Do you often have a sudden urge to scratch your scalp? Do you sometimes find flakes falling on your shoulders? When you experience these issues, you might wonder if they are a result of dandruff or dry scalp.
Because the two terms are used interchangeably and share similar conditions and symptoms like white flakes and itchy scalp, many people get confused between dry scalp and dandruff. But when you observe closely, you will notice that dandruff and dry scalp have different characteristics.
In this article, let us discover these differences and discuss everything you need to learn about dandruff and dry scalp in order to provide your hair and scalp with the best care. The next time you have either of these conditions, you will be able to treat them the right way.
A dry scalp is caused when your scalp skin becomes dry and cannot produce enough oil to keep it moisturized. Result? You notice dry skin falling off like flakes. On the other side of the coin, dandruff is a condition that is linked to scalp imbalance, which results in the overproduction of skin cells. The shedding of the dead skin cells causes dandruff.
Considering the similar symptoms, it is pretty challenging to tell whether you have a dry scalp or dandruff. Worry not! We are here to help you. Let's get to know what dandruff and dry scalp really are.
It is common for animals and humans to shed skin and hair, known as "dander." When we shed skin, the dead skin cells are usually invisible and vanish into thin air. But, in the case of dandruff, these dead cells build upon the scalp's surface and start clustering. Eventually, the large white flakes accumulated on the scalp skin fall off and settle along the lengths of our hair. If you give the hair a little shake, it will rain the flakes on your shoulders. (1)
Dry skin is the culprit of dry scalp. When your scalp skin cannot produce or retain enough sebum or natural oils to keep it moisturized, it causes the top-most layer of the skin to dry out and crack. This eventually shed in the form of fine white flakes. (2)
Are dandruff and dry scalp similar? Now that you know that the answer is a big no, it is time to look at what causes these conditions and the proper ways to prevent and treat them. Learning the differences between dandruff and dry scalp and treating your scalp accordingly will help you manage and nourish your hair.
There might be many causes of dry scalp, but the cause of dandruff is much more straightforward.
The four leading causes of dandruff are -
Dandruff is often linked with dirty scalps and poor personal hygiene and can happen to anyone. It is usually caused by excess oil production and an overgrowth of fungus (particularly Malassezia sp) on the scalp. (3)
The abundance of hair follicles with sebaceous glands on the scalp produces large amounts of sebum. Excess sebum becomes an ideal environment for fungi to thrive in. And when this fungus pairs with more sebum, the microscopic ‘dander’ that normally sloughs off unnoticed gets to stick together in clumps. These clumps present themselves as tiny white flakes known as ‘dandruff’.
Some growth of fungi is totally normal and is typically controlled by the immune system. When this fungus starts to truly get out of control (which can happen when there is more oil on the scalp, even more fungi gets formed), it starts accumulating on your scalp. This triggers hypersensitivity leading to itching, further flaking, and even redness.
When dandruff becomes severe, it can cause skin cells to grow more quickly than usual. This results in persistent itching, heavier flakes, and more noticeable inflammation.
While the fungi are the main culprit of dandruff, stress can take a significant toll on your scalp health as well. The stress can be psychological (for instance, relationship trouble, work deadlines, etc.) or physical stress (like fighting an illness, having surgery, cold, or being run down).
Now that you have an idea of how dandruff is caused, you might be questioning whether that is what you are dealing with after all. It is prevalent to consider dandruff as the result of an itchy, dry scalp, but in reality, it can be a different thing.
This is why it is good to know what causes a dry scalp as well. This way you can evaluate your symptoms and determine which condition you are dealing with before considering the treatment options. The following are the leading causes of dry scalp. (4)
A dry scalp occurs the same way dry skin appears. When your skin is unable to produce a sufficient amount of oil to keep it moisturized, it leads to drying. Therefore it is vital to use hair care products that hydrate your strands without stripping them off from natural moisture. Climatic conditions, low levels of humidity, and high levels of cold or heat can lead to dry scalp. Excessive sun exposure can also make the scalp dry.
Now you know that the causes of dandruff and dry scalp are pretty different. It is essential to know the signs of each condition to get a proper diagnosis.
The symptoms and conditions of dry scalp and dandruff are similar. You might experience visible yellow or white flakes falling from the hair onto the shoulders and an itchy scalp. But when you closely observe, you can see the differences. (5)
The symptoms of dandruff include -
The symptoms of dry scalp are similar to those of dry skin on the body. This means the scalp feels tight and looks ashy. Other symptoms of the dry scalp may also include -
Note: Both dandruff and dry scalp are non-contagious.
Now that you have diagnosed your condition, it is time to treat and prevent it from occurring again. If you think you have dandruff, then this section is for you. But if you have a dry scalp, feel free to move over to the following section.
Use an over-the-counter medicated shampoo that is specially made to treat dandruff. These shampoos generally contain salicylic acid, zinc pyrithione, ketoconazole, or selenium sulfide, which work to decrease fungus and oil accumulated on the scalp.
The foods rich in Omega 3 help regulate the production of the oil. This, in turn, helps reduce the fungal growth and flaking.
