The Difference between Dandruff and Dry Scalp: What You Should Know

You notice that your scalp has been itchy – and flaky.

“That’s bad,” you say to yourself, and you want to control it.

But do you have dandruff, or are you suffering from a dry scalp?

Dandruff and dry scalp are two annoying scalp conditions that are often confused with each other.

This is because they have very similar symptoms.

However, knowing the difference between dandruff and dry scalp is the best.

It’ll put you in the best position to successfully battle with either – or both – of these conditions.

Here’s an article to help you with your healthy, flakes-free hair journey!

Let’s start by knowing the possible causes of dandruff and dry scalp.

Difference between dandruff and dry scalp velacurls

Dandruff and Dry Scalp: What Causes Dandruff?

Dandruff is the term for the result of over-shedding of dead scalp cells.

Like every other part of the skin, the scalp sheds off cells when they die;

This is a natural and normal process called ‘dander.’

It becomes abnormal only when this happens excessively, causing visible flakes that easily fall off when you comb, itch, or even pat your hair.

Some things could cause this excessive shedding, and like you are expecting to read, here they are:

1. Fungus Malassezia

As dangerous as this fungus may sound, it isn’t.

It is harmlessly present on most people’s scalp and becomes a cause of dandruff only when you have too much of it.

This yeast-like fungus feeds on the scalp’s oils; therefore, it multiplies rapidly when the scalp is too oily.

This causes scalp cells to multiply more quickly, causing the over-shedding of dead cells.

The fungus Malassezia may also become too much on the scalp due to advancing age, hormonal changes, or stress.

In that sense, stress can trigger dandruff on your scalp.

2. Seborrheic Dermatitis

Dandruff may occur as a symptom of seborrheic dermatitis, a condition that causes scaling, redness, and oiliness on the affected skin.

When these scales fall off, they create dandruff.

As explained by, seborrheic dermatitis may occur anywhere on the skin, as long as there are oil glands present.

This means that dandruff due to seborrheic dermatitis can occur not just on the scalp but also in areas like your eyebrows, armpit, and nose sides.

3. Dry Scalp?

If you are wondering, ‘can you have dandruff and dry scalp at the same time?’ the answer is yes.

A dry scalp can cause dandruff.

And that’s probably another reason why it may be confusing to tell the difference between dandruff and dry scalp.

Note: Contrary to many claims, poor hair hygiene does not cause dandruff.

Your hair can not start having dandruff simply because it is dirty.

However, unwashed oil buildup on the scalp can cause increased flaking.

What Causes Dry Scalp?

A dry scalp is a condition where the scalp itches and flakes due to dryness.

Unlike dandruff, which is related to the presence of too much oil on the scalp, lack of oil – and moisture generally – causes a dry scalp.

You likely see why it would be damaging to treat dandruff when you have a dry scalp and vice versa.

They have opposite causes, and as such, different treatments.

Here are things that contribute to dry scalp:

1. Lack of Moisture

As mentioned earlier, the presence of little or no moisture on the scalp causes a dry scalp.

It makes the skin irritated, and it starts to flake easily.

When the hair is not regularly oiled, it may be unable to seal in moisture, contributing to such dryness.

2. Reaction to Products

A dry scalp may also be a reaction to certain hair products such as shampoos, hair dyes, and hairspray.

This condition is known as contact dermatitis.

3. Dry Weather

Just as cold, dry weather may contribute to dry skin, one may also experience dry scalp due to such weather. mentions that people with dry skin tend to experience dry scalp more than people with soft, moist skin.

4. Over-washing

Shampoos tend to strip the scalp of natural oils needed to keep it moisturized.

Hence, washing the hair with shampoos more often than needed can lead to a dry scalp.

5. Underlying Conditions

Underlying medical conditions such as diabetes or kidney disease may contribute to having a dry scalp.

It could also be a result of skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis.

How to Tell the Difference between Dandruff and Dry Scalp

Okay, here’s the real deal.

How can you tell if you have dandruff or a dry scalp?

The causes mentioned above might give you a hint.

But you’d find it more comfortable with these three things:

  • Looks
  • Test
  • Improvement

1. Looks

What does dandruff look like on the scalp?

Big, oily flakes that are either yellow or white.

If it occurs in other parts of the body, it appears oily, red, and scaly.

A dry scalp, on the other hand, gives off tiny, dry flakes.

So while both conditions make the scalp itchy, you can tell the difference between dandruff and dry scalp by checking the flakes that come off.

Keep in mind that other parts of the skin also likely experience dryness in the case of a dry scalp, so yeah, that’s another tip.

2. Test

You can also tell whether it’s dandruff or dry scalp by carrying out a simple test.

Deep moisturize your scalp overnight or for about 4 hours, and check it after rinsing.

If the flakes seem to disappear, then it is not dandruff but a dry scalp.

Since a lack of moisture causes a dry scalp, deep moisturizing tends to make it better.

You could use any moisturizing product for this purpose but be sure that it doesn’t contain any ingredient that your scalp could react to.

Keep in mind that this one-time moisturizing does not cure either dandruff or dry scalp as the flakes would likely come back.

3. Improvement

Dry scalp tends to improve quickly with treatment, mainly when caused by a temporary lack of moisture.

However, when it’s dandruff (especially one caused by fungi), the chances of getting better on time are low.

