Dandruff vs Dry Scalp: What’s The Difference?

dry scalp or dandruff

Whenever we get flakes in our hair we instantly think we have dandruff and rush off to buy a shampoo that targets the problem. But that doesn’t always work. That’s because many people who think they have dandruff actually don’t. They simply have a dry scalp and by using dandruff shampoos they are just making their condition worse. But how can you tell the difference between dandruff and a dry scalp? And how can you treat both conditions? Read on to find out:

Dry scalp

Dry scalp is characterized by white flakes, quite small in size, that are loosely attached to the scalp and come off easily. Sometimes symptoms also include irritation and itching. This condition can be caused by several factors: your scalp may not be producing enough natural oil to keep it moisturized, maybe you’re washing hair too often or with harsh products that strip away too much natural oil, or simply, changes in weather. If your skin is tight and flaky, or your hair is very dry and brittle, then that’s usually an indication that your scalp is dry too. What can you do in this case?

If you have a dry scalp, it’s really important not to use shampoos with harsh ingredients like SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate) and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate as they will strip too much moisture from your scalp and make it dryer. Instead, opt for shampoos with gentler cleansing ingredients such as Cocamidopropyl Betaine for example and remember to always use a good conditioner afterwards to replenish the moisture that’s been lost.

Washing your hair too often or with hot water can remove too much natural oil as well. Instead, wash it every other day (or even less if you can get away with it) and with lukewarm water. In addition, before washing your hair, gently brush your scalp with a brush whose bristles are close together but not too stiff. This will act like an exfoliant, helping the dead skin cells to get lose so that they can be more easily removed when you wash your hair.


If you’ve followed the tips above for a couple of weeks and your condition hasn’t improved, then you probably have dandruff. This condition is characterized by bigger flakes, usually yellowish in color and itching. Because dandruff is caused by a fungus called malassezia, it can be properly diagnosed only by a doctor so if you think you have this condition, you should consult one.

In the meantime, though, you can try some anti-dandruff shampoos. These are usually harsher than regular shampoos as they contain antimicrobial and antifungal ingredients (such as Octopirox, Zinc Pyrithione and Tea Tree Oil) that will treat this condition. In addition, try not too use too many styling products or heavy, greasy conditioners on your hair as you want to avoid product buildup as much as possible. And don’t scratch your scalp! It may provide temporary relief, but by doing so you risk damaging your scalp and creating little scratches or wounds which, albeit minuscule, may lead to infections.

When it’s time to see a doctor

As I already mentioned above, only a doctor can properly diagnose dandruff but let’s face it, most of us just go to the drugstore and buy an antidandruff shampoo first, hoping that will fix the problem. However, when antidandruff shampoos don’t work and you are certain that your scalp is not dry either, then it is definitely time to go to a doctor as the flakiness may be a symptom of a more serious condition and you should consult a specialist to get a diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Do you have any tips on how to deal with a dry scalp or dandruff?

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  1. says

    Nice tips! I have pretty severe dandruff and use DHS Zinc Shampoo (2% Pyrithione Zinc) to control it. It’s the only dandruff shampoo that actually doesn’t strip everything from my hair.

    One big tip with treatment shampoos is to LEAVE IT ON your scalp for 5 to 10 minutes to let the medicine penetrate. It makes a huge difference, especially if the condition is severe like mine.
    Tammy´s last blog post ..Question- How Often Do You Heat Style Your HairMy Profile

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Tammy, I’m sorry to hear you have severe dandruff. I have dandruff too and know how annoying it is to deal with it. But I’m glad you found a shampoo that works for you and thanks for the tips.

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Shruti, thanks. And that’s so true unfortunately! I hope this post will help some people out to find out what condition they really have and take care of it appropriately as treating a dry scalp as if one had dandruff will only make things worse.

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Trisha, I’m sorry to hear you have dandruff too. Having to deal with it is no fun but I’m glad you find a shampoo that works for you.

  2. NY Mama says

    The Shielo Hydrate Shampoo is the first “non-salon” shampoo that does not dry my scalp out. I have severe allergies and no matter what I try at home, it always seems to leave my hair flat and my scalp dry. There was no itching and the scent of the Shielo Hydrate is out of this world.

    • Gio says

      Kuri, you’re welcome. Glad I could help. I love hot showers too. They’re bad for skin and hair, but they feel sooo good!


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