Did you think Vitamin D can help slow down the rapid skin cell growth rate? Rapid skin cell growth is a factor in more extreme cases of dandruff and psoriasis. Therefore, Vitamin D supplements can help prevent dandruff from occurring. (6)
Since Tea tree oil is anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial, it is a great choice to rebalance the scalp. Thankfully, multiple hair care products contain Tea tree oil as the main ingredient in the market. Choose the best one and use it regularly.
As high levels of stress trigger dandruff and excessive flaking, you always need to find ways to relieve your stress. And the best way to deal with stress is to meditate or exercise regularly. Remember, the calmer you are, the less likely you will have dandruff.
If you have a dry scalp, this is your guide to treating and preventing it.
Swap your harsh shampoos and conditioners for ultra-gentle ones to avoid any kind of irritation and itchiness from a dry scalp. When choosing gentle hair care products, look for those that are free of fragrances and veer towards soothing and hydrating ingredients like oat milk, Aloe Vera, etc.
There are hundreds of products available in the market that contain alcohol as the main ingredient. Ensure the products you choose for your daily hair care routine do not contain alcohol in the first five to ten elements. Your scalp will thank you later.
If you shampoo more frequently, you will wash away your scalp's natural oils down the drain. You should always wash your hair no more than every other day with lukewarm water and a gentle shampoo. Lukewarm water is a must as it hydrates your scalp. The hotter the water, the drier your scalp becomes, and cold water is not very suitable for removing the hair's dirt and grime.
One of the leading causes of having a dry scalp is the climate you live in. If you live in super dry regions or if it is the driest times of the year (summer or winter), a humidifier will help pump a little moisture back into your environment.
There are millions of products available on the market claiming to treat and prevent dandruff and dry scalp, but you have to understand that not all of them are worth trying. Always look for products that are natural, don't do any harm to skin, environment, and animals, and are of high quality.
If you are in a dilemma of what to pick, below are the best products from Kama Ayurveda that can help treat your condition without further damage. All of Kama Ayurveda's hair care products are natural and organic. They contain a rich blend of essential ingredients and follow the 5000-year-old science of Ayurveda.
The following are the best products to treat and prevent dandruff from occurring effectively.
Bringadi Intensive Hair Treatment Oil is an all-in-one hair treatment oil that helps with dandruff, hair fall, and premature greying. It restores and nurtures your damaged hair back to its health.
The secret to this intensive hair treatment oil is its traditional Ayurvedic recipe that consists of potent herbs extracted into pure milk and sesame oil. The oil also includes hair nourishing ingredients like Eclipta Alba, Gooseberry, and indigo. The oil's antibacterial Balloon Vine and anti-fungal Licorice help prevent scalp infections.
The earthy scent of this natural conditioner has a calming and meditative effect that helps soothe frayed nerves while lifting the mood and aiding in a good night's sleep.
Kama Ayurveda's Bringadi Hair Cleanser is a repairing, nourishing, and volumizing hair cleanser that is clinically proven to reduce dandruff flakes, hair fall, and oily scalp.
Take a small amount of the Bringadi Hair Cleanser and apply it to your wet scalp and hair. Massage it for a few minutes before washing it off with lukewarm water.
Below are the best products from Kama Ayurveda that can help keep dry scalp at bay.
Kama Ayurveda's Lavender Patchouli Hair Cleanser helps soothe and calm the dry and damaged scalp and hair. It naturally nourishes and protects your manes while cleansing deeply.
The Hibiscus extracts in the herbal formula help nourish the scalp and hair while adding back moisture and replenishing the scalp for a softer and smoother texture. The Lavender essential oil helps in calming and soothing scalp irritations and infections. The Patchouli essential oil in the cleanser acts as a natural antiseptic, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory agent to repair dry and damaged scalp.
The Lavender Patchouli Hair Conditioner is a luxurious conditioner that retexturizes and revitalizes dry and damaged scalp & hair. The rich formula helps in transforming the dry and brittle hair by sealing in essential ingredients and lipids that can continually hydrate and nourish your scalp & hair.
The conditioner is a rich blend of Indian Gooseberry, Almonds, and Soy extracts that helps in both maintaining moisture and protecting your manes from daily stresses and further damage. The Lavender oil soothes and calms the scalp from irritation and infections. The refreshing Patchouli in the conditioner will act as a natural anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and antibacterial to actively repair scalp damage. Result - Beautiful, healthy, and shiny hair with no dry scalp, irritation, and white flakes.
You should visit a doctor if the condition persists despite taking precautions and treatments. Suppose your situation doesn't improve and keeps getting worse, or the scalp skin appears swollen and red. In that case, you should immediately visit a dermatologist.
Understanding the differences between dandruff and dry scalp is essential as it helps in finding the right hair care product to give you relief from the frustrating flakes and itching. To nourish and care for your scalp and hair while keeping an eye out for any symptoms of dry flakes and dandruff before they cause any further damage and severe problems.
Shreya Dalela is a certified Yoga instructor and a professional dancer trained at The Danceworx. She’s passionate about Ayurveda and holistic living with over 6 years of experience in doing extensive research and content creation in the domain.
Certified Ayurvedic Doctor (Central Council of Indian Medicine) working in Kama Ayurveda as an Assistant Training Manager.