You really can’t tell the difference using this tip unless you start treating the condition.

But you can use it to confirm if you are fighting the right battle.

So be sure of the condition using the previous tips and then start controlling it.

Well, how can you control dandruff or dry scalp?

Let’s see.

How to Control Dandruff

1. Gentle Shampoo

Mild dandruff, which is the case most times, can be easily controlled by regular washing using a gentle shampoo.

This reduces the amount of oil present on the scalp, which encourages dandruff.

So to control dandruff, start by increasing how often you shampoo.

If possible, shampoo daily, and while you do, ensure to massage the scalp gently.

2. Anti-dandruff Shampoo

Difference between dandruff and dry scalp Velacurls
Anti-dandruff Shampoo

There are shampoos specially formulated for the treatment of dandruff.

They contain medicines that help to kill fungus and remove flakes.

If regular shampooing using a gentle shampoo does not reduce flaking, try an anti-dandruff shampoo.

Some of the medicines contained in dandruff shampoos that you should look out for include:


Pyrithione zinc

Salicylic acid

Coal tar. However, shampoos containing this tend to discolor the hair; you should avoid it if you have blond or gray hair.

Selenium sulfide. Like tar-based shampoos, this may also cause hair discoloration.

3. Tea tree Oil Shampoo

Tea tree oil has proved to be an effective treatment for dandruff.

This natural oil has antifungal properties that enable it to fight dandruff, in most cases without any side effects.

Shampoos containing at least 5 percent of tea tree oil are useful for dandruff.

You can also add about six drops of tea tree oil to a gentle shampoo and use it for this purpose.

Note: Do not apply tea tree oil to your scalp directly. You should also confirm that you have no allergies to tea tree oil before using it and stop its use if you notice any adverse effects like inflammation or redness.

Whichever type of shampoo you choose to use for dandruff, ensure that you follow the instructions on the bottle carefully. advises that reduce how often you shampoo for dandruff once you notice improvement.

Also, seek a doctor or pharmacist’s advice if you are unsure which shampoo to use or how often to use it.

How to Control Dry Scalp

Moisturizing/Hydrating Shampoo

When it comes to dry scalp, the goal is to provide the hair with moisture as much as possible (you know, to stop the dryness)

Instead of using the available over-the-counter shampoos that strip oil off the scalp, opt for a moisturizing dry scalp shampoo.

Home Remedies

There are many home remedies you can use to help hydrate a dry scalp.

Here are some examples:

Mashed bananas

Yogurt and egg

Coconut oil

Aloe vera

Jojoba oil

Olive oil

Applying any of these natural ingredients to your scalp or adding them to your shampoo will help control dry scalp.

It might also be helpful to improve your diet by including more vitamin and omega-3 fatty acid sources.

Protect Scalp from Harsh Weather

Some people experience dry scalp, especially during cold, dry weather.

If that is the case, you can control dry scalp by providing extra care for your hair during harsh weather.

Moisturize your scalp more often and ensure to cover it up when going out.

It’d be nice to invest in hair accessories such as satin scarfs, bonnets, or head-warmers to rock your hair.

This will help to control the effect of the weather on your scalp.

Moisturize Hair Often

While you should increase how often you shampoo for dandruff, you want to increase how often you moisturize your scalp to get rid of dry scalp.

Ensure to use a moisturizing conditioner each time you shampoo.

Deep moisturize your hair and make fair use of leave-in moisturizers by focusing on the scalp (of course, you are not to ignore your hair, lol)

Provide your hair with natural oils that moisturize and seal in moisture.

How to Prevent Dandruff and Dry Scalp

Here are tips to help reduce your risk of dry scalp and dandruff:

Beware of Chemical Hair Products

Hair products that contain chemicals such as alcohol and bleach can strip the scalp of oil and dry it out.

Oily hair products also tend to encourage oil buildup on your scalp.

Do well to minimize your use of either product to prevent dry scalp and dandruff.

Ensure to gather information about a specific hair product before you use it and consult your hairstylist for advice.

Take Advantage of UV light.

Evidence suggests that exposing the hair to ultraviolet light from the sun helps to control dandruff.

Of course, you shouldn’t overdo this to prevent sun damage and cancer risk.

Just a few minutes each day would do.

Effective Stress Management

As mentioned earlier, stress can trigger dandruff.

So practice relaxation techniques to manage stress, so you do not help multiply the fungus Malassezia, lol.

Keep Scalp Moisturized

Regularly moisturizing your scalp will help prevent it from getting dry in the first place.

Make good use of hair moisturizers and ensure that you take enough water.

Seeing a Doctor

Dandruff may be annoying, but it is not harmful.

However, it may occur as a symptom of other severe skin conditions.

So when should you see a doctor for dandruff?

When you have tried shampoos or other home remedies for months without any improvement but instead getting worse.

If you experience crusting, open wounds, redness, or pain on your scalp, it may be time to consult a dermatologist or your primary care doctor.


Dandruff and dry scalp may have similar symptoms, but you can tell the difference, as we have seen.

And your scalp doesn’t always have to be itchy and flaky; it can get better.

While there may still be some mysteries surrounding the cause of dandruff and other scalp conditions, you can always use the information available – as highlighted above – to have an incredible, healthy hair journey!

Hey, hair lover, this post may contain affiliate links. So if you buy a product through a link in the post, I’ll earn some commission at no extra cost to you.

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