Dandruff VS Dry Scalp: The Difference, Causes, Prevention & Treatment

December 11, 2019

Woman with dandruff or dry scalp

Many patients don’t think of caring for their scalp as being a part of their daily skincare routine, but if you’ve ever had to deal with dry scalp or dandruff, you know the importance of proper scalp care. These two common skin conditions are very similar, but they actually have different underlying causes. This means you may need to take different steps to treat your dry skin or dandruff. U.S. Dermatology Partners physician, Dr. Sam Awan works with patients at Center for Dermatology in Plano and McKinney, Texas, to improve their skin health every day. That includes offering great treatment options for dry scalp and dandruff. Keep reading to hear more about these conditions from Dr. Awan.

What is Dry Scalp?

As the name suggests, dry scalp is actually just overly dry skin on the scalp. Like dry skin on other parts of the body, dry scalp occurs when there is not enough moisture in the skin. Because of the dense hair cover protecting the scalp from drying conditions, the scalp does not become dry as often as other parts of the body. Additionally, the hair follicles produce larger amounts of sebum (oil) than is present in other parts of the body, making it less likely the scalp will dry out. According to Dr. Awan, “Because of the oil production in hair follicles, dry scalp is actually much rarer than other conditions like dandruff and psoriasis that may lead to itching and flaking. However, if you are struggling with dry scalp, it is usually easily treated at home.”

What Causes Dry Scalp?

There can be many underlying causes for dry scalp, including:

  • Dry skin – if you struggle with dry skin, your scalp is more likely to become dry.
  • Cold air – cold temperatures and dry air during the winter months or due to air conditioner use can strip moisture from the skin, including the scalp.
  • Sunburn – like sunburns on other parts of the body, skin on the scalp may dry out and flake after sunburn.
  • Allergies – reaction to new hair care products can lead to irritated and dry skin.
  • Aging – as we get older, less sebum oil is produced, making it more likely that the scalp will be dry.

What is Dandruff?

The word dandruff is actually a portmanteau of the words “dander” and “scurfy.” Dander is a term referring to skin cells shed from animal fur. Scurfy is a descriptive word meaning scaly. As this name suggests, dandruff is a skin condition that produces large, scaly flakes shed from the scalp.

What Causes Dandruff?

Dandruff is most often caused by excess oil production in the scalp. This is usually due to a skin condition called seborrheic dermatitis that causes oily, red, and scaly skin. You can develop seborrheic dermatitis anywhere with oil glands. This is a common condition in infants and is sometimes referred to as cradle cap. An infection caused by Malassezia fungus, which naturally grows on the scalp, can also cause the skin to multiply more quickly, leading to dandruff.

Is it Dandruff or Dry Scalp?

The easiest way to tell the difference between dandruff and dry scalp is to look at the specific symptoms, including:

  • Scalp condition – if your scalp feels oily rather than dry, you likely have dandruff.
  • Dry Skin – if you have dry skin on other parts of your body, you are likely dealing with dry scalp.
  • Size, Shape & Color of Flakes – dandruff flakes are usually large, oily, and off white or yellow in color. Flakes from dry scalp are small and white.

What Treatment Options Are Available?

Your treatment recommendations will depend on whether you’re dealing with dry scalp or dandruff. According to Dr. Awan, “Both conditions are usually treatable at home. If your condition doesn’t improve or it worsens with at-home care or you aren’t sure which condition you’re dealing with, a dermatologist can help. There are great professional treatment options available to improve the health of your scalp.”

At-Home Dry Scalp Treatments

If you’re dealing with dry scalp, the first step may be changing your shampoo and washing your hair less frequently. You want to allow your hair’s natural moisture levels to increase. Before going to sleep, apply a mild moisturizer to your scalp. You can use something as simple as vitamin E oil or coconut oil. Then, place a shower cap to keep the moisturizer in place as you sleep. In the morning, cleanse your hair with a gentle shampoo followed by a deep moisture conditioner. For extreme dryness, you may want to skip the shampooing altogether and head straight to conditioning. In general, those who struggle with dry scalp should only shampoo their hair a few times each week. Repeat this process daily for about a week. If your scalp is still very dry or flaky, you may want to consider visiting a dermatologist to create a more advanced treatment plan.

At-Home Dandruff Treatments

Because dandruff is most often caused by an excess of oil on the scalp, washing hair more frequently with a gentle shampoo may be enough to correct the problem. You should also cut out any styling products that may be adding oil or irritating the scalp. If more frequent washing and changes to your hair care products and routine don’t do the trick, you may want to use an anti-dandruff shampoo. According to Dr. Awan, “The ingredients in each type of dandruff shampoo are targeted to address specific underlying causes of dandruff, so you need to take care to find a shampoo with the best ingredients for your situation.” Some common anti-dandruff shampoo ingredients include the following:

  • Salicylic acid – removes scale from the skin before it flakes and prevents excess oil from accumulating on the scalp.
  • Coal tar – slows the development of new skin cells.
  • Pyrithione zinc – gentle enough for daily use to prevent dandruff, these shampoos are also effective in treating dandruff caused by a fungal infection.
  • Selenium sulfide – prevents skin cells from dying off too rapidly and slows cell regrowth.
  • Ketoconazole – specifically formulated to kill excess fungal growth on the scalp. It’s available in over the counter shampoos as well as prescription-strength hair care products.

Treatments from Your Dermatologist

Almost all patients will see noted improvement with at-home treatments. However, if you don’t notice an improvement within a few weeks of at-home care, you may be dealing with a condition that requires more advanced treatment from your dermatologist. Some conditions like psoriasis and eczema may closely resemble dry scalp or dandruff but they are not likely to respond to treatments with over the counter products.

Can I Prevent Dry Scalp & Dandruff?

Preventing dry scalp and dandruff will typically require that you take opposite steps, so it’s important that you know which condition you’re dealing with. Specifically, those with dry scalp will usually need to wash hair less often and use intense moisturizing products to restore moisture levels to the scalp. Those with dandruff need to wash hair more frequently to remove the excess oils and scaly skin cells. For those who struggle with chronic dandruff, you may want to consider incorporating a gentle, daily use anti-dandruff shampoo into your hair care routine.

When Should I Visit a Dermatologist?

If your dry scalp or dandruff is persistent and not responsive to at-home treatment or you want to start improving your overall skin health, U.S. Dermatology Partners is here to help. We offer a range of dermatology services performed by a team of local skincare experts, and we make it easy for you to schedule a visit. Simply fill in our online form or give one of our local teams a call. We look forward to hearing from you soon.

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