Dandruff vs. Dry Scalp: How Can You Tell the Difference?

Learn the difference between dry scalp and dandruff so you know the right remedy for each one.

Dry scalp and dandruff are terms often used interchangeably by a lot of people. So it comes as no surprise that there’s a lot of confusion surrounding these two scalp-related conditions; after all, to the untrained eye, the symptoms can appear very similar. So, what’s the deal with dry scalp vs dandruff?

“The main root cause of scalp issues is the integrity of the scalp stratum corneum barrier,” reveals Peter Bailey, Global Technical Manager, Hair Care at Unilever. “The role of the barrier is to protect against irritants and other things in the environment from penetrating into the human body.”

To help put your mind at rest when it comes to dry scalp vs dandruff, we’ve created a simple breakdown of the small distinctions between these annoying hair issues. Plus, we explain why you might be suffering from them in the first place.

girl with a white top her long hair flowing in the air by the beach
Dandruff-free hair should not be impossible. Credit: Shutterstock

How do I know if I have a dry scalp or dandruff?

Dry scalp = a scalp that lacks moisture. The dryness can then lead to an itchy scalp, followed by the shedding of small flakes of the skin due to scratching. The causes of a dry scalp can range from dehydration and environmental effects to poor diet.

Dandruff =  caused by over-production of sebum and an overgrowth of a harmless, yeast-like fungus called Malassezia. The yeast feeds on the excess sebum and dead skin, causing the skin to speed up its renewal process. This leads to the frequent shedding of skin cells on your scalp, resulting in the visible flakes we know as dandruff.

girl leans on the wall wearing a pink top and slightly bringing her hair to one side
Is it dandruff or dry scalp? Know the difference. Credit: Shutterstock

What are the physical symptoms?

To differentiate a dry scalp vs dandruff, there can be minor differences in the symptoms. For dry hair, the actual feeling of dryness and itchiness on the scalp are the main ones to look out for.

When it comes to dandruff, the symptoms are similar to that of a dry scalp, but there are some subtle differences. With dandruff, the main symptoms are small flakes and an itchy scalp. The flakes range in size and color and can even sometimes have a distinctive smell.

Either way, for dry scalp, dandruff, or other symptoms it’s important to monitor the health of your scalp and seek professional advice if you have any issues.

What are the main causes?

Dandruff vs. Dry Scalp: Asian woman with black hair and clear scalp
A healthy, well-hydrated scalp can reduce itching and flaking. Credit: Hariono Halim

Dry scalp: A dry scalp is normally caused by internal and/or external dehydration, but scalp conditions like eczema and psoriasis can also contribute to the issue. Changes in the weather or excessive use of products that can lead to build-up are all things that can irritate the scalp and cause itchiness and flaking.

Dandruff: The causes of dandruff are vast, but as previously mentioned, Malassezia is the main culprit. Stress, a weakened immune system, and other existing scalp conditions can make you more predisposed, but anything from genetics to hair care habits, and even yeast sensitivity are also known to be some of the most common causes of dandruff.

girl wearing eyeglasses and a black jacket with black dandruff-free hair looks out
Healthy hair is dandruff-free hair. Credit: Natasha Estelle

So, what’s the solution?

When it comes down to dandruff vs. dry scalp, there are ways to combat these pesky hair concerns.

Dry scalp: Start by examining your hair care routine. You might want to consider using a moisturizing shampoo and conditioner or a clarifying shampoo, to help remove product build-up.

Dandruff: You could also try using an anti-dandruff shampoo like the Clear Complete Soft Care Anti-Dandruff Shampoo which has Nutrium 10 to help protect your scalp from dandruff. Its Fresh Sakura fragrance helps your scalp stay fresh all day.

Whether you’re dealing with dandruff or scaly scalp issues, it’s important to consult a medical professional for any concerns about the health of your hair and scalp.

Itching can really be uncomfortable but there are things you can do at home to reduce it. Check out these tips.

1. Got an active lifestyle? Wash your hair every day.

Asian woman washing her long black hair wearing a white bathrobe
Use cold water to wash your hair so you won’t dry out your scalp. Credit: Natasha Estelle

Washing your hair every day does not just help reduce the itching but is also hygienic. Remember that when your hair is dirty, it accumulates in your scalp and cause it to itch.

2. Meditate.

Asian woman sitting on the floor meditating
Your hair and scalp can benefit from your meditating, too. Credit: Shutterstock

People are now more into meditation because it calms the body and mind. Since scalp itching may also be sometimes caused by stress, meditating can help in greatly reducing the itching. You can meditate for an hour a day to begin seeing the improvement.

3. Keep from frequently touching your hair.

girl with long dandruff-free hair smiles at the camera
Hands-off your hair and just leave your tresses be. Credit: Natasha Estelle

Have you noticed that when you touch your hair or rub your scalp it just starts to itch? Keep from doing this and you won’t feel any itching. Plus, frequently touching your hair can cause it to become dry.

4. Do not shampoo every day

Asian woman in the shower washing her hair
Just shampoo every other day so your scalp doesn’t dry out. Credit: Shutterstock

Alright, so here is the thing. You should wash your hair every day but do not shampoo it every day. You can be generous with applying a conditioner to keep it soft and smooth. Shampooing your hair should be done twice to three times a week.

5. Use a shampoo that has tea tree oil.

Styled setup of tea tree oil, jars, towels, and leaves
Tea tree oil can help in detoxifying and purifying your scalp. Credit: Shutterstock

Tea tree oil’s anti-fungal and anti-microbial properties help keep dandruff away. It also has anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties that keep your hair clean and healthy.

Editor’s tip: Use Love Beauty and Planet Tea Tree Oil & Vetiver Radical Refresher Shampoo and Love Beauty and Planet Tea Tree Oil & Vetiver Radical Refresher Conditioner to make your hair dandruff-free. It has Australian tea tree oil that keeps your hair clean and detoxifies your scalp. Plus, its eco-friendly ingredients are good for the environment too!

Now that you know the difference between dandruff and dry scalp, you can now get the proper remedy. And once the itching or the flaking has stopped, you’ll be on your way toward a healthier scalp.

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