Dandruff vs dry scalp: their causes, symptoms and treatments

You may have suffered from dry flakes and wonder to yourself: Do I have dandruff or dry scalp? This question has been raised numerous times if you are exposed to the Reddit forum of hair care sciences. Oftentimes, people may have warned you not to confuse these two conditions, but the truth of the matter is these similar conditions can be hard to decipher. However, when you look closely, you will realize that a few key features separate these two conditions. If you want to know how to tell them apart, what a scalp with dandruff looks like, how about the dry scalp, and how to best treat each scalp condition, please follow our write-up closely and find out for yourself. Hopefully, with a clear board of symptoms and causes in place, you will be able to figure out the best ways to take care of your scalp.

Dandruff vs dry scalp

Dandruff and dry scalp has totally different causes
Dandruff vs dry scalp has totally different causes

Now, believe it or not, the flake you get on your head may be totally different from someone else’s flake. But how do you tell them apart? By understanding the root cause of each condition. Because they have different root causes, these can have different symptoms and manifestations as well. Like all things in life, we have to learn about each condition’s characteristics to be able to distinguish them.

Dandruff can be quite tricky when we discuss them since the terminology can be confusing and all over the place. You get Seborrheic dermatitis ( Seb derm for short), which is how dermatologists and doctors refer to dandruff as the official medical terms. But these two terms are not used interchangeably. An easy way to figure out when to use is the context and severity of each type. Dandruff is a mild form of Seborrheic dermatitis, where over-the-counter anti-dandruff solutions can easily get rid of. While if your dandruff is much more stubborn and requires clinical strength shampoo and scalp care product 

Cause of dry scalp vs dandruff

A dry scalp happens when your skin is troubled with dryness and lack of hydration. In a way, this problem is no different when your facial skin is parched and dry. A dry scalp often manifests when your skin barrier becomes disrupted and damaged. A compromised skin barrier (or moisture barrier) results in quick transepidermal water loss, making it impossible for your skin to retain moisture. This can happen anywhere with skin, your face, your torso, your arm, and your scalp. Now, the reasons behind this problem can be manyfold. Your dry skin can be of your genetics, due to your dry environment, certain skin conditions, or harsh skin care, hair care products.

The Cause Of Dandruff
The cause of Dandruff is not too well understood but it most likely involves a fungus that lives on our scalp

Dandruff’s causes, however, can be even more perplexing. Scientists believe that on everyone’s scalp there is a harmless commensal fungus called Malassezia. This type of fungus lives on our scalp and gains benefit from it, while most of the time causing no problem. But somehow, in certain individuals, it helps bring about dandruff. How many theories were formed to single out the population that would be susceptible to this harmless invisible fungus? It is often said that people who are immunocompromised or lacking certain nutrients are often prone to dandruff, however, no concrete evidence has been found.

While it is great to start investigating these two options as the main culprit for your flakey scalp, care should be taken to rule out another commonly seen issue – contact dermatitis. It should be easy to rule it out easily because these allergic conditions have an acute onset. You will have a notable redness, itching, and burning sensation when you come into contact with certain insect dust, chemical, and personal products.

Symptoms of dry scalp versus dandruff

Dry Scalp's Flake is much different from dandruff. Main criteria is color, size, and oiliness.
Dry Scalp’s Flake is much different from dandruff. Main criteria is color, size, and oiliness.

Now, of course, having flaky scalps can be quite an embarrassing experience. They look gross and make you look awkward in certain social settings. However, these very tiny flakes can reveal to us a great deal about our current scalp condition. Dandruff happens when the sebaceous gland secretes too much oil that becomes food for the Malassezia. This creates and aggravates the dandruff condition, creating large, oily pieces of skin flakes on our scalp. On the other hand, the dry scalp flakes tend to be much smaller, not as thick, and drier in nature. As your scalp is dry and without many barrier functions, the small, thin scales that come out of it are also dry, lacking oil. The big dandruff flakes can have white or yellowish color ( sometimes even red flakes in the case of severe seborrheic dermatitis) while dry skin flakes only present themself as white.

Since dandruff only comes about when there is too much oil, you may feel oily, greasy hair quite often. Another concurrent problem is that your scalp might become itchy due to the greasiness that usually comes with dandruff. So what symptoms we listed above match with your current conditions? Read on to find out how to treat and banish these two issues.

