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Both dandruff and dry scalp cause flakes and itchy skin on your scalp, which makes them challenging to distinguish. Oily, large flakes typically point to dandruff, while dry, smaller flakes signal dry scalp.

If you have a dry, flaking scalp, you may suspect dandruff. But it could be a symptom of dry scalp. Dandruff and dry scalp have the same main symptoms, which are falling flakes and an itchy scalp, but they’re two different conditions.

With dry scalp, your skin gets irritated and flakes off. With dandruff, the cause is too much oil on your scalp along with an overgrowth of yeast, called Malassezia, that’s already on your skin. That excess oil causes skin cells to build up and then shed. Knowing which of these conditions you have can help you get the right treatment and banish those flakes for good.

You get dry scalp when your skin has too little moisture. The skin on your scalp becomes irritated and flakes off. If your scalp is dry, the skin on other parts of your body, such as your arms and legs, could be dry too.

Dry scalp can also be triggered by factors such as these:

  • cold, dry air
  • contact dermatitis caused by a reaction to products you apply to your scalp, such as shampoo, styling gel, and hairspray
  • older age
  • the use of products that strip the natural oils from your skin

The skin cells on your scalp and body normally multiply when you need more of them. Then they die and shed off. During this process, your skin cells turn over on a regular basis or turn over faster in response to inflammation. When you have dandruff, skin cells on your scalp shed more quickly than usual.

The main cause of dandruff is seborrheic dermatitis, a condition that turns your skin oily, red, and scaly. The white or yellow scales flake off, creating dandruff. You can get seborrheic dermatitis anywhere you have oil glands, including your eyebrows, groin, armpits, chest, upper back, ears and along the sides of your nose. In babies it’s called cradle cap.

Often, a fungus called Malassezia triggers dandruff. This fungus normally lives on your scalp. If you have too much of it, though, it causes your skin cells to multiply more quickly than usual.

Certain factors can cause Malassezia to multiply, including:

Dirty hair doesn’t cause dandruff, but if you don’t wash your hair often enough, the oily buildup can contribute to flakes.

One way to tell the difference between dry scalp and flakes from dandruff is by their appearance. Dandruff flakes are bigger, and they look oily. In babies with cradle cap, their scalp looks scaly or crusty. Both dryness and dandruff can make your scalp itch.

The following is a comparison of the main symptoms of each condition:

DandruffDry scalp
Oily, large flakes that are yellow or white
Smaller, dry flakes
Itchy scalp
Oily, red, scaly skin
Dry skin on other parts of your body

You can treat most dandruff yourself with an over-the-counter shampoo. If you’ve tried a dandruff shampoo for at least a month and your flakes haven’t improved, they’re getting worse, or the skin on your scalp looks red or swollen, make an appointment with a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in treating the skin. You might have another skin condition that needs to be treated.

A doctor or healthcare professional will determine whether you have dandruff by looking at your scalp and hair. They can rule out conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, which can also cause flaky skin on your scalp.

If you have dry scalp, wash with a gentle shampoo and then use a moisturizing conditioner. One way to tell whether you have dry scalp or dandruff is to apply a light moisturizer to your scalp before you go to bed. If the cause is dry scalp, the flakes should disappear once you shower the next morning. Some hair stylists can perform a scalp treatment that uses steam to deliver more moisture to your scalp.

Dandruff shampoo

For mild dandruff, wash your hair every day with a gentle shampoo to lower the amount of oil on your scalp. If your dandruff is more severe or a regular shampoo doesn’t work, try a dandruff shampoo.

Most dandruff shampoos contain medication that kills the fungus on your scalp or removes flaky skin. Here are some examples:

  • Pyrithione zinc (Head and Shoulders, Jason Dandruff Relief 2 in 1) is an antifungal drug. It kills the fungus on your scalp that causes flaking. Pyrithione zinc shampoos are gentle enough to use every day.
  • Selenium sulfide (Selsun Blue) lowers the amount of fungus and prevents too many skin cells from dying off. If you have blond or gray hair or dye your hair, ask a healthcare professional before using shampoo containing selenium sulfide. It can change your hair color.
  • Ketoconazole (Nizoral) kills the fungus that causes dandruff. You can buy it in either over-the-counter or prescription strength.
  • Salicylic acid (Neutrogena T/Sal) removes extra scales from your scalp before it can flake. Salicylic acid can dry out your skin and cause more flaking.
  • Coal tar (Neutrogena T/Gel) slows the growth and shedding of skin cells on your scalp. Tar-based shampoos can also change your hair color if you have blond or gray hair.

Dandruff tea tree oil

Shampoos containing tea tree oil are an alternative remedy for dandruff. Tea tree oil is a natural ingredient with antifungal properties that some studies show treat dandruff. Some people are allergic to tea tree oil. Ask a doctor before you try it. Stop using the product if you have any redness or swelling.

No matter which dandruff shampoo you try, read the instructions on the bottle and follow them carefully. If you’re not sure which shampoo to use or how often to use it, ask a doctor or pharmacist for advice. You might have to try a few brands before you find one that relieves your dandruff.

Once your dandruff improves, you might be able to cut back on the number of days that you use the shampoo. For more stubborn dandruff, a doctor can prescribe a stronger shampoo or a topical steroid or topical antifungal.

Here are some tips to prevent dandruff and dry scalp:

If you have dandruff, wash your hair often with an antidandruff shampoo. Make sure to rinse out all the shampoo.

Avoid using hair products that contain harsh chemicals, such as bleach and alcohol. These ingredients can dry out your scalp. Also avoid oily hair products that can build up on your scalp.

Spend a few minutes out in the sun every day. There’s some evidence that ultraviolet (UV) light exposure can help control dandruff. You don’t want to get too much sun exposure, though, because it can increase your risk of skin cancer.

Manage your stress with meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and other relaxation techniques.

Dandruff isn’t curable. Most people will have to manage symptoms over the long term. Usually, the flakes will come and go. Treating dandruff with a special shampoo can manage your condition and prevent itching and flakiness.