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Dandruff vs Dry Scalp



If you’ve ever suddenly noticed the appearance of flakes of skin on your scalp, you’ve probably also had to confront the age-old question: is this dandruff or dry scalp? The terms are often used interchangeably (though it seems more common to refer to any scalp flaking as “dandruff” in general) but there are two very different culprits in what causes either skin condition — too much oil, and not enough moisture.


Dandruff (thought to be a mild form of seborrheic dermatitis) is an anti-inflammatory response to excessive build up of oil on the scalp, resulting in redness, itchiness and an oily, flaky scalp. It’s an extremely common skin condition that will affect around half of the population at some point in their lives, but it can still make people feel self-conscious over an inflamed, itchy scalp with visible scaly flaking. So while dandruff is your body’s way of responding to the buildup of oil on your scalp, a dry scalp is a sign that your skin is flaking away because it’s not getting enough moisture. 


Causes of dandruff and dry scalp

Let’s talk dandruff vs dry scalp. While both dandruff and dry scalp can leave your head looking flaky, there are some distinct differences in what causes these skin issues in the first place.


Causes of dandruff

  • Overactive sebaceous glands — The sebaceous glands in your skin are responsible for the production of sebum, which are the natural oils that keep your hair and skin nourished and healthy. Sebum coats, moisturizes and protects your skin, but too much can result in unwanted build up on your hair and scalp. This can also result in hair follicles being clogged, inhibiting hair growth and scalp health. The excessive amount of oil from overactive sebaceous glands will irritate the scalp, leading to the trademark greasy dandruff flakes.
  • Fungal growthMalassezia yeast is found in small amounts on your skin; normally this isn’t a problem, but too much of it will cause your skin cells to multiply more quickly than usual, which results in irritation and a scalp infection. And your scalp’s reaction to the infection is to flake off, resulting in dandruff.
  • Stress — We know that stress is bad for your body and mental health in general, but surprisingly it can also be a cause of dandruff. One of the causes of overproduction of Malassezia yeast is due to your immune system being compromised, which is what stress can do to your body. So to fight dandruff (and just have an overall better sense of physical and mental well-being) try to keep your stress levels to a minimum! 
  • Hair care products — Using hair products that don’t cooperate with your scalp (or don’t properly combat issues with excessive oil production) can lead to irritation and dandruff flakes. And while irritation from hair care products can be an issue, so can the types of products themselves. There’s a chance that the flaking you’re seeing on your scalp is not actually dandruff, but just product buildup and residue from things like certain gels, mousses, or strong-hold hairsprays. To know for sure, wash your hair with a gentle shampoo (specifically a clarifying shampoo) to remove any product residue — if you’re still noticing an inflamed scalp and white flakes, then it’s probably dandruff.


MOMO moisturizing hair products Davines

photo by @goldandglowco


Causes of dry scalp

  • Inability to produce or retain moisture — Dry skin occurs when your skin either can’t produce enough moisturizing elements or retain what moisturizing factors come in. Many people deal with naturally dry skin, and the flaking seen on dry scalps is a result of this inability to hydrate adequately.
  • Excessive washing — The main purpose of shampooing your hair is to trap and remove excessive oil, dead skin cells and product residue from your hair and scalp. But if you’re washing your hair too frequently, you run the risk of stripping your hair of essential oils that are needed to keep it hydrated, shiny and healthy. In general, those with fine, thin hair will need to shampoo their hair more frequently than those with thick or curly hair, who can sometimes even get away with washing just once a week. For more information on how often to wash your hair, be sure to check out our past blog post.
  • Irritation from hair care products — Just like with dandruff, using the wrong hair care products can also be a trigger to cause a dry, flaking scalp. If your scalp is lacking moisture and you’re not using hair moisturizing products, it’s only going to make the problem worse.
  • Sunburn— No one likes getting a sunburn, but an often overlooked spot to apply sunscreen is your scalp! Unless you’re wearing proper head protection or using hair products with SPF, there’s a chance you’ll sunburn your scalp, leading to dry, flaking skin.
  • Environmental factors and climate — Environmental factors can have a huge impact on the dryness of your skin: things like temperature fluctuation and humidity can play with your skin’s moisture levels, which is a main reason why people often experience issues with drier skin as we head into the cold, low-humidity winter months.


