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Is It Dandruff or Dry Scalp?

Is It Dandruff or Dry Scalp?

Winter is nearly here. As the temperatures continue to drop, your skin is likely becoming drier. You might even be noticing more flakes in your hair – but are those flakes due to simple dry skin or to dandruff? What is the difference?

Dry Scalp

A dry scalp occurs when the scalp does not have enough oil for the skin to feel properly lubricated. Like nearly all forms of dry skin, this can cause itching, flaking, and irritation. It can also cause the hair itself to look dry and even brittle.

People with dry skin are, naturally, more prone to dry scalp. This means that many of the things that cause dry skin can also cause dry scalp, including:

  • Certain skin conditions, like eczema
  • Excessive washing
  • Dry air, particularly during the winter months


Your scalp, like the rest of your skin, sheds dead skin cells. Dandruff occurs when this process speeds up. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, researchers don’t fully understand what causes dandruff.

Potential causes of dandruff include:

  • Sensitivity to certain hair products
  • Oils secreted by the scalp
  • Fungal infections of the scalp

Symptoms of dandruff vs. dry scalp


Treatment for Dry Scalp

Most cases of dry scalp can easily be treated at home. Remedies include:

  • Drinking more water
  • Using a humidifier in your home
  • Shampooing less frequently, or using a moisturizing shampoo

Treatment for Dandruff

Most cases of dandruff can be treated without seeing a doctor. If you have dandruff, be sure to use anti-dandruff shampoo regularly. Anti-dandruff shampoos are classified according to the medication they contain:

Pyrithione zinc shampoos (DermaZinc, Head & Shoulders, Jason Dandruff Relief 2 in 1). These contain the antibacterial and antifungal agent zinc pyrithione.

Tar-based shampoos (Neutrogena T/Gel). Coal tar slows how quickly skin cells on your scalp die and flake off. If you have light-colored hair, this type of shampoo may cause discoloration. It can also make the scalp more sensitive to sunlight.

Shampoos containing salicylic acid (Neutrogena T/Sal, Baker’s P & S, others). These products help eliminate scale.

Selenium sulfide shampoos (Head & Shoulders Intensive, Selsun Blue, others). These contain an antifungal agent. Use these products as directed and rinse well after shampooing, as they can discolor the hair and scalp.

Ketoconazole shampoos (Nizoral A-D). This shampoo is intended to kill dandruff-causing fungi that live on your scalp. It’s available over-the-counter or by prescription.

If one type of shampoo works for a time and then seems to lose its effectiveness, try alternating between two types of dandruff shampoos.

When to See a Doctor

If the remedies above do not help improve your condition, then it is possible that you are suffering from scalp psoriasis – a condition caused by an autoimmune disorder.

If you know you have an autoimmune disorder or chronic illness, you should talk to your doctor before treating dandruff. Symptoms that resemble dandruff may be due to another condition, and a weakened immune system increases the chances that a scalp condition will quickly get worse.