff often starts with managing the oil on your scalp. While common advice will recommend simply washing your hair more often, that can actually lead to more oil. Here’s the thing: Traditional shampoo works to strip your scalp of its natural oils. Seems like that’s what you want, right? Unfortunately, then your scalp goes into oil-producing overdrive to replace that natural barrier. Ultimately, by washing more often, you may actually be contributing to the problem.
You can better address your scalp’s oil overproduction by using a detergent-free cleanser. It will still remove product buildup, but it’ll also balance your scalp’s natural oils. In addition, try exfoliating your scalp with a scalp brush as you cleanse. (Bonus: You’ll get a nice, relaxing head massage in the process!)
If you experience severe dandruff or your condition doesn’t improve with these tips, consider scheduling an appointment with a dermatologist.
What to Know About Preventing Dandruff
Preventing dandruff largely comes down to the same tactics that you use to get rid of dandruff: keeping oil at bay and exfoliating your scalp.
However, you can also prevent dandruff with the following tips:
- Limit hairstyling products: Have you been hitting the dry shampoo a bit too hard? Excessive use of products, including styling gels, creams, and sprays, can cause additional buildup and flakes. Also make sure to thoroughly cleanse and rinse products from your scalp in the shower.
- Aim to lower or better manage stress: Stress has been shown to trigger or exacerbate dandruff. If you’re feeling extra tense lately, make sure you’re getting enough sleep and exercise, and consider stress management practices such as meditation, yoga, or breathwork.
- Spend time in the sun: Some research suggests that exposure to ultraviolet light can help control dandruff. While you want to avoid sun damage, some UV exposure can be beneficial.
In simple terms, dry scalp is another form of dry skin – but when it occurs on your scalp, it can have uncomfortable effects, including itchiness and flakes in your hair. Worse, excessive itching and scratching can eventually lead to hair loss. So to maintain optimal scalp health, you’ll want to identify and address this condition as soon as you notice it.
Dry Scalp Symptoms
Flakes are a telltale sign of dry scalp, but here’s a closer look at dry scalp symptoms:
- Small, dry flakes: Different from the large, oily dandruff flakes that are a hallmark of dandruff, a dry scalp will likely shed smaller, dry flakes in your hair and on your shoulders.
- Itchy scalp: Along with flakes, you’ll likely experience a dry, itchy scalp.
- Dry skin on other parts of your body: If you’re not sure whether you’re suffering from dandruff or dry scalp, consider if you have any patches of dry skin on other parts of your body, like your arms or legs. People with dry skin elsewhere are more prone to dry scalp.
What Causes Dry Scalp?
Dry scalp occurs when you don’t have enough oil on your scalp to keep your skin moisturized. This can be caused by several different factors, including:
- Cold weather: In the winter, the humidity tends to drop, and that dry air can sap the moisture from your skin – including your scalp.
- Excessive washing: Washing your hair too often can strip the natural oils from your head, leaving you with a dry, itchy scalp.
- Eczema: This common skin condition can leave your scalp dry and irritated. It can be genetic, but it can also stem from soaps, detergents, and changes in the weather.
Keep in mind that an itchy scalp and scaly patches can also be shampoo allergy symptoms, so if you suspect an allergic reaction, make sure to speak with your doctor or dermatologist.
How to Treat Dry Scalp
Wondering what to do for dry scalp? Getting rid of dry, flaky scalp starts, as you might have guessed, with rehabilitating your scalp’s natural moisture. Part of the problem can stem from your shampoo. Traditional shampoos can contain detergents that are harsh on your scalp, stripping away your hair’s natural oils. While they can temporarily make your hair feel clean, they can be drying in the long run.
Instead, try a detergent-free cleanser that contains essential oils, which will gently restore the natural moisture of your hair and scalp.
What to Know About Preventing a Dry Scalp
Preventing a dry, itchy scalp starts with moisturizing. In addition to choosing an appropriate cleanser, try the following tips to keep your scalp from drying out:
- Use warm water instead of hot water in the shower. Hot water can dry out your scalp and strip its natural oils. Using warm (or even cold) water will help you better maintain some of that moisture.
- Run a humidifier in your house, especially during the cold winter months, to hydrate the air.
- Drink more water. Since dry scalp is a symptom of overall dry skin, staying hydrated can help your body heal from the inside out.
- Avoid alcohol and sulfates in hair styling products: Hair products like hairspray that contain alcohol (though remember that not all alcohols are bad for you; fatty alcohols are highly moisturizing) or sulfates (in many traditional shampoos) can be extra drying, so it’s best to look for gentler alternatives.
- Add scalp massage to your hair care routine: Using a scalp brush offers a wealth of benefits, from exfoliation to better blood circulation, which all adds up to a healthier scalp.
The Best Shampoo for Dry Scalp or Dandruff
Whether you have dandruff or dry scalp, the best shampoo generally isn’t actually a shampoo –it’s a detergent-free cleanser that restores and balances your natural oils. New Wash, for example, can help you perform a scalp detox without stripping your hair of its natural protective barrier. That means your hair will naturally retain moisture, which is essential to avoid a dry scalp. It also prevents the need for additional conditioners, so you can prevent the buildup that commonly causes dandruff.
By restoring your scalp’s balance, you can prevent dandruff and dry scalp, so you can enjoy healthy, gorgeous, and flake-free hair.