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Dry scalp vs dandruff: Here’s how to spot the difference

Is it dandruff or dry scalp? If you're caught in this conundrum, know how to differentiate between both hair problems and how to treat them.
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Ways to increase melanin for premature greying. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock
Natalia Ningthoujam Published: 6 Oct 2023, 10:46 am IST
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If not oily hair, women tend to complain a lot about dandruff and dry scalp. These are common skin concerns that many women have. While dry scalp and dandruff may seem similar, they are different problems thanks to the way they look and feel. So how can you know the difference between them? Read on to find out the difference between dandruff and dry scalp.

What causes dry scalp

When there is a lack of moisture, often due to harsh weather conditions such as cold and dry air, your scalp can get dry, shares Dr Vijay Singhal, Senior dermatologist, Sri Balaji Action Medical Institute, Delhi.

dandruff problem
Is it dry scalp or dandruff? Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Here are some more reasons:

• Excessive washing with hot water and strong shampoos can strip the scalp of its natural oils, leading to dryness.
• Skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis may also contribute to a dry scalp, as they disrupt the skin’s natural barrier function.
• A poor diet lacking essential nutrients can play a role in dry scalp development.

What causes dandruff?

Dry scalp is more of a hydration issue whereas dandruff is primarily due to an overgrowth of a yeast-like fungus called Malassezia on the scalp. This overgrowth can result from an oily scalp, which provides an ideal environment for Malassezia to thrive, explains the expert.

Other factors that can contribute to dandruff include:

• Sensitivity to hair care products
• Infrequent shampooing
• Skin conditions like seborrheic dermatitis.

Dry scalp vs dandruff

To identify if you have a dry scalp or dandruff, you can look for the following:

1. Scalp flakes

Examine the flakes closely, and if they turn out to be small, white and dry, they are likely dandruff. If the flakes are larger and look more like dry skin, it may be a dry scalp issue.

2. Scalp moisture

Touch the scalp and see how it feels. A dry scalp often feels tight and lacks moisture, while dandruff is associated with excess oiliness and greasiness, says Dr Singhal.

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3. Itchiness

Do you find yourself scratching your head or feeling itchy on the scalp? Persistent itching is often a symptom of dandruff, whereas a dry scalp may or may not itch.

4. Flake adherence

Check how well the flakes adhere to the scalp. Dandruff flakes tend to stick to the hair shafts, while dry scalp flakes are more loosely attached and easily fall off.

Woman's hair
There are differences between dry scalp and dandruff. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

When in doubt, consult a dermatologist who can examine the scalp and tell you if it’s dry scalp or dandruff.

How to treat dandruff and dry scalp?

Treating dry scalp and dandruff also require different approaches. For dry scalp, focus on increasing moisture. Use a mild, moisturising shampoo and conditioner, avoid hot water, and reduce shampoo frequency. So, if you wash your hair every day, you need to stop doing that. Applying natural oils like coconut or jojoba to the scalp can also help to hydrate it. If you have skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis, you need to work towards their treatment to avoid dry scalp as well.

As for dandruff, it can be managed with medicated shampoos containing ingredients like zinc pyrithione, ketoconazole, selenium sulfide or salicylic acid. These kind of shampoos can help in controlling the overgrowth of Malassezia. Regular shampooing, but not every day, and maintaining good scalp hygiene are also essential.

The common thing in both cases is that you need to follow a balanced diet that is rich in vitamins and minerals.

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About the Author

Natalia Ningthoujam has written on various subjects - from music to films and fashion to lifestyle - as a journalist in her career that started in 2010. After getting stories from the crime scene, police headquarters, and conducting interviews with celebrities, she is now writing on health and wellness which has become her focus area. ...Read More

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