Dandruff or Dry Scalp
Hair Care

Is It Dandruff or Dry Scalp?

+ Pamela Friedman

When your scalp is itchy, does that mean you have dandruff or dry scalp?

The two conditions share some symptoms, but they’re not the same.

Knowing which one you have can help you better treat the problem.

How Do I Know If I Have Dandruff or Dry Scalp?

Granted, these two conditions share similar symptoms. Your scalp may feel tight, dry, and itchy. You may also notice flakes on your shoulders or hair brush.

Both conditions can also cause general scalp irritation and may lead to scratching that can, in turn, cause redness and even small sores.

But other than that, dandruff and dry scalp are quite different. If you try to treat a dry scalp with a dandruff solution, you could make the problem worse.

Dandruff or Dry Scalp: What Is Dandruff?

Like the rest of your skin, the skin on your scalp goes through a renewal process in which younger cells rise to the surface to replace older, dead skin cells. Those dead skin cells slough off during regular cleansing and brushing.

If you have dandruff—medically termed seborrheic dermatitis—this process of shedding dead skin cells speeds up. Researchers aren’t sure what triggers this but know it can be caused by:

  • Sensitivity to certain hair care products
  • Excess production of oil on the scalp
  • Fungal infections of the scalp

The fungus Malassezia globosa is a major culprit in causing dandruff. It’s naturally found on everyone’s scalp, but in those with dandruff, there is often too much of it. An oily scalp can trigger excessive growth of Malassezia globosa, which in turn, can cause dead skin cells to shed faster than normal, resulting in dandruff.

Dandruff HairDandruff or Dry Scalp: What Is Dry Scalp?

A dry scalp is similar to dry skin anywhere else on your body: it doesn’t retain enough moisture. Just like dry skin on your arm or leg can cause itching, flaking, and irritation, so too can dry skin on your scalp.

Dry scalp may be triggered by several factors, including:

  • Excessive hair washing
  • Using harsh hair-care products that strip natural oils from the scalp
  • Allergic reaction to a product like hair dye
  • Underlying skin conditions like psoriasis, dermatitis, eczema, or sunburn
  • Hormonal changes or conditions
  • Certain medications

Those who have dry scalps will have a tight-feeling scalp, and may also suffer from dull and frizzy hair.

Dandruff or Dry Scalp: Symptoms of Each

Both dandruff and dry scalp can cause similar symptoms like the following:

  • Irritation
  • Itching
  • Flaking
  • Scalp redness
  • Sores (as a result of itching)

But then some symptoms are different between the two.

Dandruff Dry Scalp
Larger and yellow-tinged or oily flakes Smaller dry flakes
Flakes may fall off in clumps Flakes may fall off like tiny dust particles
Usually doesn’t get better without targeted treatment Can get better by changing your hair-care habits
Caused by an over-production of oil Caused by a lack of oil
Can occur at any time and is likely chronic Usually more common in colder months and drier climates

Dandruff or Dry Scalp: Can I Have Both?

It is possible to have both dandruff and a dry scalp. If your dandruff is caused by an overproduction of fungus, you may also suffer from a dry scalp since the fungus feeds on the oil of the scalp, drying it out.

Dry Scalp Rescue + Relief Spray

Dandruff or Dry Scalp: How to Treat It

Treatment for these two conditions can be similar in some ways and different in others.

Tips for Treating Dandruff

  • Try over-the-counter dandruff shampoos and treatments. Choose those that are pH balanced and help hydrate the hair and scalp while working to limit the overproduction of oil. Some treatment shampoos can over-dry the scalp, so try to avoid those.
  • Consider shampooing more often. You want to get rid of the excess oil on the scalp, so washing more frequently may help. But don’t wash more than once daily.
  • Avoid hair-care products with heavy oils. These can feed the fungus and cause even more excessive growth.
  • Use a scalp treatment before you shampoo. These can help lift dandruff and control any potential bacteria overgrowth. Some scalp masks are effective this way. They can break down flakes and help control dandruff.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Some foods can make dandruff worse, particularly those with added sugars and bad fats, and processed foods.

Tips for Treating Dry Scalp

  • Use moisturizing, nourishing shampoos and conditioners. Look for those with calming ingredients like lavender, chamomile, and peppermint to soothe irritation. Choose gentle, non-irritating shampoos with milder sulfate-free cleansers that won’t strip the scalp of its natural oils. It may also help to shampoo a little less often.
  • Restore moisture to the scalp. You can use a natural oil like jojoba to help fight dryness and calm any irritation. Simply apply to the scalp, spread throughout, cover hair, and let sit for 10-30 minutes. We recommend using our Calming Moisture as an overnight mask. Simply rub it into the scalp, put on a hairnet, and go to bed. Rinse in the morning and you’ll notice a softer, more comfortable scalp (and softer hair, too!).
  • Mist during the day. If you’re struggling with a burning sensation on your scalp, we recommend our soothing Rescue + Relief Spray. Apply it directly to the affected area and gently rub it in. Use as needed to tame inflammation, reduce redness, and immediately alleviate any feeling of itching.
  • Drink more water. Your skin draws moisture from inside your body as well as outside, so if you have a dry scalp, it’s important to make sure you’re drinking enough water throughout the day.
  • Use a humidifier in your home. Particularly if you live in a dry climate, a humidifier in your bedroom will help your skin (including your scalp) to retain more moisture overnight.

Have you found helpful treatments for dandruff and dry scalp?

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