Dandruff Vs Dry Scalp: Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

Dandruff vs dry scalp are two terms that are often mistaken and used interchangeably because they share similar symptom which are itchy scalp and white flakes. When you scratch your head or scalp and see white flakes coming down to your shoulders, you may assume you have dandruff. You may be right or it could be something other than dandruff which is dry scalp.

These two hair issues are different and have different causes. If you find it difficult to note the difference between both words, then continue to read this article to get the information you need. We will define both terms, explain their causes, symptoms, treatment and how to prevent getting any of them.


Dandruff are dead skin cells on the scalp. Human beings are naturally built or formed to shed their skin and hair, these materials are known as dander. When we shed these skin and hairs, the tiny cells are not seen and they vanish into the air, they are usually invisible. When it comes to the head, the dead skin cells do not vanish rather they start to build on the surface of the skin and cluster there.

With time, these white flakes start to settle along the hair lock and they fall down anytime you scratch your scalp. Unlike the notion most people have that poor hygiene of the hair can cause dandruff, this is not true although not washing the hair for a long time can give rise to dandruff.


Dry scalp is caused by insufficient moisture in the hair. It is a condition whereby the skin on the scalp is unable to produce or retain moisture. The skin cannot produce enough oil and sebum that will keep the scalp moisturized. When this happens, the outer or top layer of the skin will start to dry and crack out thereby producing white flakes.


Causes Of Dandruff

The body multiplies the skin cells in our body and hair when we need them, the old ones die and shed off as the new ones come. As this process takes place, the skin cells turns faster when there is an inflammation. This means that when there is dandruff in your scalp, the skin cells there shed more quickly than normal. Seborrheic dermatitis is the main cause of dandruff. This is an eczema that affects the scalp, it causes redness of the scalp, dandruff and patches with scales.

This skin condition is caused by overproduction of oil in the skin. As the scaly patches flakes off, they cause dandruff. Seborrheic dermatitis does not only affect the scalp, it can occur in other places with oil glands like the eyebrow, armpits, groins, along the sides of the nose or even on the chest. It can affect both babies and adults.

Another cause of dandruff is a fungus known as Malassezia. This fungus stay in the hair scalp and does not cause any problem. However, having too much of this fungus can cause or trigger the skin cells to multiply more faster than normal. There are other factors that can cause Malassezia to multiply more than usual.

  • Changes in hormones
  • Age
  • Some nutritional deficiencies
  • Medical conditions
  • Stress

The American Academy of Dermatology Association mentioned some factors that can also cause dandruff. A study published by the Scientific Reports in 2016 showed that there is a link between dandruff and the presence of some scalp bacteria.

These potential causes are:

  • Using certain hair products that are sensitive
  • Fungal infections

Causes Of Dry Scalp

When the skin does not have enough moisture, the scalp becomes dry and irritated. When you touch your scalp, these flakes fall off. You should know that if your scalp is dry, other parts of your body will be dry as well. 

There are some factors that can cause the scalp to become dry such as:

  • Old age
  • Using harsh hair products that strips your scalp of moisture and natural oil
  • Cold and dry weather
  • Contact dermatitis, a reaction that occurs when you use products like shampoo or gels
  • Excessive washing of the hair
Dandruff Vs Dry Scalp
Dandruff Vs Dry Scalp


Dandruff and dry scalp makes the scalp to itch and flakes fall out as well, so it may be difficult to differentiate both. Their appearance is one way to tell them apart. 

Symptoms of dandruff are:

  • Yellow or white oily flakes
  • Large flakes
  • Itchy scalp
  • Oily and red skin with scales
  • Symptoms of dry scalp are:
  • Dry and smaller flakes
  • Itchy scalp
  • Other parts of the skin are dry.


Dandruff Treatment

Washing your hair with shampoo is a great way to treat dandruff. Most times, regular shampoo may not work so you will have to use a dandruff shampoo. These specially formulated shampoo are made with medications or ingredients that will fight the fungus or remove the scaly skin.

Examples of dandruff shampoo are:

1. Salicylic Acid (Example is Neutrogena T/SAL) 

This type of dandruff shampoo are made with salicylic acid to help get rid of extra scales on the scalp before they start to flake off. Note that excess salicylic acid that cause the skin to become dry and flake out, so you should not use this shampoo regularly.

