Flake Facts: What’s the Difference Between Dandruff and Dry Scalp?

By | August 31, 2022

Both dry scalp and dandruff can cause itchy, flaking skin on your scalp. Dry scalp causes small, dry flakes while dandruff creates large,
oily flakes.

Are you sick of your scalp feeling like the Itchy & Scratchy Show? We hear ya. Dandruff and dry scalp are both uber annoying skin concerns. While they often get lumped together, both conditions have different causes and treatment methods. Here are the deets.

Dandruff vs. dry scalp: What’s the difference?

Dry scalp and dandruff can both cause an itchy scalp and flaking skin. But despite these similarities, they’re actually different conditions.

Dry scalp happens when your scalp doesn’t produce or hold enough moisture. This leads to small, dry bits of flaking skin. It’s more common in colder months and dry climates.

Dandruff is when your scalp sheds dead skin cells too quickly. These flakes tend to be oily and larger than dry scalp flakes. In some cases, dandruff is caused by seborrheic dermatitis or fungal infections.

Both dry scalp and dandruff are treatable. For mild cases, you might be able to use a home remedy or over-the-counter (OTC) products. More severe cases might require prescription shampoos or ointments.

Dandruff vs. dry scalp: Causes

Not sure why your scalp is flaky AF? Here’s a deep dive into what causes dandruff and dry scalp.

Dandruff causes

The scalp sheds dead skin cells like any other part of your skin. Dandruff can happen when this process goes into overdrive. The quicker your scalp sheds skin cells, the worse dandruff gets.

TBH, we’re still not 10/10 sure what actually causes dandruff. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), it might be a combination of several factors. This includes:

  • fungal infections
  • sensitivity to certain hair products
  • excessive oil secretions on the scalp

A 2016 study also found a connection between certain scalp bacteria and dandruff. But we need more research to know for sure.

BTW, conditions that affect immunity or the nervous system (e.g., Parkinson’s) might also increase your risk.

Dry scalp causes

Dry scalp can happen when the skin on your scalp doesn’t have enough moisture or lubrication. This can lead to itching, irritation, and flaking. It can also make your hair look hella dry.

Peeps who have dry skin are more likely to have dry scalp. According to the AAD, dry skin can be caused by:

FYI: Using harsh hair care products can also dry your scalp out.

Dandruff vs. dry scalp symptoms

Here’s a chart to help you tell the difference between dandruff and dry scalp.

Dandruff Dry scalp
Large flakes of skin x
Small flakes of skin x
Oily, scaly skin x
Itchy scalp x x
Red or irritated skin x
Dry skin on other areas of your body x

Dandruff vs. dry scalp treatment 

Ready for relief? Here’s how to treat dandruff and dry scalp.

Dandruff treatment

Dandruff tends to be a bit trickier to treat than dry scalp. But don’t worry friend! There are still tons of top-notch treatments to send those flakes packing.

Here are the best anti-dandruff ingredients to look out for:

Dry scalp treatment

Dry scalp symptoms can usually be managed at home. Here’s a roundup of the best home remedies.

Aloe vera

Aloe vera is a great natural remedy for dry skin. Its anti-inflammatory properties can help reduce irritation while moisturizing flaking skin.

Most pharmacies sell aloe vera gels or lotions. These can be applied directly to the scalp. Don’t worry, it won’t dye your hair green.

You can also opt for aloe vera juice or supplemental pills, but you might want to check with a health care provider first. Some peeps experience diarrhea when taking aloe vera orally. 💩

Apple cider vinegar

ACV’s antimicrobial properties can help ward away the fungi or bacteria that cause itchiness. It’s also an anti-inflammatory and can help exfoliate dead skin cells from the scalp.

To DIY an ACV treatment at home, mix 1 part ACV with 2 parts water. Apply it directly to your scalp using a spray bottle. Leave it in for up to 10 minutes and follow up with a gentle shampoo.

Banana

It might seem weird to smush a banana into your scalp, but hear us out! Bananas have natural antimicrobial properties and can help moisturize your skin.

Simply mash or blend a banana with a few tablespoons of olive oil. Massage it into your scalp and rinse it out after 15 minutes.

Coconut oil

In addition to moisturizing the scalp, coconut oil boasts antibacterial properties and may improve atopic dermatitis symptoms.

