Dandruff or a dry scalp—which is it? We’ve likely all wondered this oft-debated question at least one point in our lives. Despite how similar these conditions are, when you look closely, you’ll notice they have specific characteristics that make them stand apart. To discover what those characteristics are, we tapped a slew of experts who gave us the DL on everything there is to know about dandruff vs. dry scalps.
What Is Dandruff?
First things first, let’s be clear on what dandruff actually is. According to board-certified dermatologist Blair Murphy-Rose, dandruff is a chronic condition—often considered to be a mild form of seborrheic dermatitis—that waxes and wanes over time. In its most obvious form, dandruff presents itself as noticeable white flakes.
“Dandruff is caused by an elevation of fungus on the surface of the scalp," says William Gaunitz, a certified trichologist. "The main difference between dandruff and a dry scalp is that dandruff is an actual medical condition, whereas a dry scalp is simply a hydration issue,” he says.
What Is Dry Scalp?
While both dryness and dandruff can make your scalp itch and lead to flaking, a dry scalp can be improved by making simple adjustments to your hair care routine. “Dry scalp may improve with less frequent shampooing,” says Gretchen Friese, a BosleyMD certified trichologist. She notes that it is possible to have both dry scalp and dandruff, which is why most people find it difficult to tell the difference between the two.
The Causes & Symptoms of Dandruff vs. Dry Scalp
Dandruff is often associated with "dirty scalps" and an overall idea of "poor personal hygiene," when in reality, it can happen to anyone. Here's how:
- Overactive sebaceous glands and fungal growth: “The cause of dandruff is not entirely understood but it is often associated with excess oil production and an overgrowth of fungus, particularly Malassezia sp, on the scalp,” Murphy-Rose says. “The scalp contains an abundance of hair follicles with sebaceous glands that produce large amounts of sebum—an oily substance—creating an ideal environment for fungi to thrive in.” And when you pair that fungi with excess oil, microscopic dead skin cells that would normally slough off unnoticed, stick together in clumps that present themselves as tiny-yet-noticeable white flakes. Scalp fungus is totally normal and it’s typically controlled by the immune system, adds Gaunitz. “There are certain causes that lower the scalp immune state, like low vitamin D3 or ferritin, genetic history, an inflammatory diet, aggravating hair and scalp products, or allergies,” he explains, noting that all of these factors can play into whether or not fungus will thrive on your scalp.
- Stress: While the main cause of dandruff is the aforementioned fungal growth, the Mayo Clinic reports (and NYC-based dermatologist Robyn Gmyrek agrees) that stress can take a toll on your scalp health as well, and thus can be another culprit in the war against white flakes. “This ‘stress’ can be psychological—such as relationship trouble—work deadlines, etc… or it can be physical stress on your body, such as having a cold, fighting an illness, having surgery, or simply being run down,” she says.
- Itchy scalp and/or eyebrows
- Noticeable white flakes
- Potential redness
The most common sign of dandruff is when you start to notice white flakes falling from your scalp to your shoulders and back as you brush or tousle your hair. Of course, before such flakes appear, all of our experts say that itchiness will likely present itself first.
Dry Scalp Causes
- Inability to produce or retain moisture
- Excessive washing
- Irritation from haircare products
According to Friese, a dry scalp occurs the same way that dry skin does: When it doesn’t produce or retain enough moisture. “Like other forms of dry skin, this can cause itching, flaking, and irritation,” she says. It’s important to understand that you can wash your scalp’s hydration down the drain if you shampoo it too regularly. What’s more, what you wash it with can also lead to drying—that’s why it’s so important to use well-formulated haircare products designed to hydrate your strands without weighing them down, not strip them.
Products and showering aside, Murphy-Rose says that climate (think: seasonal and year-round; high levels of heat or cold, and low levels of humidity) and excessive sun exposure, and genetics can also lead to a dry scalp.
Dry Scalp Symptoms
- Itchy scalp
- Dry hair
- Small, barely-there flakes
According to Marina Perkovic, a stylist and scalp expert at Eliut Salon, very small flakes may occur as a result of extreme dryness, just as they can appear on your face during the harshest seasons of the year.
Prevention & Treatment
- Use a Medicated Shampoo: Gmyrek says to reach for a shampoo formulated specifically for dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis at least two times a week. “These shampoos contain salicylic acid, ketoconazole, zinc pyrithione, or selenium sulfide, and will work to decrease oil and fungus, and flakes as a result,” she says.
