Seborrheic Dermatitis Vs Dandruff – How To Tell The Difference

Written by Arshiya Syeda

Yellow or white flakes of skin on your scalp are most definitely dandruff. Similar flakes appearing on the other areas of your body or face could be seborrheic dermatitis. Both these conditions are common and affect almost 50% of the global adult population (1). While they appear similar, they also have certain differences. We will explore the same in this post. Read on!

Seborrheic Dermatitis And Dandruff – Explained

Seborrheic dermatitis is skin inflammation that manifests as scaly patches and itchy skin. It is the result of an allergy or an autoimmune response. It tends to occur in areas with numerous sebaceous glands. The flakes are usually yellow to gray, and are easily detachable and greasy. This condition affects both adults (11%) and infants (70%).

Seborrheic dermatitis is often confused with rosacea, psoriasis, erythrasma, atopic and contact dermatitis, and tinea capitis (ringworm fungal infection of the scalp) (2). This condition is not contagious.

Dandruff is a common inflammatory skin condition affecting a majority of the global population. It is also characterized by big or small, light yellow or white skin flakes and an itchy scalp. While it does appear to be similar to seborrheic dermatitis, both conditions have certain differences. We will explore the same in the upcoming section.

Major Differences Between Dandruff and Seborrheic Dermatitis


  • Causes: Fungal infection of the scalp, dry or cold season/climate, stress, irritated or oily skin, dirty scalp, dry skin, and allergies to certain hair products.
  • Symptoms: Light yellow or white flakes, itchy scalp, scaly and crusty scalp, and white flakes on shoulders.
  • Areas Affected: Only the scalp.
  • Risk Factors: Most common in teenagers. Parkinson’s disease and HIV may also increase the risk of dandruff. This condition can persist for life if not treated in time.
  • Treatment: Anti-dandruff shampoos with selenium sulfide area common treatment. One may also use zinc pyrithione shampoos (antifungal). Ketoconazole can also be used to kill the dandruff-causing fungus. Salicylic acid is another effective treatment. However, in some cases, salicylic acid with an anti-dandruff shampoo can aggravate the condition.

Talk to a dermatologist for the right course of treatment.

Seborrheic Dermatitis

  • Causes: Stress, hereditary factors, dry skin, dry season, compromised immunity, and inflammatory reactions to excess Malassezia yeast (an organism that normally lives on the skin’s surface). The overgrowth of Malassezia can trigger the immune system to overreact, leading to seborrheic dermatitis.
  • Symptoms: Crusty yellow, gray, or brown greasy scales that are more prominent than dandruff.
  • Areas Affected: Chest, face, eyebrows, behind the ears, eyelids, sides of the nose, around the navel, under the arms, knee folds, groin area, below the breasts, and buttocks.
  • Risk Factors: Age, HIV, Parkinson’s disease, acne, depression, alcoholism, eating disorders, heart ailments, and epilepsy.
  • Treatment: Your doctor might ask for your medical history and scrape out the flakes to rule out psoriasis, rosacea, atopic dermatitis or eczema, and systemic lupus erythematous. They might also prescribe over-the-counter shampoos with coal tar, selenium sulfide, Ketoconazole, Salicylic acid, Selenium sulfide, or Zinc pyrithione.

Regular exposure to the sun may also help reduce the condition. Anti-fungal ointments, corticosteroid lotions, and sulfur products might also be prescribed.

Takeaway: Dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis are both skin conditions with similar symptoms. However, seborrheic dermatitis is more severe and affects other body parts apart from the scalp. People with compromised immunity, HIV/AIDS, and Parkinson’s are more vulnerable to these skin conditions.

Preventive measures for seborrheic dermatitis are yet to be studied.  However, you can reduce the risk of dandruff  by following certain tips.

At-Home Tips To Reduce Dandruff

  • Apply coconut oil to the scalp. Massage well and leave it on for 40 minutes before washing your hair with an anti-dandruff shampoo.
  • Mix coconut oil and diluted lime juice (1 teaspoon of lime juice and 4 teaspoons of water). Dip a cotton ball into this mixture and apply to your scalp. Leave it on for 40 minutes. Wash off with an anti-dandruff shampoo.
  • Add 1 teaspoon of apple cider vinegar to 500 ml of water. Use it as the final rinse after washing your hair.
  • Do not tie your hair when it is wet.
  • Clean your hair brush every week.
  • Change your pillow covers every week.

When To See A Doctor?

Visit a doctor as soon as you observe the symptoms. They can help diagnose your issue – dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis. Both are a recurring nuisance and may lower one’s self-esteem. While most anti-dandruff shampoos are effective, they may aggravate the condition at times. Seeking the ideal treatment right at the beginning can limit the spread and boost recovery.


Dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis are more common in infants, teenagers, and older adults. They could indicate high stress or a pre-existing medical condition. Visit your doctor immediately if you observe flaky and itchy skin on your scalp and other parts of your body. Early diagnosis and treatment can help with faster recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can seborrheic dermatitis spread?

Yes, seborrheic dermatitis can spread to your chest, face, behind the ears, legs, armpits, buttocks, and the area around your navel. Early treatment can limit its spread.

Can seborrheic dermatitis be cured permanently?

Seborrheic dermatitis cannot be cured permanently. Timely treatment, however, can help reduce its symptoms.

How often should I wash my hair if I have seborrheic dermatitis?

Wash your hair with a medicated shampoo as per your dermatologist’s guidelines. Washing your hair too often or too rarely can aggravate the condition.

What triggers seborrheic dermatitis?

Seborrheic dermatitis is triggered when the body’s immune system overreacts to the overgrowth of the Malassezia yeast (an organism that normally lives on the skin’s surface).


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Arshiya Syeda is an editor and certified counselor. Ever the lover of the written word, she served on the editorial boards of her school and college newsletters. Writing articles on hairstyles, hair care, and nutrition helped her combine her love for reading, writing, and research. As an editor, she helps her team members deliver polished and meticulously researched content. Arshiya is fluent in English, Urdu, and Hindi and aims to become a multilinguist by learning German and teaching herself American Sign Language (ASL).