Lice vs Dandruff: What’s the Difference?

Ever wondered what causes itchy scalp? The most common causes are either lice or dandruff. Read on to know the difference between lice vs dandruff.

woman with long hair

The sudden itch on your scalp is not only a big disturbance and inconvenience, but it is also troublesome to identify whatever causes it. According to dermatologists, there are about 10 or more reasons why we experience itchiness on our scalp. Out of all these bothersome scalp issues, two of them may be mistaken from one another. Most of the time, there will be changes when small white-colored particles will start falling when the scalp gets scratched because of the itchiness. Do you know what the white particles are? They can actually be either of the two things; dandruff or lice. Also, it may be possible that they are both acquired by an individual; and that makes it more challenging to do specific treatments.

In order to know which are the next steps to take, everyone should know the difference between the two. It will be really helpful especially when choosing the treatment and to get advanced knowledge on how to prevent your scalp from those issues.

Lice vs Dandruff: Definition

The easiest way to know the difference between lice and dandruff is to be familiar with their corresponding definitions. What are lice? What is dandruff? You should ask yourself these questions yourself. If you know the answer, you did a great job. If you don’t know the answer to the questions, it will be 100 percent helpful to read the following facts.


Head lice are actually living beings that suddenly decided to live on your scalp. They are what we call parasites; which are organisms that live off of their hosts for their own benefit only. This relationship between the lice (parasite) and the human (host) is called parasitism. Unfortunately, the host gets to suffer in different ways while the parasite is living comfortably and even feeding on the host.

Actually, lice are considered to be contagious. This is why it is advisable to avoid sharing personal things that are used for the hair with other people.

Head lice can be seen on the scalp and/or hair in three different forms:

  • Eggs. The lice eggs or “nits” are what we commonly mistake as dandruff. It is because of its small and white powder-like appearance. It can be hard to distinguish that they are eggs since they are really small.
  • Nymphs. Once the eggs hatch, they will grow into the young adult form of the lice which are the nymphs. They are characterized by being tan-colored and they are a little bigger compared to nits, but they are still small enough that they are hard to see.
  • Adult lice. After being nymphs, they will fully grow into mature and adult lice. Although by this time they are fully developed, the adult lice are still known to have a small appearance that can be comparable to the size of a single sesame seed.


The development of dandruff is not caused by any parasite. It appears as a skin condition that occurs in the scalp, which is why it is called in another term as seborrheic dermatitis. The result of having dandruff is the flaking of the scalp; hence the falling white particles. Dandruff is also non-contagious so there will never be a problem if you accidentally used the comb of someone with dandruff.

Lice vs Dandruff In Terms Of Symptoms

This is where it gets even better. Knowing the difference of their symptoms will actually give a very high advantage of immediately knowing what condition you are suffering from.

Lice and Dandruff

There are a few similarities between lice and dandruff when it comes to symptoms. Usually, these symptoms are the reason why the two of them as mistaken to be the other.

  • Itching. Even when compared to other scalp conditions, itching can be considered a normal and general symptom. Just by experiencing itchiness of the scalp does not determine which condition you have.
  • White particles. Both lice and dandruff are described with tiny white particles that usually fall off from the scalp.

To get to know their differences, they also have a few symptoms that are unique for each of them.


  • Instead of the white particles being stable and nonmoving, they are seen to have a few movements on the scalp.
  • There are white particles stuck to the hair, which are actually the eggs or the nits that are waiting to get hatched.


  • The white particles easily fall off, especially when the scalp is scratched. Or they may also be times where they will fall off on their own and will get stuck on your shoulders, so be aware of wearing black tops.
  • When you check your scalp, it has a different appearance from a healthy scalp. A scalp with dandruff is usually yellow or white in color and it is also either oily or scaly (dry).

Lice vs Dandruff In Terms Of Treatment

Now that we can differentiate the two of them, it will be easier to know which treatment will work best.

Lice vs Dandruff : Treatment For Lice

Since head lice are living parasites that eventually think of the scalp as their home, it is advisable to use a shampoo that will kill them off.

Normal shampoos will never work against lice, you need to opt for a stronger and medicated shampoo that is originally made or the purpose of getting rid of head lice. The best ingredients that should be present in lice shampoos are permethrin and pyrethrin, they will surely kill each and every louse or nit present on the scalp and hair. Using the shampoo usually takes 1 week to ensure that all head lice are killed off.

You would normally need a comb too, the ones that are fine-toothed. It will be easier to remove the dead lice once the shampoo takes its effect on them.

There are also a few medications such as scalp lotions that can be applied and left on the scalp to kill head lice. If you prefer going natural, there are also natural ways to get rid of lice.

Lice vs Dandruff: Treatment For Dandruff

Dandruff can be treated by using shampoos with special ingredients that will help treat the root cause of the condition – fungal infection. When choosing your anti-dandruff shampoo pick the one that contains salicylic acid, coal tar, selenium sulfide, and ketoconazole. The period of usage depends on how severe the dandruff is, but either way, it is suggested to use the shampoo daily.

If you want to try a more natural way of treating dandruff, you can try using essential oils such as tea tree oil. The use of tea tree oil has somehow been proven effective by some studies.

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