Dandruff vs. Dry Scalp, Can You Tell The Difference?

Noticing some flakes on your scalp and ready to reach for the nearest dandruff shampoo?  Not so fast. It could be a case of dry scalp.

Dry scalp and dandruff are often interchangeable terms, but the truth is they’re not the same condition. Plus, there are different causes that lead to different treatments, meaning that dandruff shampoo isn’t a one-size-fits-all product for scalp conditions.

Dandruff vs. Dry Scalp picture
Dandruff vs. Dry Scalp picture


What it looks like: Large flakes that are often waxy or oily. They can be white, gray, or yellow in color and appear in clusters. Dandruff causes severe itching, and sometimes it is accompanied by bleeding or discharge.

Common causes: Bacterial or fungal infections can be one of the top culprits. Others include, stress, poor diet and alcohol, hormones, and genetics.

How to treat it: First and foremost, if you think you have dandruff, head to the dermatologist’s office. It’s important to identify the cause and, if it’s an infection, get a medicated shampoo. If a prescription isn’t required, then look for the over-the-counter dandruff formulas, like the Nioxin Scalp Recovery Kit.

Also important? Don’t scratch! The more you scratch, the more irritated your scalp can become, potentially leading to or spreading infection. It’s also important to limit hair products to avoid any further irritation.

What is DRY SCALP?

What it looks like: Fine white flakes on the scalp, similar to dry skin. They typically do not have much oily residue. Scalp may be itchy or feel tight. If you have several dry patches on your body, dry scalp is likely the culprit. Similar flakes accompanied by redness might be a sign of a reaction to a product.

Common causes: “There are many reasons for dry scalp, such as change in season to minerals from your water that build up on the scalp,” says stylist Mindy Stegall. Other potential culprits: dehydration, genetics, and improper shampooing.

How to treat it: First, moisturize! Cheap shampoos and conditioners are often to blame for unnecessarily stripping oils from the scalp, causing it to dry out and flake.

“My recommendation for someone with dry scalp is to use something gentle and designed to solve the problem of dry scalp like the Malibu C Scalp Wellness Kit,” Stegall says.

Individuals often stick to conditioner on just the bottom half of hair, but the roots and scalp need TLC, as well. “Make sure you massage your conditioner into your scalp if you are having issues.  Think of the conditioner as lotion for your scalp,” says Stegall. “Treatments can also be a defense against dry scalp.  We condition our hair on a daily basis but treatments, once a week, can solve problems that normal conditioners cannot, dry scalp being one of them.”

Not washing hair enough–thus leading to product and oil build-up–and washing hair too much–thus depleting natural oil and moisture–can also both increase the chance of dry scalp. Find a good balance, whether it’s every other day or every few days.

In addition, be sure to thoroughly rinse. “We tend to be in a hurry and rush through our shower, but rinsing is crucial,” says Stegall.

If the problem persists, or you’re experiencing redness and can’t pinpoint the cause after switching products, then it’s time to see a dermatologist.

Overall, scalp health is a crucial factor to hair health. Dry scalp and dandruff both, if not properly treated, can increase in severity and even lead to thinning locks. Show your scalp some TLC. 

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