Balshi Blog

Dry Scalp Vs. Dandruff: What’s The Difference?

Although dry scalp can cause dandruff, the two are not mutually exclusive. 

Dandruff can make the scalp flake and cause a visible side effect. You may find scalp flakes on your clothing or pieced throughout your hair. Dandruff in some cases is caused by a scalp infection or a fungal infection. 

In comparison, dry scalp isn’t quite the same. Dry scalp is just that, when the scalp does not produce enough oil or cannot hold enough oil to stay hydrated. 

This means that treatment for both are not the same and understanding which one you may be dealing with can help when choosing the right treatment.

Moreover, if you notice your scalp is flaking, you could think or call it dandruff but it could actually be a dry scalp. Both, unfortunately, display the same symptoms which could be constant flaking and itchy scalp. But they are both considered different conditions. 

When it comes to dandruff, the scalp produces too much oil. This excess oil causes skin cells to build up and shed off. With dry scalp, the skin gets irritated and flakes off. 

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. And it’s possible to have both! Generally though, flakes are most likely dandruff.

  • if the scalp feels oily
  • when there is intense scalp itching even when the scalp does not feel dry
  • if the hair looks greasy

Dry scalp

When the scalp does not have enough moisture or oil for the skin to feel lubricated, this causes irritation, itching and flaking. It can also affect the way the hair looks. Since the oil on the scalp is nonexistent, that leaves the hair dull and dry looking considering the oil helps condition the hair.

People who suffer from dry skin tend to also suffer from dry scalp. Many external conditions can leave someone prone to dry scalp. Some of the things that cause dry skin can also cause dry scalp, which could mean:

  • dry air, particularly during the winter months
  • excessive washing
  • skin conditions, such as eczema


Much like the rest of the body, the scalp sheds dead skin cells. Dandruff happens when this process is sped up. The faster dead skin cells shed from the scalp, the more flakes you’ll find. Even more so, some conditions can accelerate the rate at which the skin sheds.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, no one fully understands what causes dandruff. Some of the causes of dandruff could be:

  • fungal infections of the scalp
  • oils secreted by the scalp
  • sensitivity to substances, such as hair products

These things can make dandruff much worse and in a 2016 study, researchers found a correlation between the precedence of certain scalp bacteria and dandruff. 

Dry scalp can also be triggered by factors like these:

  • cold, dry air
  • contact dermatitis caused by a reaction to products you apply to your scalp, like shampoo, styling gel, and hairspray
  • older age

One of the main reasons for dandruff is a condition called seborrheic dermatitis. This causes the skin to become red, oily and scaly. White or yellow scales flake off which creates dandruff. This can happen anywhere on the body that you have oil glands. This could be the armpits, eyebrows, and groin. 

Contrary to what it may feel and look like, dirty hair doesn’t cause dandruff. However, if you don’t wash your hair often enough the build up of oil can contribute to the flaking. 

One of the main ways to tell the difference is by the appearance of the flakes. Do the flakes are bigger, and look oily or do they look scaly and crusty?

When should you see the doctor?

Both conditions can be managed at home. However, if your condition is more of a severe form of dandruff like scalp psoriasis, or seborrheic dermatitis, you should contact your doctor for more help. 

People should see a doctor for a flaky scalp:

  • if there are other symptoms, such as redness or sores
  • if home treatments do not work
  • if there are open wounds on the head or face

If you suffer from one or more of these autoimmune disorders, talk to your doctor before deciding to treat dandruff. With a weakened immune system increases the chance that the condition could worsen.

However, most dandruff cases can be treated with an over the counter shampoo. If you’ve tried dandruff shampoo for at least 4 weeks, and nothing has improved. Contact your dermatologist who specializes in conditions of the skin. There may be more to be treated other than dandruff.

Preventing Dry Scalp and Dandruff

Dandruff has a hard prevention strategy, considering researchers do not fully understand the cause of dandruff. Although, there is talk -without valid research- that lifestyle improvements can help deal with dandruff. But it is unclear if it can be entirely preventable.

