Dandruff vs Dry Scalp

Often used interchangeably to describe one condition, however, dandruff and dry scalp are two very different things. Dandruff is typically marked by white flakes from the scalp and can be caused by dry skin, but there are many other causes. And dry scalp, only one cause of dandruff, can be remedied with just a few changes to what you use on your hair. When you understand the differences between dandruff and dry scalp, you can determine which problem you suffer from and then treat the condition accordingly.

Dandruff vs Dry Scalp: Basic Information



Dry Scalp


Historically called pityriasis capitis and sometimes called scurf, dandruff is an excessive shedding of dead skin cells from the scalp. It can be caused by frequent exposure to extreme heat or cold.

The scalp typically sheds skin cells every 20-30 days. However, several factors can disrupt the normal skin flora, causing the scalp to shed at a faster rate, making it dry.


Familiar symptoms include white, oily flakes of dead skin that appear on hair and shoulders; itchy and scaly scalp.

Symptoms include flakes of dead skin cells; irritation, itching and redness of the scalp.

ICD-9 classification



Diseases DB classification



Dandruff vs Dry Scalp: Causes

Causes of Dandruff

Causes of Dry Scalp

Not shampooing enough. Skin cells and oils can build up on the scalp if you do not wash enough, causing oily flakes to appear in the hair.

Shampooing too often. While not shampooing enough can cause dandruff, washing hair too frequently removes the natural oils that keep the scalp hydrated, causing skin to flake off.

Skin conditions. Skin conditions, such as psoriasis, thick scales formed by a rapid build-up of dead, rough skin cells and eczema, a chronic inflammatory skin condition, can produce symptoms similar to dandruff. Malassezia, a yeast-like fungus that lives on the scalp but can also cause irritation for some people, causing an increase in the production of skin cells. These extra cells fall off and appear as white flakes. The cause as to why malassezia irritates the scalp is unknown.

Skin conditions. Like the skin conditions discussed in "causes of dandruff", these conditions can also cause dry scalp. Conditions such as psoriasis and eczema can damage the skin’s ability to regulate cell turnover and alter the health of the moisture barrier that keeps the scalp hydrated.


Dry skin on the scalp. This is considered to be one of the most common causes of dandruff. Dry skin flakes off the scalp and shows up in the hair and on clothing, but the flakes are typically white and dry.

Exposure to excessive heat or cold. During excessive heat or cold weather, the air is very dry, so your scalp can be easily affected by the outside environment.

Contact dermatitis. Sensitivity to certain hair products, such as dyes and shampoos, can cause an itchy, red, scaly scalp. This irritation can also be caused by shampooing too frequently or by using an excess of hair styling products.

Harsh products. Use of chemical dyes or styling products can damage the scalp and cause dry, flaky, red skin. Additionally, certain ingredients in shampoos can also irritate the scalp.

Seborhheic dermatitis. For this condition of irritation, oily skin is one of the most common causes of dandruff. It causes greasy, red skin covered with white or yellow flaky scales. It can also affect your eyebrows, backs of your ears, sides of your nose, armpits and groin.


Dandruff vs Dry Scalp: Treatments

The most common treatment for dandruff is anti-dandruff shampoos that are widely available on the market. Your neighborhood drug store or market typically carries a number of anti-dandruff shampoos. The shampoos use ingredients such as salicylic acid to remove built-up dead skin cells and limit the number of cells, and zinc pyrithione to kill the fungus that causes dandruff. Other ingredients that achieve the same results include selenium sulfide and ketoconazole.

However, the key to treating dry scalp is to add moisture to the skin instead of using drugs or anti-dandruff shampoos. This can be done by washing less frequently to allow the scalp’s natural oils to moisturize the skin. Limit the use of harsh styling products and look for shampoos without irritating ingredients. Using natural oil such as olive oil or a deep conditioner can also help restore the scalp’s natural moisture balance.

Dandruff vs Dry Scalp: Prevention

There are a number of ways you can prevent dandruff and dry scalp issues. For both situations, you should:

  • ŸLimit or eliminate your use of styling products such as mousse, gel or hairspray. These products can dry the scalp, leading to adverse or allergic reactions and causing dandruff.
  • ŸYou should have a balanced diet with food rich in omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, B vitamins and take enough liquid.
  • ŸEliminate stress as high stress can compromise the body’s natural defenses.
  • ŸIf these conditions persist, see a dermatologist as both can be caused by a number of skin conditions.

For specific preventions for each problem, please refer to the list below.




  • ŸWash hair frequently and regularly and be sure to rinse your hair thoroughly.
  • ŸUse anti-dandruff shampoos and products made for oily hair and scalp.

Dry Scalp

  • ŸShampoo less frequently as the detergents and other ingredients can dry the skin and strip the scalp of natural oils.
  • ŸUse a shampoo designed to treat dry scalp which will add moisture back to the skin and hair. And use a deep conditioner that can help add moisture and hydration back to the scalp.
  • ŸMassaging your scalp with natural oils can have multiple effects. The oils add moisture to your scalp, eliminating flakes. Besides, the massage stimulates increased blood flow, allowing the scalp to receive necessary nutrients for healthy skin and hair.
  • ŸIf your scalp is itchy, don’t scratch. This can damage the skin, leading to possible infection.