- Up Your Omega 3 Intake: According to Gaunitz and experts running the Cedars Sinai medical blog, omega-3s help to regulate oil production, which can in turn reduce the amount of fungal growth and flaking.
- Take Vitamin D Supplements: Speaking of supplements, Gaunitz adds that one of the best ways to prevent dandruff is to take vitamin D3 supplements. This makes sense considering, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, vitamin D helps slow the rate of rapid skin cell growth—which can be a factor in more extreme cases of dandruff and psoriasis.
- Stock Your Hair Care Routine With Tea Tree Oil: As Cedars Sinai points out, tea tree oil is anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial, making it a great option for scalp rebalancing. Thankfully, these days it's mixed into a slew of hair treatments, shampoos, conditioners, and masks.
- Try Meditation (and/or Exercise): Seriously though. High levels of stress can trigger dandruff and excessive flaking. As if you need another excuse to zen out, let this be it. Just remember: The calmer you are, the less likely a dandruff flair will be.
- Try a Pre-Shampoo Scalp Treatment: When your scalp is dry, it needs all the help it can get to feel comfortable again. One of the best ways to do this is to start your hair care routine with a product designed specifically for your scalp’s comfort and wellbeing—like Drunk Elephant's T.L.C. Happi Scalp Scrub ($36). This scrub is designed to gently exfoliate the scalp while deeply hydrating it with marula and mongongo oils. Simply apply it to dry hair twice a week before hopping into the shower, let it work its magic for 10 minutes, rinse thoroughly, and shampoo and condition as normal.
- Use a Moisturizing, Gentle Shampoo and Conditioner: Since a dry scalp can be in part due to irritation, swapping out any harsh shampoos and conditioners for ultra-gentle ones can seriously pay off. When looking for gentle shampoos, you’ll want to steer clear of fragrance and essential oils and veer toward hydrating, soothing ingredients like aloe vera and oat milk.
- Eliminate Products With Alcohol as the Main Ingredient: Many hair care products are made with alcohol. It’s when alcohol is the main ingredient that it’s particularly worrisome. For this reason, when scouring for the best hair care products for your mane goals, make sure none of the ones you make room for in your routine have alcohol in the first five to 10 ingredients. Your scalp (and ends, honestly) will thank you.
- Wash Less Often: Remember, you can wash your scalp’s natural oils away if you shampoo too frequently. That said, try to wash no more than every other day when attempting to cater to your scalp—and always use lukewarm (not scalding hot) water when doing so. While the temperature may not seem like a big deal, when it comes to the hydration of your scalp and skin, the hotter the water, the more dried out they'll both become. Yikes. (Pst: Apply Head and Shoulders Soothing Leave-On Scalp Cream after each shower. It’s designed to make the time between washes more comfortable.)
- Add a Humidifier to Your Home: Part of having a dry scalp comes down to the climate you live in. If you live somewhere super dry—or if it’s summer or winter (aka the driest times of the year—it helps to have a humidifier to pump a little moisture back into your environment. While there are plenty of humidifiers to choose from, the Dyson Pure Humidify+Cool is the first machine to date to be recognized by the National Psoriasis Foundation (NPF) as a solution for people with psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis, and/or individuals living with severely sensitive skin. Since psoriasis involves flaking skin—and since dry skin is associated with sensitivity—this machine is a shoo-in for anyone looking to pamper their scalp.
When to See a Doctor
When dandruff progresses from a mild to extreme form, Gmyrek says that it can cause skin cells to multiply more quickly than usual, which results in heavier flakes, persistent itching, noticeably more inflammation, and, in some cases, redness. When this happens, what started as a mild form of seborrheic dermatitis can excel into a more serious form. But don’t worry! According to Gmyrek, the inflammatory condition is incredibly common and not super difficult to treat. However, if it's been a month and you feel like you’ve tried everything and your symptoms aren’t getting any better, it’s best to visit your dermatologist for directions on how to proceed.
The Final Takeaway
Dandruff and a dry scalp are often mistaken for one another but, at the end of the day, they have their own unique traits. The best way to care for either condition should it arise is to remember to treat your scalp like the rest of the skin on your body: With daily attention and loving care.
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