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Dandruff vs Dry Scalp: What's The Difference?

You've got a slight itch on your scalp. You reach up to scratch it and notice that you now have flakes of skin on your hands. What's the deal? You might be dealing with a dry scalp.

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Then again, you might actually be dealing with dandruff. Yes, they're different, down to the causes and treatments required.

Here's the lowdown on figuring out which you're dealing with, and how to make it better by knowing the difference in dandruff vs dry scalp to get some relief.

What is Dandruff?

At its core, dandruff is the problem of having too much oil on the scalp. Sometimes, it's caused by a skin condition known as seborrheic dermatitis.

While scientists are unsure of the exact causes of this condition, it is suspected that it may be the result of a particular yeast called malassezia, that can accumulate in the natural secretions of oil from the scalp. Other scientists suspect it is a result of a wonky immune system.

Regardless of the causes, dandruff manifests as the shedding of oily chunks of dead skin cells. They are often yellow in color and have a distinct scent: it smells both cheesy and yeasty. Gross.

It is important to keep in mind that the nasty smell is often not a result of poor hygiene. Don't worry about that. Focus on treating dandruff as the source, rather than just upping your shampoo routine to several times a day. That won't do much to help.

What Causes Dandruff?

Malassezia is a common cause of dandruff, increasing skin cell growth. As a result, a higher-than-average amount of skin cells die and flake off. Yet, beyond this and seborrheic dermatitis, other factors worsen the condition:

  • Cold weather, particularly winter, in which the skin becomes drier and more likely to flake.
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies, particularly Vitamin B and zinc.
  • Stress, regardless of the source.
  • Not finding a good hair care routine. Frustrating for many living with dandruff and dry scalp, going too long between shampoos and washing too frequently both aggravate the condition.

Aside from flakier skin, the extra oil being produced highlights the clumps of dead cells and makes the condition more visible.

What's the Difference Between Dandruff and Dry Scalp?

In the most basic of nutshells, dry scalp is the problem of having not enough oil on your scalp, and dandruff is the problem of having too much oil.

You can end up with dry scalp as a result of a variety of factors. It could be caused by skin conditions like dermatitis, psoriasis, or eczema, or it can be the result of cold, dry weather. It can even be the result of harsh chemicals and ingredients in the shampoo and products you're using. Be sure to check the ingredient lists of your hair products, and make sure the ones you get are only of the highest quality in terms of what goes into them.

Some of these ingredients are extremely common in shampoos like, really common. So common that you often have to go out of your way to find a quality shampoo that doesn't include any of them.

One of the biggest culprits in shampoos and other hair products that is probably contributing to your dry scalp is sulfates. Sulfates are detergents that are used to create the luxurious lather you get when you scrub at your scalp and hair, but they can seriously dry out and irritate your skin.

Another ingredient that can contribute to dry scalp is sodium chloride, AKA table salt. It's used in shampoos as a thickener, but it can easily dry your scalp out, because it's salt.

Propylene glycol is another ingredient that is often used in shampoos. It's essentially anti-freeze, and it's used to keep products from freezing during shipment, but it's definitely not something you want in your hair or on your scalp.

Unfortunately, many, many shampoos and hair products contain a lot of these products, so it's important to be vigilant when you're searching for your next product. Avoid these ingredients, and you can prevent dry scalp before it happens.

aloe vera plant

How to Get Rid of Dandruff vs Dry Scalp

If you've found that you do have dandruff or dry scalp, there are some ingredients you may want to think about adding to your regimen that will help reverse some of the effects. Consider apple cider vinegar. It can be used as a toner and has the appropriate pH required to keep a healthy scalp and hair. In fact, it can be used to treat both dry scalp and dandruff, because of its pH balance.

Organic apple cider vinegar in the bottle

Another option is hyaluronic acid. It's a moisturizer that occurs naturally in our bodies, but sometimes the amount your body generates may not be enough. Use a product that includes it for extra help in restoring your scalp's health.

