Dandruff or Dry Scalp Really what are Those Flakes?

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Dandruff or Dry Scalp

Last updated 04/18/2021

We are so quick to think of those flakes falling on our shoulders as dandruff. It can be a cause for embarrassment or just an annoying condition. But it can also be just dry scalp and they are not one in the same, confusing huh?

Dandruff and dry scalp are harmless and not contagious however having these conditions can be a nuance.

 This website is for informational purposes and not for diagnosis. More details.

Other factors can lead to dandruff. Males tend to be effected more than females. It mostly occurs in teens to middle age. Skin conditions can cause flaking of the scalp. The symptoms for dry scalp and dandruff are pretty much the same. So let’s clear this up.

What are the Differences between Dandruff and Dry Scalp?

Mainly they have the same symptoms but they are two different conditions. If you have dry scalp your skin there lacks moisture becoming irritated and flakes fall. Concerning dandruff there is too much oil involved on your scalp with it being over produced causing skin cells to buildup and shed.

Knowing this difference between conditions will help with selecting the correct treatment.

Causes for Dry Scalp

Due to the skins lack of moisture your scalp becomes dry causing irritation (itching) and flakes. When your scalp is dry other areas of your skin such as arms and legs could also be dry.

Dry scalp can also be caused by factors including:

  • Cold, dry air such as winter and when we are using heat
  • Contact dermatitis may occur if you have a sensitivity to certain hair care products you use
  • Aging process

Causes for Dandruff

Primarily dandruff is caused by seborrheic dermatitis. This condition makes your skin oily, red and scaly. These white or yellow scales flake off, resulting with dandruff.

Any area where you have sebaceous glands seborrheic dermatitis can develop; eyebrows, groin, armpits and even the sides of your nose. This is referred to as cradle cap on the scalp of babies.

Usually, malassezia (fungus) triggers dandruff. Malassezia normally is found on your scalp. In some people though there is an excess that causes skin cells to multiply faster than they should.

Factors that lead to malassezia multiplying:

Dirty hair is not a cause for dandruff but if you aren’t shampooing enough, the oil here builds up and contributes to flaking of the scalp.

You can look at the appearance of the flake to determine if its dry scalp versus dandruff. The flakes with dandruff are bigger and oily while with dry scalp they are smaller. With cradle cap seen in babies, the scalp appears scaly or crusty. Both dry scalp and dandruff can cause an itchy scalp.

Dandruff or Dry Scalp
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from pexels

Symptoms for Dry Scalp

  • Smaller, dry flakes
  • Itchy scalp
  • Other areas of body also have dry skin

Symptoms for Dandruff

  • Oily, large yellow or white flakes
  • Itchy scalp
  • Oily, scaly red skin

How is Dandruff Formed?

Malassezia is a fungus that is fat dependent feeding on the oils secreted by our hair follicles. Normally it resides where we have sebaceous glands on our skin such as our scalp, face and upper trunk.

Sebaceous glands that are connected to our hair follicles release sebum (a fatty material). The sebum (oil) released into the hair follicle duct travels to the surface of your skin responsible to keep it moist. You have the largest number of these glands on your scalp and face.

But you won’t find these glands on the palms of your hands or soles of your feet. More sebum may be produced due to a diet high in fats and chronic stress.

It usually isn’t a problem but for some people their immune system overreacts. Malassezia has been found to possibly cause or make some skin conditions worse which leads to the scalp becoming irritated and making more skin cells.

These excess skin cells then die and fall off while mixing with the oil of our hair and scalp. This is how dandruff is formed.

Conditions that Cause Flaking on Scalp

  • Psoriasis
  • Eczema
  • Ringworm
  • Contact dermatitis

Dandruff Linked to other Skin Conditions

Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis occurs due to sensitivity when using certain hair care products. This is due to an allergic reaction to one or more of the ingredients. You may notice a rash developing or an itching sensation that won’t go away. When this happens stop using the product and consult your dermatologist.

Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is closely linked to the malassezia fungus found on our scalp. This is due to an increase with the amount and quality of sebum produced. It is commonly linked to these other conditions:

  • Scalp psoriasis
  • HIV
  • Acne
  • Rosacea
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Eating disorders
  • Obesity

Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema)

Atopic dermatitis usually is seen in teenagers and may last throughout life.

Treatment for Dry Scalp and Dandruff

For dry scalp:

For dry scalp use a gentle shampoo to clean your hair than apply a light moisturizer like aloe vera, jojoba oil or coconut oil. When you shower this off the next morning the flakes should be gone.

For dandruff:

Dandruff can be relieved through shampooing and brushing. However, shampooing too often can make your scalp even drier, especially if you are using a shampoo with alcohol as an ingredient. There are many products on the market from mild to medicated shampoos.  So be careful and choose a shampoo that is made for dandruff.

African Americans should shampoo with dandruff shampoo once a week.

White and Asians should shampoo daily make sure to use a dandruff shampoo twice a week.

Dandruff can’t be cured but you can manage and treat it.

Brushing or combing can help with the normal shedding of the skin. You are lubricating your scalp with its natural oils and moving the shed skin along.

Dandruff or Dry Scalp
Photo by Jonas Androx from pexels

Ingredients to search for in shampoo:

Ketoconazole is an antifungal that can be used for any age

Selenium Sulfide assists in managing dandruff by decreasing sebaceous glands production of oils. Also includes antifungal qualities.

Zinc pyrithione interferes with the growth of yeast

Coal tar is a natural antifungal decreasing the production of skin cells. However with extended use may stain dyed or treated hair. Also coal tar can increase scalp sensitivity to sunlight, a hat should be worn outdoors to cover and protect your scalp. In high does it may be carcinogenic.

Salicylic acid can get rid of increased skin cells

Tea tree oil is used a lot these days in shampoos as well as other products. My boyfriend has the oil to moisturize his scalp because he tends to scratch and form scabs. It works well and he likes it a lot.

However some can have an allergic reaction and you should do a patch test before trying. Tea tree has been used as an anti-fungal, antibiotic and an antiseptic. These are its healing properties.

Wrapping it up

If the condition doesn’t go away with over the counter shampoos consult your dermatologist. This doctor will be able to help you further by diagnosing the condition and creating a treatment plan. Seborrheic dermatitis, eczema and psoriasis can look similar.

There are many products available to help with these scalp conditions. You may have to dig a bit deeper if shampoo is not working. There may be an underlying cause or factor.

Do you have either a dry scalp or dandruff? If so, what is working?

Please share and subscribe to email, thanks!

Header Photo by Dana Tentis from pexels

Mary is the founder of All About Our Skin. Former esthetician and CPC. Enjoys researching skincare and has been studying our skin for the past fourteen years.
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