It may be possible to prevent dry scalp by:

  • using less irritating shampoos
  • switching to a moisturizing shampoo
  • shampooing the hair less frequently
  • using a humidifier to keep the skin from getting dry
  • drinking more water

Here are a few additional tips for dry scalp and dandruff prevention:

  • Wash your hair often with an anti dandruff shampoo. Make sure to rinse out all the shampoo.
  • Avoid harsh chemicals in hair products. Avoid bleach and alcohol.
  • Hang out in the sun. There is a little evidence that UV rays can help control dandruff. 
  • Manage your stress.


For dry scalp, try washing your hair with a gentle shampoo coupled with a moisturizing conditioner. Test to see if you have dry scalp by applying a light moisturizer to your scalp before bed. If the flakes disappear after your shower the next morning, you may have dry scalp. Some hair stylists offer scalp treatments to help deliver moisture to your scalp. 

Mild dandruff can be managed by washing your hair everyday with gentle shampoo to reduce all the oil build up on your scalp. If regular shampoo doesn’t work, try dandruff shampoo.

A majority of dandruff shampoos can contain medicine that helps kill the fungus on your scalp and removes flaky skin. Here are a few dandruff shampoo ingredients to look for:

  • Pyrithione zinc is an antifungal drug. It kills the fungus on your scalp that causes flaking.
  • Selenium sulfide reduces fungus and prevents too many skin cells from dying off. If you have a lighter hair color, ask your doctor before using this shampoo because it’s been known to change hair color.
  • Ketoconazole kills the fungus that causes dandruff.
  • Salicylic acid removes extra scale from your scalp before it can flake. In some people, salicylic acid can dry out the skin and cause more flaking.
  • Coal tar slows the growth and shedding of skin cells on the scalp. Tar-based shampoos are also known to change hair colors. 
  • Shampoos containing tea tree oil. A natural remedy. Tea tree oil is a natural ingredient with antifungal properties. 

If you’re not sure which shampoo to try, talk to your doctor about your concerns and ask for advice based on your condition. You may have to try a few brands before you find one you truly like to use continuously. For more stubborn shampoo, your doctor can prescribe a stronger shampoo or steroid lotion. 

However, most dandruff shampoos contain dandruff, and many different types of anti-dandruff shampoo are available online. In most cases, dandruff can be treated at home. People who deal with dandruff should aim to shampoo their hair regularly. 

Another option to treat dandruff is coal tar shampoo. However, this shampoo may change the color of light hair, so people with blonde or gray hair may prefer another option.

With washing regularly, some people may wish to change between dandruff shampoo and traditional shampoo simply because dandruff shampoo tends to have a very strong smell. 

People whose dandruff does not improve with home treatment should see a doctor. Identifying the cause of the age ole’ battle, dry scalp vs dandruff — which could be a bacterial or fungal infection — can be helpful. Prescription-strength treatments usually clear up dandruff and dry scalp can be managed.

Unfortunately, dandruff isn’t curable. Most people just end up managing symptoms over the course of their lifetime. The flakes will come and go. 

Dandruff is a mystery. It’s not completely understood why one fungus can be completely harmless for one person and utterly severe for another. Because of this mystery, treatment isn’t a guarantee. There’s no prediction in the way dandruff is handled and can be handled.

Both dry scalp and dandruff are annoying. 

People who do not see improvements with home treatment should consider that the problem might be something other than dandruff. Only a doctor can conclusively diagnose and prescribe the cause of a flaky scalp. 

Contact Balshi Dermatology to Learn More About Dry Scalp Vs. Dandruff

If you’re looking to promote more hair growth, volume, stronger, shinier, and better textured hair and scalp, contact Balshi Dermatology, a board-certified dermatologist in Delray Beach. Call us at (561) 272-6000 or send us a message on our Contact Page to set up your appointment.