Aside from these common solutions, other natural remedies help lessen the symptoms:

  • Green tea and peppermint oils, both known for their antioxidant content and antimicrobial properties.
Hollywood Beauty peppermint oil in a plastic green bottle
  • Coconut oil, a natural antifungal agent, preferably used as a hair mask.
  • Baking soda, also an antifungal agent, goes after the bacteria and helps exfoliate the dead skin cells in the process.
  • Aloe vera and tea tree oil, both of which offer natural antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties.
Tea tree oil in brown bottle and black cap
  • Omega-3 fatty acids, when taken orally, have been known to hydrate the skin, regulate oil production, and lessen inflammation. Individuals deficient in Omega-3s often experience dry hair and skin “ scalp included.
  • Probiotics, which may help strengthen the immune system to fight off the fungus living on your scalp.
Nizoral A-D Ketoconazole anti-dandruff Shampoo

If, however, the problem is strictly fungal, natural DIY solutions might not have an effect. Rather, Ketoconazole found in Nizoral A-D, which is available by prescription and over-the-counter targets and kills off this specific type of fungus.

At the same time, you may need to adjust your hair care routine. Aside from seeking out sulfate-free solutions, alcohol, parabens, and acrylates are additionally known to irritate the scalp, resulting in more dryness and a weakened protective barrier around your hairline.

Best Shampoos for Dandruff and Dry Scalp

Dandruff is also pretty easily treated by the right ingredients, and is, for the most part, pretty harmless, if not unsightly and smelly. There are numerous ingredients you can introduce to your grooming regimen in order to cut down on the dandruff.

First, there's coal tar. Coal tar works by encouraging your scalp to shed the existing dead skin (which means your dandruff may get worse for a short period of time), then slows down the process of shedding of any new skin cells. As an added benefit, coal tar can help soothe the terrible itch you're suffering as a result of your dandruff.

Another ingredient to try is pyrithione zinc, the active ingredient in Head and Shoulders which you've almost certainly heard of or seen on shelves.

It works by reducing the amounts of yeast present on your scalp, nipping dandruff in the bud, right at the source. Head and Shoulders is not a great solution, however, as it contains some of those nasty sulfates that can negatively impact your hair and scalp.

You might also want to try products with salicylic acid. It works by softening and loosening the dead skin cells, allowing them to shed more easily and helping to repair and restore the health of your scalp.

If you're looking for a shampoo that has several of these ingredients, try the Dead Sea Spa Magik Mineral shampoo. It contains both pyrithione zinc and salicylic acid, and contains zero sulfates. It will soften the scalp, loosen the dead skin, and work to reduce the amount of yeast on your scalp, which can often be one of the factors that contributes to dandruff.

Another excellent option is the ArtNaturals Dandruff Shampoo. It is a coal tar formulation, if pyrithione zinc and salicylic acid aren't doing it for you. It contains an ingredient called Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate, but don't be alarmed by the name; this ingredient is not a sulfate.

You'll have to get past the less-than-pleasant scent that hits you when you first apply the product, it does contain coal tar, after all but the scent doesn't stay once you wash it out.

Sometimes, these ingredients work best in tandem with each other. If you're finding that one helps a little, but doesn't totally solve the problem, try alternating between a few products containing these ingredients. It may help to attack the issue from multiple angles.

It's important to know what it is that you're dealing with. Even though these two conditions have similar manifestations, they are polar opposites in their causes and treatments.

Take a good look at the flakes that are falling out of your hair to determine which problem you've encountered, and use the tips here to remedy them!

If All Else Fails, Call Your Doc

If these solutions don't fix the problem, you may want to talk to a medical professional to see what they say. There may be more intensive treatments that can help ease your itchiness and flakiness if these remedies don't quite cut it.

And if that's the case, your doctor can help you ease the problem a different way. Your scalp has a lot of complexities that affect its care and treatment. Do your research and treat it right, and you will be well on your way to a happy, healthy scalp in no time.

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Dandruff vs Dry Scalp

Born and raised in Austin, David is a dedicated writer and avid fragrance lover. When he's not trying out perfumes, he enjoys traveling and exploring new restaurants.