Dandruff Vs. Dry Scalp: What Are The Differences?

Medically reviewed by Dr. Shruti Chavan, MBBS Dermatologist
Written by Anjali Sayee

Have you noticed flakes falling from your scalp? Could they be a sign of dandruff or dry scalp? While both the hair issues have certain similarities, they also are different in a few ways. While dandruff could be a sign of an unclean scalp, a dry scalp is a sign of dehydration. Let us further delve into each of these issues to understand them and how you can treat them better.

What Is Dandruff

Dandruff is a common scalp disorder that nearly affects everyone irrespective of age and gender (1). It mainly affects those at puberty and in the middle age. Dandruff primarily occurs on the scalp and causes it to itch and flake without any inflammation (2).

What Is A Dry Scalp

A dry scalp is denoted by itching and flaking. It might be a sign of pruritus (3). Research shows that scalp flaking could often be caused by sebaceous activity (4). Many factors can cause a dry scalp. These can include weather conditions, unbalanced sebum production, or improper hygiene and health care. Medical conditions like psoriasis and eczema may also cause scalp dryness. This condition is characterized by small, white flakes.

Causes Of Dandruff

Dandruff is most commonly caused by a fungus called Malassezia furfur. Research shows that people with dandruff tend to have twice the concentration of Malezzisia furfur than those without it (1). It can be caused by bacteria too.

  • Other causes of dandruff include excess exposure to sunlight, harsh combing techniques, excessive shampooing, and accumulation of dirt, grime, and product residue.
  • Using certain cosmetic products may also cause dandruff.
  • A dry environment can push your scalp into overdrive, making it produce excessive sebum and leading to dandruff.

Causes Of A Dry Scalp

Scalp flaking is primarily caused by sebaceous activity (4). The sebaceous glands produce sebum (a complex oil containing triglycerides and fatty acids, wax esters, squalene, cholesterol esters, and cholesterol). Lesser sebum secretion causes the scalp to become undernourished and flaky. Following are the other causes of a dry scalp:

  • Overuse of shampoos that may dry hair out.
  • Fungal and bacterial infections.
  • An undernourished scalp that produces less sebum.
  • Excessive heat or cold.
  • Thermal damage from the overuse of styling tools.
  • Hair dyes and colors that contain harmful chemicals (5).
  • Lack of a hair care routine involving deep conditioning treatments, hot oil massages, hair packs, etc.
S.NoDandruff Dry Scalp
1. The presence of Malassezia furfurDecrease in sebum production
2.Bacterial infections Bacterial infections
3Overshampooing Overshampooing and overuse of styling products
4Dirt and product residue Nutrient deficiencies
5Exposure to sunlight Weather conditions
6Use of certain cosmetic products Hair dyes and colors
7Frequent harsh combing Improper hair care routine

Dry Scalp Vs. Dandruff: The Difference

Dandruff is characterized by fine, loose white or gray flakes, while a dry scalp produces smaller and powdery white flakes. Overproduction of sebum creates an oily scalp, which causes dandruff. Underproduction of sebum causes the scalp to dry out, flake, and itch.

Dandruff is mainly caused by a fungal infection, while a dry scalp can be caused by pre-existing skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis, weather conditions, or excessive washing. If not treated on time, both conditions can aggravate and cause redness or bumps on the scalp.

Here are the symptoms you must look out for.

Symptoms

Certain signs and symptoms can help you determine whether you have dandruff or just an itchy scalp.

Dandruff

  • Big, white or yellowish flakes paired with excessive itching.
  • Oily or dry flakes.
  • No noticeable inflammation.
  • Only your scalp is affected.

Dry Scalp

  • Small white flakes.
  • Possible redness or small bumps on the scalp.
  • White flakes due to a preexisting skin condition.

Let us now look at some of the treatment options for each issue.

Treatment Options

  • Dandruff: Anti-dandruff shampoos can help treat dandruff. These contain salicylic acid, zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide, keratinolytic agents, imidazole antifungal agents, hydroxy pyridones, and naturopathic agents (1). These ingredients have antifungal and antimicrobial properties. You can also try natural remedies like rosemary paired with a carrier oil to reduce dandruff (6).
  • Dry Scalp: Moisturizing your scalp with deep conditioners, oils, and hair masks can help treat a dry scalp. You also may take nutrient supplements to avoid any dryness caused by nutrient deficiencies. Stop overshampooing and overstyling your hair.

Prevention Tips

Dandruff

  • Hygiene plays an important role in reducing and preventing dandruff. Wash your hair twice every week to remove dirt, product residue, and other impurities.
  • Be aware of the hair products you use. Opt for natural ingredients over chemicals.
  • Use anti-dandruff shampoo.
  • Reduce over shampooing and excessive use of cosmetic products.

Dry Scalp

When Should I Consult A Doctor

Consult a doctor if you notice any of the following:

  • Dandruff on other parts of your body or dandruff accompanied by inflammation and flakes
  • Dandruff persisting even after the use of anti-dandruff products
  • Scalp dryness paired with severe redness or inflammation and hair loss
  • Scalp dryness persisting even after the application of hydrating packs, serums, masks and deep conditioning treatments

Will Anti-Dandruff Shampoos Treat A Dry Scalp

Anti-dandruff shampoos will not treat a dry scalp. In fact, these shampoos may aggravate the dryness as they remove excess sebum from the scalp. The best way to treat a dry scalp is to replenish it with hydration.

Conclusion

Dandruff and a dry scalp are not the same. While both scalp issues might look very similar, their symptoms and causes vary. Following the right treatment methods can help you treat either of the conditions. More importantly, have a regular hair care regimen and be on the right diet.

Sources

Articles on StyleCraze are backed by verified information from peer-reviewed and academic research papers, reputed organizations, research institutions, and medical associations to ensure accuracy and relevance. Check out our editorial policy for further details.

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Anjali Sayee is a writer and an introvert. From studying Aeronautical Engineering and wanting to design her own airplane to writing articles on hairstyles, she has been on quite a journey. She believes that hair is one of the key factors that define a woman’s personality. To quote her, “What’s the first thing they do in the movies to show a personality change? Change the hair – because it has a life of its own.” She’s here to help you find the hairstyle you need. This bookworm is a self-professed Wholocker, a talented drummer, and an amateur photographer.