Dandruff vs dry scalp: What's the difference?

The good news is both dandruff and dry scalp are completely treatable.

Written by
Emma Norris
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
January 16, 2024
min read
Dandruff vs dry scalp: What's the difference?
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You're casually running your hand through your hair when suddenly, you notice a suspicious chalky texture. Or perhaps you've noticed unsightly white flakes gathering on the shoulders of your black T-shirts, or an irritating scalp itch that's more than just hat hair.

The good news is, while they can be uncomfortable and a little embarrassing to deal with, both dandruff and dry scalp are completely treatable. But, because they have slightly different symptoms, it's important to identify which one is the culprit so you can treat it accordingly.

Here's everything you need to know about the difference between dandruff and a dry scalp.

What is dandruff?

Dandruff is a common condition where pieces of dead skin cells flake off the scalp [1]. It's a mild type of seborrheic dermatitis, a non-contagious fungal skin condition that's specific to the scalp [2].

The top layer of skin on our heads goes through a constant process of shedding and regeneration [3]. Known as dander (which sounds way more adorable than it actually is), this process normally happens without us noticing.

However, if the scalp is inflamed, these cells may stick together and flake together into bigger chunks. You might find these visible flakes in your hair, in your beard or moustache or on your clothing (especially if you're wearing a dark-coloured item of clothing). Dandruff is also often accompanied by a dry and itchy scalp and in some cases, reddish patches of skin.

What causes dandruff?

Around 50% of the population will experience dandruff at one time or another [4] — and contrary to popular belief, it rarely has anything to do with poor hygiene. Some of the most common causes of dandruff include:

  • Oily skin: Excess sebum (oil) production can cause a yeast called Malassezia to spread, leading to inflammation of the scalp
  • Contact dermatitis: Exposure to irritants like hair dye and harsh products can contribute to dandruff
  • Other skin disorders: Skin conditions like eczema, rosacea or psoriasis can elevate your risk of developing dandruff
  • Genetics: There are hundreds of genetic markers linked to dandruff [5] — so if one or both of your parents have it, you likely will too

Interestingly, men are more likely to experience dandruff than women [2] — likely due to the male sex hormone testosterone, which can lead to an overproduction of oil.

What is a dry scalp?

While dandruff is usually caused by an overproduction of oil, a dry scalp occurs when there's a lack of moisture in the skin. It's usually caused by environmental factors, such as the dry winter air, harsh air conditioning or hot showers.

What are the symptoms of a dry scalp?

Common dry skin symptoms include:

  • Peeling skin
  • Itchy skin
  • Small, white flakes
  • A rough texture on the scalp

Differences between dandruff and dry scalp

While the symptoms can be similar, there are some important differences between dandruff vs dry scalp. Firstly, while dandruff is a recognised medical condition, a dry scalp is not.

The appearance of the flaking is another important differentiator. With a dry scalp, the skin cells tend to be smaller and whiter, while dandruff flakes are slightly larger and more yellow-tinged (due to the oil) [6].

Dandruff vs scalp psoriasis

Another important differentiation is between dandruff and scalp psoriasis. While dandruff tends to come and go, scalp psoriasis is a more chronic, autoimmune condition where the skin cells regenerate too quickly [7].

This results in thick, discoloured patches of skin, which can look pink or red on light-to-medium skin, or grey or purple in darker complexions. It can also be accompanied by itchiness, flaking skin and crusted sores.

Can dandruff or a dry scalp lead to hair loss?

Neither dandruff nor a dry scalp directly causes hair loss. However, both conditions can cause significant irritation, leading you to scratch your head aggressively. This can injure the hair follicles, causing them to fall out in small clumps over time.

While nobody wants to deal with premature hair loss, we know the advice 'just don't scratch it!' is easier said than done. The good news is, there are fast and efficient ways to treat both dandruff and dry scalp (and the accompanying itchiness).

How to get rid of dandruff

Ready to leave your dandruff in the dust (literally)? These effective dandruff treatments will have you back on your A-game in no time.

Ditch harsh hair care products

Your first step should be to have a look at the current hair products you're using. Certain shampoos, conditioners and styling products (including hairspray) can include harsh ingredients that stress out your scalp and cause oil build-up.

It's usually difficult to determine the exact product causing your dandruff. So, a good rule of thumb here is — if in doubt, throw it out.

Use an anti-dandruff shampoo

Next, it's time to swap your shampoo with one that's been specially formulated to treat dandruff. These are gentle shampoos that contain antifungal and antimicrobial ingredients like zinc pyrithione and ciclopirox to relieve flaking and itching. They also help to reduce the excess oil production.

It's important to note that not all dandruff shampoos are created equal. Ideally, you should opt for one with active ingredients, like Pilot's Hair Growth Anti-Dandruff Shampoo. It's been developed by hair experts to deliver a highly targeted approach to treating dandruff while also thickening and strengthening the hair.

Supplement with a conditioner

Your shampoo is likely only one-half of your hair care routine (and if you're not already using a conditioner, this might be the time to consider adding one!).

An anti-dandruff conditioner can help you take an even more holistic approach to treating dandruff. Pilot's Hair Growth Anti-Dandruff Conditioner is the perfect addition to your shower caddy.

Try a home remedy

While you wait for your Pilot products to arrive, there are a couple of home remedies that might provide some relief in the meantime. Some people swear by rubbing baking soda into their scalp, as it's said to reduce some of the overactive fungi that cause dandruff.

Other popular elixirs are aloe vera, tea tree oil, coconut oil and apple cider vinegar (not all at the same time!). While there's no definitive evidence that it actually works, using a few drops is unlikely to hurt you.

What is the best dry scalp treatment

So, how about when you don't have dandruff, but your scalp is still giving you grief? To treat your dry scalp symptoms, it's important to ensure it's getting enough moisture. You'll also want something to relieve your itchy scalp.

As with dandruff, make sure to invest in a nourishing and gentle shampoo and conditioner to keep your scalp moisturised. You can also buy scalp scrubs that act as an exfoliator and are designed specifically for your noggin. This can help remove a build-up of oil and shed some of your dry scalp flakes.

You might also consider adding a scalp brush or dermal roller to your hair care routine. Running this over your head will help to relieve the itching (without ripping out your hair), while simultaneously promoting the production of your scalp's natural oils.

When to see a doctor about your scalp

While dandruff is a medical condition, it normally goes away by itself within a few weeks with the right over-the-counter treatment. However, if it lingers for a month or 2, it might be a sign that it's developed into something more chronic that requires medical attention.

You should also visit a doctor if you notice any of these symptoms:

  • You develop sores or red patches
  • You develop pink or red waxy bumps on your scalp (this can be a sign of a type of skin cancer known as basal cell carcinoma)
  • Your scalp feels inflamed or has a stinging sensation
  • Your hair is falling out, beyond normal shedding

These may be a sign of other scalp conditions, or general health concerns.

Get back to looking and feeling your best

Our hair can have a massive impact on how we feel about ourselves, and how we show up in the world. Whether you're dealing with a dry and flaky scalp or are feeling conscious about premature hair loss, you don't have to just grin and bear it.

From our clinically-proven hair loss medication to our Hair Growth Booster Kit, Pilot has a solution for every hair concern. Take our free consult to learn how Pilot can help you grow your hair (and your confidence) today.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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