Our Guide To The Differences Between Dandruff And Dry Scalp (& How To Treat Both)

There's nothing quite like the annoyance and frustration that comes from a flaky scalp. You pay to get a flattering haircut, lather up in the shower with a seemingly-perfect wash routine, and take the time to meticulously style your hair to look its best. But you're still left with itchiness and flakes that form on the top of your head. Luckily, you're not alone in this struggle. According to a study in the International Journal of Trichology, dandruff is prevalent in up to half of the global population — yet proper treatment methods and our understanding of this phenomenon are still lagging behind.


Because of this, many people are left to try out a slew of products in the hunt to find one that actually lessens or prevents their symptoms. For some, however, this mission might seem futile. Despite their similar appearances and frequent interchangeable use, dandruff and dry scalp are two separate issues that require two different sets of treatments. By nailing down which one you're facing, you'll be able to accurately treat the problem at hand — and guarantee you'll be left with a flake-free scalp.

What is dandruff?

Technically, dandruff is a symptom, not a condition itself. However, it's most commonly used to refer to the flaking on the scalp that happens as the result of a skin condition like seborrheic dermatitis, a more scientific name for eczema on the scalp. The exact cause of seborrheic dermatitis isn't known. But (according to Mayo Clinic) it's speculated that it has something to do with an overgrowth of yeast, excess oil production, or immune issues.


If you're dealing with dandruff as the result of seborrheic dermatitis, your issues are likely chronic or year-round. Changes in weather, stress levels, and your wash routine might impact the amount of flaking you deal with, but for the most part, your condition is something that's consistent until you find a treatment method that works for you. This condition is what most medicated shampoos are catered towards. But if you're not seeing results, you might be facing a dry scalp.

What is dry scalp?

When the winter months roll around, the humidity in the air drops, leaving us with chapped lips, parched hands — and, yes, dry scalps. If you're heavily affected by wintertime skin concerns and frequently experience flaky skin on your face as a result, it's likely that the same issues will translate to your scalp. It's possible to experience both dandruff as the result of seborrheic dermatitis and a dry scalp, But if moisture is your only issue, your flakiness will likely only appear seasonally or with the use of drying products.


If you find yourself spending a lot of time in the sun, you could also face issues in the warmer months. Many people seem to overlook the scalp as a kind of skin because it's so well-covered, but exposure to UV rays can cause the same kind of burns, dryness, and subsequent flaking you see in a regular sunburn. Because of this, many people assume their dandruff is chronic when it pops up later in the year. But if you can point to a direct cause, it's likely a dry scalp that's causing issues.

How to treat dandruff

When it comes to treating dandruff, you have quite a few options, but the most common choice is investing in a medicated dandruff shampoo. These shampoos usually contain anti-fungal agents that can stop the cause of flaking and discomfort at the source. It's recommended to use these medicated shampoos up to three times a week to decrease symptoms, though, if you have a drier scalp, it might be a good idea to scale back your use to avoid creating more problems. If your shampoo works at first then flakes start coming back, you can alternate between brands with different active ingredients to maintain their effectiveness.


Other treatment methods for dandruff include getting enough zinc, healthy fats, and B vitamins in your diet, and working to lower stress to prevent uncomfortable flare-ups. It's also a good idea to cut back on the number of products you're using that can cause excess oil and buildup along the scalp — especially if you experience dandruff with oily hair.

How to treat dry scalp

When it comes to a dry scalp, anti-fungal agents found in medicated shampoos likely won't do you any favors. Instead, it's important to focus on injecting moisture back into your hair and scalp through the use of moisturizing shampoos, conditioners, masks, and oils. If you routinely use a clarifying shampoo or something that contains sulfates during the other months of the year, consider switching to something that's sulfate-free and contains ingredients like coconut oil or hyaluronic acid to lock in moisture. If this is a recurring issue during the chillier months, investing in a humidifier to keep the moisture level in your home a bit higher could benefit both your scalp and your sinuses.


For people that face a dry scalp after sun exposure, all you really need to do is wear a hat or use a hair protectant that contains SPF, like the Sun Bum Scalp & Hair Mist. By taking a closer look at when you face flare-ups and which treatment methods work for you, you'll be able to avoid unnecessary products that only worsen your issues and drain your bank account. And you'll have a flake-free scalp sooner rather than later.