Massage a small amount of melted virgin coconut oil into your scalp. Leave it in for up to 15 minutes and rinse it out with lukewarm water.

Jojoba oil

Jojoba oil is an effective moisturizer that can quench a thirsty scalp. It also has some anti-inflammatory properties that might alleviate irritation.

You can find a product that’s formulated with jojoba oil at the drug store or online. You can also add a few drops of jojoba oil into your normal shampoo and save yourself a few bucks.

Tea tree oil

This popular oil has major street cred in the acne world. But its skin superpowers don’t stop there. Tea tree oil’s antiseptic, antifungal, and antibiotic properties may also ease a dry scalp.

Tea tree oil is very potent so you only need a tiny bit. Add a few drops of tea tree oil into a carrier oil. Massage it into your scalp and leave it in for up to 10 minutes before rinsing.

Witch hazel

This affordable product has powerful astringent properties that might help soothe dry scalp symptoms.

Witch hazel can be sprayed directly onto the scalp. Leave it in for up to 15 minutes and rinse with lukewarm water.

Preventing dandruff and dry scalp

Dandruff

Dandruff isn’t always preventable. But you might be able to reduce your risk by making some simple lifestyle changes.

  • Frankie says relax. Stress can weaken the immune system and make you more susceptible to dandruff.
  • Healthy diet. Eat a balanced diet full of zinc, B vitamins, probiotics, and omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Use a gentle shampoo. You can also use an anti-dandruff shampoo once or twice weekly to prevent flare-ups.
  • Avoid hot water. It can dry the skin out and lead to irritation.
  • Let the sunshine in. A small amount of sun exposure might help keep your symptoms in check. Just be sure you don’t overdo it — UV rays can have negative effects on your overall skin health. Five minutes a day should do the trick.

Dry scalp

Here are some tips to help you reduce your risk of a dry scalp:

  • Drink more water.
  • Shampoo your hair less frequently.
  • Switch to moisturizing, non-irritating shampoos.
  • Use a humidifier to keep your skin moisturized.
  • Don’t use super hot water when you shower or bathe.
  • Avoid harsh dyes or products that can dry your scalp out.

When to see a doctor

In most cases, dandruff and dry scalp are harmless. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t a total pain in the A**. You may want to see a health care provider if your:

  • scalp is red or swollen
  • scalp is bleeding or has pus
  • symptoms get worse at a rapid rate
  • symptoms do not improve after one month of anti-dandruff product use

A dermatologist can offer prescription ointments or shampoos to get your scalp healthy again.

Frequently asked questions

How do I know if I have dry scalp? 

The most common symptoms of dry scalp are small flakes of skin and an itchy scalp. Large, oily flakes are usually a sign of dandruff.

How do you get rid of a dry scalp?

You can treat a dry scalp at home using a home remedy. Some popular options include:

  • aloe vera
  • apple cider vinegar (ACV)
  • bananas
  • coconut oil
  • jojoba oil
  • tea tree oil
  • witch hazel

You can also try to prevent dry scalp by keeping your skin moisturized and by avoiding harsh hair products.

What causes dry scalp?

You might get a dry scalp if your skin isn’t holding enough moisture. It can also be caused by using harsh or irritating hair products or if you live in a cold, dry climate.

What do I do if dandruff shampoo isn’t working?

Dandruff shampoo doesn’t work overnight. But if you don’t see any positive results after one month of use, you may want to talk with a healthcare professional. They can prescribe prescription ointments, shampoos, and rinses. They can also rule out other potential culprits like psoriasis or eczema.

How do I know if I have dandruff, dry scalp, or just product buildup? 

Here’s how to spot the difference.

  • Dandruff involves large, oily flakes of skin.
  • Dry scalp causes small, dry flakes of skin.
  • Product buildup can make your hair feel greasy, dull, or stiff.

The bottom line

Dry scalp and dandruff are both very common skin concerns. While they share some similarities, they’re not the same condition. This means they have different causes, treatment, and prevention methods.

Flaking scalp skin can usually be treated using home remedies or OTC products. However, if your symptoms persist for more than a month, you may want to talk with a dermatologist. You should also see a doctor if your skin is red, swollen, bleeding, or painful.

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