Prevention and treatment for each type

As each issue has a totally different root cause, each type should be treated and taken care of differently. Use the appropriate sections to unlock the answer to your scalp’s health.

How to treat and prevent dandruff?

Hair Care product

Be sure to use product with ingredients that have shown great track records
Be sure to use product with ingredients that have shown great track records

Using clinical strength shampoo at least two times a week is one of the most important steps you should take to counteract dandruff issues. These shampoos should contain ketoconazole, zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide, salicylic acid, or coal tar. What they do is to reduce and eradicate fungus and sebaceous gland secretion. Even though it is a wash form, products that contain Zinc Pyrithione continue to work 24 hours after the wash. Users can quickly see results after a month of constant usage and finally can say goodbye to constant itching.

Another natural anti-itching ingredient you can add to your arsenal is tea tree oil. Tea tree oil is anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial, which is a huge plus for dealing with problems like dandruff and Serb derm. You can find them in all form factors like hair masks, shampoos, conditioners, and/or hair treatment. No matter what products you use, it should be noted that the more frequently you wash your hair, there will be less oil and grease build-up, which will lead to a reduction in dandruff. So make the time for your shampoo treatment and forget all the urban legends that you may have heard elsewhere on the Internet.


If there are two supplements you should pay attention to, they have to be Omega 3 and vitamin D. Usually most people’s diet has an insufficient amount of both of these nutrients. However, if you have dandruff, you should pay close attention to these two vital nutritions. Omega-3s, usually mentioned in tandem with Omega 6, help your body control and regulate oil production. When their ratio is in perfect balance, they can help your dandruff and flaking symptoms. Vitamin D, especially Vitamin D3, helps tame the rate of rapid skin cell multiplications. Getting enough Vitamin D has been proven to slow down this rate, hence improve dandruff and psoriasis.

Reduce stress

Let your body and mind be at peace will actually help your seb derm symptom
Let your body and mind be at peace will actually help your seb derm symptom

While this may sound a bit strange, constant stress definitely affects the inflammatory response to the environment, be it acne or dandruff. If you have been putting off that mindfulness or yoga retreat, maybe the time is now. It has been proven over and over again, the more stressed out you are, the more severe your flair-up will be.

How to treat and prevent dry scalp?

How to choose products for dry scalp?

Gentle And Mild Shampoo is the best option for dry scalp
Gentle And Mild Shampoo is the best option for dry scalp

As there are many designated skincare lines for dry and sensitive skin, you should get the same for your scalp. To best care for your scalp, you should throw out your harsh and surfactant-laden haircare products. Instead, your shampoo and conditioner should be gentle and skin-respecting. Stay off any products with drying alcohol, strong fragrance, or essential oil.

Additionally, you can add a pre-shampoo treatment to add moisture to both your hair and scalp. Before you shampoo your hair, apply a good amount to each part of your section. Let the product sit for 20 minutes and then rinse your hair thoroughly. You can now continue with your current routine.

 A new washing routine

Relax your shower schedule to tackly dry scalp problem
Relax your shower schedule to tackly dry scalp problem

When you try to wash your scalp, always remember to use lukewarm water (nothing above that as it would dry out your skin and destroy your moisture barrier). Wash no more than 3 times a week as this would help your scalp have more time to replenish its skin barrier and oil. So practicing washing your hair every other day at the right temperature may be one of the principles of a healthy scalp.

Add humid to your living environment

While your dry scalp can be a condition of your own doing, many times it tends to be a reflection of the level of humidity around you. The climate you live in can easily help or make your situation worse. This is why we think you should add a humidifier when the weather becomes dry. Anybody with dry flaky scalp or psoriasis should seriously think about putting back some much-needed moisture for their living space.


While dandruff vs dry scalp can make you scratch your head when you try to distinguish. They are inherently different in how each occurs and presents symptoms. The way you care for your scalp should be the same way you show your love for your skin. That is tender loving care infused with knowledge, experimentation, and expert guidance. If you somehow have not figured out what and how to alleviate your scalp problems, it’s time that you visit a dermatologist or trichologist to get a clear diagnosis.

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