2. Ketoconazole ( Nizoral shampoo)

This contains ingredients that fight the fungus that causes dandruff. These product can be gotten as a prescription or over-the-counter.

3. Pyrithione Zinc

Examples of shampoo with this ingredient are Head and Shoulders, Jason Dandruff Relief 2 in 1. The ingredient acts an anti-fungal that kills the fungus on the scalp. You can use these shampoos everyday because pyrithione zinc is gentle and cannot cause any effect on the scalp.

4. Selenium Sulfide

Selsun Blue is an example of a shampoo with this ingredient. It reduces the amount of skin cells that flakes off while also reducing the amount of fungus in the scalp. However, this shampoo can change the colour of the hair because of the selenuim sulfide. So, you should see a hair professional before using this.

5. Coal Tar

Neutrogena T/Gel is made with coal tar. It stop the excessive shedding of skin cells and slow their growth as well. Just like selenuim sulfide, coal tar-based shampoo can change the colour of your hair. Dandruff tea tree oil can also be used to treat dandruff. A study by the National Library of Medicine in 2002 showed that shampoo with at least 5 percent tea tree oil can be very helpful because the oil contains anti-fungal properties.

If you are allergic to tea tree oil, you should see a doctor before using it. For every shampoo, you should read the instructions very well before using. Ask a pharmacist or doctor for advice if any is confusing to you. If you do not get result with one, you can try another type or brand. As the dandruff reduces, you will reduce the number of times you use these shampoos. If your dandruff is stubborn, your doctor can recommend topical antifungal creams or ointments.

Dry Scalp Treatment

Washing your hair and scalp with a gentle shampoo and using moisturizing conditioner will help to reduce the dryness. By morning, you will notice little or no flakes. Another way of treating dry scalp is by using steam to add more moisture to the scalp, this should be done by a hair stylist.


To Prevent Dandruff:

  • Wash your hair with anti-dandruff shampoo often and rinse out the shampoo very well.
  • Stay outside in the sun for few minutes, ultraviolet (UV) light exposure can help to control how dandruff affect your scalp.
  • Practice meditation, yoga or other relaxation techniques to reduce and manage your stress. 

To prevent dry scalp:

  • Do not use shampoo always when washing your hair
  • Drink more water to keep the skin hydrated
  • Always use shampoos or hair products with less chemicals 
  • Use shampoos or hair products that can moisturize the scalp.


These three terms have one thing in common, they cause itching but they are so different from each other in the following ways:

1. Location

Dandruff and dry scalp affects, they cause flakes to cluster on the scalp. Lice on the other hand, lays eggs that stick to the hair (nits). You see the eggs of a lice on the hair while dandruff and dry scalp is seen on the scalp.

2. Itchiness

Lice may cause itching but they cause more of crawling sensation on the scalp. Dandruff cause severe it hing but the itching is more when the scalp is dry.

3. Color

Lice have brown or black color, dandruff has yellow or white flakes while dry scalp is known for white flakes.

4. Definition

Lice is a wingless insect, dandruff is are dead skin cells on the scalp whereas dry scalp is caused by the insufficient moisture in the scalp. Lice can spread from hair to hair through direct or indirect contact, dandruff and dry scalp are non-contagious. You cannot share personal hair properties with other people if you have lice.


These are similar terms but different causes. There are some ways to differentiate these terms:


Dandruff is caused by dead skin cells and overgrowth of fungus on the scalp. It is a skin condition but can be treated using anti-dandruff shampoo and making sure the scalp is thoroughly dey after washing.

Dry Scalp

Dry scalp is when the skin does not produce or retain moisture thereby causing the scalp to become dry and crack. Some factors like excessive washing, old age, diet and dry air can lead to dry scalp.


This is caused by excess sweat, dead skin cells and oil cause flakes on the scalp. They can stop hair growth, inflammation and infection on the scalp. These flakes stick to the scalp instead of falling off like dandruff or dry scalp.


Dandruff and dry scalp are usually interchanged but they mean different things. Dandruff is caused by dead skin cells and overgrowth of fungus. They are known to have white or yellow flakes that fall off when you scratch your hair. Dry scalp is caused by lack of moisture in the scalp. This can be prevented by reducing the use of harsh hair products and eating food that will help the body hydrated. 

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