Dry Scalp vs Dandruff

Both dandruff and dry scalp can cause the scalp to flake, but do you know the difference between the two? If you have flaking and itching on your scalp, understanding what condition is causing your symptoms will help you to find the most suitable treatment. Keep reading to find out how the cause, appearance and treatment options differ between dry scalp and dandruff.

How does dandruff occur?

Malassezia is thought to be the primary cause of dandruff which causes the skin shedding process to speed up. There are a number of factors that can influence this reaction, including stress and hormone changes. Though Malassezia occurs naturally on the scalp and other sebaceous areas, in some cases an overgrowth or overreaction causes the skin to shed more quickly. In turn, this can lead to flaking, itchiness and irritation.

How does dry scalp occur?

Dryness on the scalp can occur when there isn’t enough natural oil on the scalp. As a result, the skin becomes dry and can flake off. Some people may experience itchiness and irritation alongside the dryness. If you tend to have dry skin on other areas of your body, you may be more prone to dry scalp.

The most common reasons for dry scalp can be categorised into internal and external factors:

How does the appearance of dry skin differ from dandruff?

If you are unsure whether you have dandruff or dry scalp, taking a closer look at the scalp may help.

Dandruff will usually appear as larger, oily flakes of skin, which are white or yellow in colour. It's an oily condition, as Malassezia thrives on natural oils. A dry scalp will typically have much smaller, dry flakes of skin.

How can dandruff be treated?

Most cases of dandruff can be treated at home with a dandruff shampoo to control the itching and flaking. Dandruff shampoos usually have a key ingredient to treat the condition. Ketoconazole, for example, targets the fungus Malassezia to treat the root cause, as well as the symptoms.
Nizoral Dandruff Shampoo contains ketoconazole and is available from a variety of retailers.

Lifestyle factors that may trigger dandruff can be managed by making small day to day changes:

  • Gently massage the scalp when washing to loosen flakes.
  • Eat a balanced diet containing vitamins and minerals, such as zinc and vitamin D.
  • Take time to look after your mental health and manage stress.

How can dry scalp be treated? 

Symptoms of a dry scalp can easily be treated at home without the need to visit a doctor. Using a gentle shampoo and a moisturising conditioner will help to keep the scalp moisturised. It’s also important to avoid long hot showers, as this can dry the skin out and cause itchiness or irritation.

Both dandruff and a dry scalp can be easily treated at home with some small alterations to routine and lifestyle. Although they may look similar, treating a dry scalp as you would dandruff will not relieve the symptoms. If you are unsure about the cause of your flaky scalp or the treatment needed it might be best to consult your local pharmacist or GP.