Dandruff vs Dry Scalp: What's the Difference?

Published April 25th, 2022 by Erik Rivera
Fact Checked by
Chris Riley

If you have a flaky scalp you may be uncertain if it is dandruff or dry scalp as many people don't know the difference, but they are two very different conditions.

Dandruff is a type of seborrheic dermatitis, while your dry scalp is due to a lack of moisture in the scalp, both are very similar yet have different causes.

In this article, we will discuss the symptoms, causes, and treatment options for both dandruff and dry scalp and also provide tips on how to prevent both of them.

What are the differences between dandruff and dry scalp?

Dandruff is a chronic skin condition of the scalp that causes flaking and irritation and is actually a mild case of seborrheic dermatitis, which is a long-term skin disorder.

When you have dandruff, it may also get better and worse for no apparent reasons. The natural process of animals losing dead skin and hair also correlates to humans too.

The difference with dandruff is that the dead skins cells come together in bigger clusters which become flakes.

It can be caused by a variety of skin conditions that we will detail below. Your dry scalp, on the other hand, is simply a lack of moisture in the scalp.

Similar to any other dry skin on your body, if the skin on your scalp does not get or retain enough moisture the skin will eventually flake and fall off of your body.

Both dandruff and dry scalp can be uncomfortable and embarrassing, but they are not usually serious conditions and both are very common conditions.

What are the symptoms of dandruff and dry scalp?

Due to the similarities in symptoms, dandruff and dry scalp are often confused. The symptoms present in both dandruff and dry scalp include:

  • White or yellow flakes of skin in your hair or on your shoulder and clothing
  • Itchy scalp

The symptoms that only pertain to dandruff include:

  • Itchy scalp or eyebrows although there may be no redness
  • Oily skin on your scalp

The symptoms that only pertain to dry scalp include:

  • Itchy scalp with redness
  • Rough or scaly skin
  • Cracked skin
  • Dry Hair

Another rule of thumb is that dry scalp produces tiny white flakes that are barely visible while dandruff flakes typically are much larger in size.

What causes dandruff and dry scalp?

Although both dandruff and dry scalp are similar conditions, they have different causes.

As noted above, dandruff is a mild form of seborrheic dermatitis and there is no known cause for it; however, there are a number of different factors that are believed to cause dandruff including:

  • Malassezia globosa, which is a form of yeast fungus
  • Overproduction of sebum, which is your natural skin oil produced in your oil glands in your hair follicles
  • Stress
  • Irritation due to products in your hair
  • Bacteria on your skin
  • Extreme weather, especially in winter, as cold and dry weather can cause it

Dry scalp, however, is most often caused by:

  • Various medical conditions like diabetes
  • Sunburn
  • Dry climates with low humidity
  • Shampoos, soaps, or hair care products that dry out your scalp
  • Harsh chemicals in dyes, hair products, or perms
  • Hot water that dries out your scalp
  • Hormones
  • Age as you are more likely to get dry scalp when you are older
  • Skin conditions
  • Medications
  • Genetics

Please talk to your doctor, dermatologist, or pharmacist if you have any of these causes and think you may have dry scalp or dandruff.

When do I see my doctor about my dandruff or dry scalp?

Dandruff and dry scalp are usually not serious conditions and can be treated at home; however, consult your doctor if:

  • Your dandruff or dry scalp is accompanied by hair loss
  • You have dandruff or dry scalp that does not respond to over the counter treatments after a month
  • Your dandruff or dry scalp is severe
  • Your dandruff or dry scalp is accompanied by other symptoms like redness, swelling, or bleeding
  • You think your dandruff or dry scalp may be caused by another medical condition
  • Your dandruff or dry scalp is very itchy
  • You have a rash on your scalp
  • Your scalp is in pain
  • Your scalp feels warm
  • You can not sleep or function normally

If you have any of these symptoms, please see your doctor as dandruff and dry scalp can be a sign of a more serious condition.

How does my doctor diagnose them?

Your doctor or dermatologist will most likely be able to diagnose dandruff or dry scalp based on a physical examination; however, they may also perform tests like skin scrapings or skin biopsies to rule out other conditions or to get a better understanding of your dandruff or dry scalp.

What are the treatment options for dandruff and dry scalp?

The good news is that dandruff and dry scalp are usually very easy to treat at home with over-the-counter treatments; however, if your dandruff or dry scalp is severe, your doctor may prescribe you a medicated shampoo or cream for scalp treatment.

Your doctor or dermatologist may suggest that you switch shampoos to a gentle shampoo, which contains less harsh ingredients for your scalp.

If this does not work, then they may suggest other over-the-counter shampoos that treat these conditions.

The most common over-the-counter treatments for dandruff and dry scalp include shampoos that contain the following ingredients:

Zinc pyrithione

Shampoos with zinc pyrithione such as Head & Shoulders help to control the fungal infection that may be causing your dandruff.

Selenium sulfide

Shampoos with selenium sulfide such as Selsun Blue, these shampoos help reduce fungus and your dead skin cells from flaking off.

Ketoconazole

Using a shampoo with ketoconazole such as Nizoral helps reduce the fungus on your scalp.

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is the same substance that is used for acne and it works by removing the outermost layer of your skin. It is found in products such as Neutrogena T/Sal.

Coal tar

Coal tar is a substance that is derived from coal and it works by slowing the growth of skin cells, helping to reduce dandruff. It is found in products such as Neutrogena T/Gel.

Tea tree oil

Tea tree oil is gaining use as an alternative medicine for skin conditions. It is known to have antifungal properties; however, there hasn't been enough research into whether it is effective for dry scalp or dandruff.

tea tree oil

If you use a dry scalp or anti-dandruff shampoo and they do not work by improving your scalp health after a month of daily use, please see your doctor or dermatologist as they may prescribe you a medicated shampoo or cream.

How do you prevent dandruff and dry scalp?

The best way to prevent dandruff and dry scalp is by using a dandruff shampoo regularly, especially if you have dandruff or dry scalp that is caused by factors like oily skin, not shampooing enough, or using harsh shampoos.

Avoid scratching your scalp as this can irritate your skin and make dandruff or dry scalp worse.

Other things you can do to prevent dandruff and dry scalp are decreasing your stress levels, only using lukewarm water and not hot water for baths and showers, staying hydrated, and avoiding long exposure to the sun.

You can also buy a humidifier if the environment in your home is too dry.

Summary

Although they are similar, dandruff and dry scalp are not the same conditions as they have different causes and some of the symptoms are also different too.

They are both common conditions that can cause flaky skin on the scalp and usually be treated at home with over-the-counter treatments; however, if your dandruff or dry scalp is severe, your doctor may prescribe you a medicated shampoo or cream.

The best way to prevent dandruff and dry scalp is by using a dandruff shampoo regularly and by avoiding things that can trigger dandruff or dry scalp.

If you think you may have dandruff or dry scalp issues or have any more questions, please see your doctor or board-certified dermatologist for an accurate diagnosis and to discuss treatment options for a healthy scalp that are best for you.

References and Sources:

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0225796

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/dandruff/#GP

https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/hair-scalp-care/scalp/dry-scalp-conditions

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0225796

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dandruff/symptoms-causes/syc-20353850

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dandruff/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20353854

Put drug prices & coupons in your pocket!

We'll text you a link to download our free Android or iPhone app