Someone washing their hair.

White Flakes in Your Hair? It May Be Dandruff or Dry Scalp

Dandruff vs Dry Scalp

Dandruff and dry scalp are common dermatological problems. Nearly everyone has experienced dry scalp or dandruff at some stage in life. But when it comes to dandruff vs dry scalp, what are the differences and how are they similar?

Although both the conditions cause small pieces of skin to flake off the scalp and mild cases of both can look exactly the same, it is important to understand the differences in order to choose the right treatment.

What Is Dandruff?

Dandruff is a common scalp condition affecting close to 50% of the population. The word dandruff has Anglo-Saxon roots, with “dan” meaning “titter” for flakes and “drof” meaning “dirty”. Hence, dandruff is the common term for loosely adherent, small white or grey flaking of the scalp. These flakes may be localized in patches or distributed diffusely across the scalp’s surface.

What Causes Dandruff?

There are several factors that can cause dandruff. However, an increase in the level of a lipophilic yeast, known as Malassezia, has been linked to play a role in dandruff. An increase in Malassezia count interferes with sebaceous glands (oil-producing glands) functioning to disrupt the skin’s barrier, resulting in dandruff formation.

The human scalp is a sebum-rich region. Sometimes, lack of shampooing causes dead skin to accumulate, which can worsen the symptoms.

What Is Dry Scalp?

Dry scalp simply means dry skin of the scalp or when the scalp lacks adequate moisture. Unlike dandruff, dry scalp is not a medical term and hence, it is not used to describe any scaling or disease noted in the hair. Dry scalp is more common in people with dry skin. The dryness irritates the scalp’s skin and causes flaking.

What Causes Dry Scalp?

Dryness is the root cause of dry scalp and it can be triggered by:

  • Cold and dry air in winter
  • Allergic contact dermatitis, in reaction to various hair care products or due to heat from styling
  • Excessive shampooing

How to Tell the Difference Between Dandruff and Dry Scalp

Patients with dandruff often experience more symptoms in addition to flaking. Additional symptoms can include mild itching, irritation and the feeling of a tight or dry scalp. Also, dandruff flakes are oily, and are larger and yellow in color. On the other hand, flakes associated with dry scalp are often smaller and dryer. Both conditions can cause itching and irritation of the scalp. But, in dandruff, the scalp also shows inflammatory changes, like red and scaly skin.

There are more chances for you to have a dry scalp if you are experiencing dry skin issues in other parts of your body. Another way to mark the difference is to check your hair. If your hair is dry, then the flakes are more likely caused by a dry scalp; greasy hair is a sign of dandruff.

Similarly, people who suffer from dandruff can link it to the appearance of acne on other oily skin areas of their body, like the creases or sides of the nose, face, lips, upper chest, back or on the eyelids. Though there are various signs which can be used to distinguish dandruff from dry scalp, sometimes a physical examination by a dermatologist is necessary to arrive at the correct diagnosis.

How to Treat Dandruff

Dandruff can easily be treated at home. Treatment to control dandruff can be grouped under four main methods based on their mechanism of action.


Products with keratolytic action are used to remove the considerable proportion of flakes. These include shampoos containing salicylic acid. Often, these are enough to treat milder cases of flaking.

Antimicrobial and Antifungal

A majority of commercially available preparations for treating dandruff contain antifungal agents. Shampoos and lotions containing ketoconazole, selenium sulfide, or pyrithione zinc, are antifungal agents and protect your scalp from fungus that can cause flaking. Tea tree oil is a natural antifungal. A study reveals that shampoos containing 5% of tea tree oil are effective at dandruff treatment.


Products containing antiproliferative agents are used to slow down the growth and shedding of scales from the scalp. Shampoos containing 4% of coal tar focus on clearing the proliferative signs of dandruff.


Sometimes, topical steroids are helpful in patients who show signs of inflammation on their scalp.

How to Treat Dry Scalp

Dry scalp can be easily corrected by restoring the moisture of the scalp. There are many methods which can help you achieve it, such as:

  • Massaging your scalp with coconut or tea tree oil. Coconut oil is well known for its moisturizing and antibacterial properties and adding a few drops of tea tree oil to it works wonders for your dry scalp.
  • Using a conditioning treatment like hot oil massage with steam, as this helps to nourish the scalp by increasing sebum production.
  • Not washing your hair too frequently.
  • Switching to a gentle and paraben-free shampoo. Shampoos containing sodium laureth sulfates are often the root cause of dry scalp. Many people benefit from switching to herbal preparations or products with milder chemicals.
  • Putting a halt on styling and heat hair products. This allows the scalp to recover and replenish on its own.

How to Prevent Dandruff and Dry Scalp

You can implement a few lifestyle remedies to prevent dandruff or a dry scalp. This first thing that will help prevent these conditions is a healthy diet. A diet rich in B vitamins, like zinc and omega 3 fatty acids, is vital for scalp health. This goes hand in hand with trying to manage stress. Stress affects our health in more ways than we can imagine. Stress can act as a trigger for dandruff or can worsen your scalp problems.

Also, be sure to check on your shampooing habits; this can create a battle between dandruff vs dry scalp. Frequent shampooing is suggested for the oily scalp to avoid dandruff, but if you have dry skin issues, then reduce your frequency to shampoo. You should also try reducing the use of hair products and heat. Styling products can build up on your hair and scalp to make them oilier, while some alcohol-containing products can cause your scalp to become dry.

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