Prevention and treatment for dandruff and dry scalp

Dandruff treatment

If you’re wondering how to treat dandruff, you’re in luck: there are a lot of simple lifestyle and hair product switches that can soothe and help prevent future dandruff breakouts from appearing on your scalp.


  • Try a medicated shampoo — Just like how you’d get a prescription from the doctor to cure any health issues, you should also consider customized scalp care for things like excessive oiliness and dandruff. Use dandruff products for your hair and scalp to combat the issue at the source: some contain coal tar, selenium sulfide, or are rich in antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties, an anti-dandruff shampoo will help soothe your irritated scalp and deal with any other issues like flaking and oiliness.
  • Adjust your diet — They say you are what you eat, and your diet can have a big impact on the health and condition of your skin, even on your scalp. High-carb and sugary foods can lead to the buildup of glycogen on the skin, which is a sugar that yeast feeds on. This increased food source can lead to overproduction of yeast, which is a main cause of dandruff. There are also specific vitamins and nutrients that you should be looking to add into your diet. Foods rich in omega-3s (like salmon) can help regulate oil production in your skin, which will reduce one of the main causes of dandruff. And according to the American Academy of Dermatology, vitamin D is known to help slow the rate of skin growth, which is another culprit behind skin irritation and dandruff.
  • Tea tree oil— If you’re interested in trying an at-home remedy, tea tree oil can be effective in dealing with dandruff. Not only has it been shown to help reduce overgrowth of yeast, but it also soothes the symptoms of dandruff, eczema or scalp psoriasis such as itchiness, irritation and oiliness. To try tea tree oil on your scalp, add a few drops to your favorite shampoo (5-10), shake up the bottle and shampoo as usual.
  • Meditation — We know that higher stress levels are a contributing factor to an irritated scalp and dandruff, so we encourage you to either engage in weekly exercise or control your stress levels through meditation. Be sure to also check out our blog post on our favorite stress-management activities that can help you find some inner peace (and a healthier scalp).

Davines purifying gel anti dandruff

photo by @goldandglowco


Dry scalp treatment

  • Try a pre-shampoo scalp treatment — Let’s address this question you probably have: “what is pre-poo?” “Pre-poo,” an abbreviation of “pre-shampoo,” refers to a protective treatment that you apply to your hair as the first step in your shower routine before shampoo or conditioner. This can be an amazing choice for anyone dealing with a dry scalp, since it allows you to restore lost moisture and bring targeted attention to the source. You can use a nourishing hair butter, hair oil or DIY recipe, but it just needs to be a product that will have a moisturizing, restorative effect on your hair. 
  • Swap in a moisturizing shampoo and conditioner — The best way to restore lost moisture is to pick the right shampoo and conditioner! Choose hair moisturizing products that will reset the moisture levels on your hair and scalp, reversing dryness and helping to prevent any flakes.
  • Avoid products with alcohol — Hair products that contain alcohol as a main ingredient can strip your hair and scalp of essential moisture, so avoid these if you’re dealing with excessive dryness.
  • Wash your hair less often — We’ve already discussed how overwashing your hair can result in the overproduction of oil, but it can similarly exacerbate any issues with dry hair and scalp. Everytime you shampoo you’re washing your skin’s essential oils away, which are necessary to retain the optimum moisture levels and barrier on your skin. If you do have to shampoo your hair frequently, consider swapping in a delicate shampoo instead of your usual choice.
  • Try using a humidifier — Since dry hair and scalp can be the result of a more low-humidity environment that sucks essential moisture out of the air, consider investing in a humidifier. This will allow you to control the amount of humidity in your house, depending on your personal hair needs.


While dandruff and dry scalp can often be confused for one another, they have very different causes: too much oil, and not enough moisture in your hair and scalp. Luckily there are many different simple swaps and lifestyle changes you can make to ensure that the optimum moisture and oil levels are maintained, meaning no more flaking or irritation. But some scalp conditions may require special care; always remember to consult your dermatologist if you’re experiencing severe irritation or skin issues, as they can help if you have a medical condition that needs over the counter medication. And if you have any additional suggestions for dandruff and dry skin treatments that have worked for you in the past, be sure to let us know in the comments!


By Lauren Hannel, staff contributor

cover photo by @goldandglowco

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