Dandruff vs Dry Scalp: How to Tell the Difference?

Some red flag symptoms of dry scalp include small dry flakes and itchy scalp. Dandruff can also cause itchy scalp but the flakes are large and oily. Another big difference is dry scalp can include dry skin on other body parts while dandruff doesn’t.

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Isn’t dandruff caused by dry skin? It might be surprising but there’s a difference in the two conditions of dandruff vs dry scalp. Dry scalp is a little more obvious since the name explains the condition. How about dandruff? We often think this is caused by dry skin on the head but in fact, it usually results from different kinds of infections. The flakes themselves are different in size and texture. Another difference is what’s causing the condition. In other words, the main difference is what causes the conditions instead of the symptoms they cause. It’s important to know the difference if you have either of these conditions.  

A big reason is knowing how to treat the condition. For example, if your body has a skin infection it’s different from dry skin. That’s also the case with your scalp. There’s a difference between your scalp not having enough moisture, and nasty fungus causing white flakes. When treating your condition, you’ll want to know the root cause. This can help you treat it properly with the right hair care products like shampoo and conditioner. If you have a dry scalp, you’ll want to pick treatments to add moisture. If you have dandruff you’ll have to deal with the infection.

What Is Dandruff?

The haircare industry is big business. In 2018 it was projected to have a value of over $87.7 billion. If you have conditions like dry scalp or dandruff, you’ll have several options when picking a commercial product.

The key is to first determine which condition you have. Aren’t these the same thing? When we think about dandruff, we tend to assume the flakes are due to a dry scalp. Survey says: no!

The flakes caused by dandruff are the result of things like infections, oils, and hair care products. The flakes can form on a dry scalp, but what’s most important is a lack of moisture isn’t actually causing them.

Scalp flakes are actually dead skin cells. It’s normal for your scalp to have them but with dandruff, the problem is how long it takes your scalp to shed them. in fact, the dandruff flakes have sometimes been on the head for up to one week before you shed them.

The longer the flakes build up on the scalp the worse dandruff gets.  One of the interesting things about dandruff is experts don’t fully understand what causes it. Some of the most popular theories include fungal infections, sensitivity to hair care products, and scalp-produced oil.

Dandruff also seems to be caused by diet. This can include food allergies like dairy, shellfish, and nuts. It’s important to learn about any food allergies you have so you can avoid them. A diet high in fat, starch, and sugar might also increase the chance of experiencing dandruff.

There are also two main types of dandruff: internal and external. Internal dandruff is caused by health-related issues like allergies, lack of sleep, immune system, hormones or genetics. 

External dandruff is caused by substances that directly contact the scalp. This can include shampoos/conditioners, dyes, curling irons, hairdryers, cold weather, and dry indoor air.  

What Is Dry Scalp?

While these two conditions are somewhat different there’s some overlap. For example, if you notice flakes on your scalp it might be easy to guess it’s dandruff. In fact, you could have the same symptoms from dry scalp and dandruff-like itchy and flaky scalp. What’s different is the cause of the flakes. 

As the name suggests “dry scalp” results from your scalp not having enough moisture. The skin cells get irritated and flake off when they get irritated. It’s important to note that if your scalp is flaking other body parts like legs and arms might be dry too.

Dry scalp can be triggered by various factors including older age, dry/cold air, and reaction to hair care products like shampoo, hairspray, and gel.

Some red flag symptoms of dry scalp include small dry flakes and itchy scalp. Dandruff can also cause itchy scalp but the flakes are large and oily. Another big difference is dry scalp can include dry skin on other body parts while dandruff doesn’t.

It’s important to consider dry scalp’s triggers. It will be easier to manage if you take steps to help prevent the scalp from drying out.

Here are some ideas. Make sure the indoor environments at home/work have enough moisture. You might need to install a humidifier to add more moisture to the air, for example.

You can also take steps to make sure your head isn’t exposed to cold winter temperatures. That includes options like a knit cap.

You should also be careful about the haircare products you use. Your shampoo or hairspray/gel could be drying out your scalp. Make sure to read the ingredients before using one to help minimize the chance of dry scalp.

One of the best options is natural/organic products. They’ll lack the strong synthetic chemicals in many products that can dry out your scalp.

Dandruff Vs Dry Scalp Treatments

Since these are two different conditions it’s also important to use different treatments.


The treatment you pick is greatly due to how heavy the flakes are. If you have mild dandruff it’s important to use a gentle shampoo for a less oily scalp. In fact, this condition is sometimes the opposite of dry scalp so it’s important to treat it differently.

How about if you have a more serious case of dandruff? If your standard shampoo doesn’t work then switch to dandruff shampoo. They usually have an anti-fungus ingredient that helps to ditch flaky skin.

These ingredients tend to be strong chemicals. If you’re looking for a natural alternative then consider a treatment that includes tea tree oil. It’s a natural anti-fungal oil that can help treat the root cause of dandruff. 

Some people do have an allergic reaction to tea tree oil. Make sure to research if you do before you use these products. However, it’s still generally safer than other anti-dandruff chemicals since it’s a natural ingredient.

Dry Scalp

Your treatments should include the right shampoo and conditioner. Make sure to pick a gentle shampoo and moisturizing conditioner. This will help to prevent dry skin from getting triggered.

The moisturizing conditioner is especially helpful. A conditioner adds back the nutrients that are lost from shampooing. If your scalp is dry, you’ll also need to add back some moisture to make your scalp healthier.

Another option you should consider is a “hot oil treatment.” This process uses steam and oil to treat dry scalps. The combination of the two types of treatment teams up to deal with the symptoms.

You can also use various DIY options like:

These ingredients can be effective in adding moisture to your scalp. Another benefit is their natural treatments for dandruff vs dry scalp.

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