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How Can You Distinguish Between Dandruff and a Dry Scalp?

by LeAnn Cyr |

Having a dry, flaky scalp that itches all the time can be embarrassing at the very least and in some extreme cases, painful too. What's causing that scalp itch? Two of the most common causes are a dry scalp and dandruff. The two scalp conditions are common, and you might assume you have one when you have the other. How do the two differ? 


What Causes Dandruff?  


Both dandruff and dry scalp can leave patches of irritated skin on your scalp and lead to an itchy flaky scalp. However, the cause of each disease differs. Dandruff is a form of seborrheic dermatitis. This common "scaly" skin condition is brought on by a fungus called Malassezia. This fungus is a "commensal," an organism that resides in your scalp, but often stays silent unless conditions like the amount of oil on the scalp change. 


Sometimes Malassezia begins to grow faster to the point where too many of these tiny fungi live in your scalp. That's when they can cause trouble. When you have dandruff, your scalp becomes red and flaky. When you comb your hair, and even when you don't, white, yellow, or gray flakes fall from your scalp. Your scalp may also have an oily feeling and feel itchy. 


What Causes a Dry Scalp?  


A dry scalp may flake and feel itchy, like dandruff, but a fungus doesn't cause a dry scalp. Instead, it comes from a moisturize-starved scalp and may be triggered by hormonal changes. Some hormones affect how much oil the glands in your scalp produce. Aging is also a factor. Some women develop a dry, itchy scalp after menopause, as the oil glands in their scalp produce less oil. 


Lifestyle factors affect whether your scalp is dry and itchy too. If you go outside in the cold without a hat, the cold air can trigger scalp dryness and itchy. If you have a dry, itchy scalp, ask whether you're using a new shampoo, conditioner, or hair styling product. The ingredients in some hair products can dry out your scalp and cause flaking. 


How Can You Distinguish Between Dandruff and a Dry Scalp?  


Is it dandruff or a dry scalp? It's not foolproof, but you can get some idea by the size of the flakes. If your scalp flakes are tiny, you're probably suffering from a dry scalp. But if you see big flakes coming off your scalp when you brush, dandruff is possible. Plus, if it's a dry scalp, you're likely to have dry skin elsewhere on your body too, and your hair may be dry and brittle as well. 


Treating Dry Scalp vs. Dandruff  


The difference between dandruff and a dry scalp is dandruff is a medical condition caused by a fungus. A variety of factors can trigger or worsen it. These include:


  • Stress  
  • An oily scalp (Malasezzia thrive on oil)  
  • Hot or cold weather  
  • Sun exposure  
  • Hair Care products  
  • Changes to your immune system  


A dry scalp often responds to measures that reduce scalp dryness. These include: 


  • Shampoo less often  
  • Using a shampoo and condition made for dry hair and scalp  
  • Avoiding chlorinated pools  
  • Limiting sun exposure to your scalp  
  • Wearing a hat when you go outside in the winter  
  • Eliminating hair products that contain alcohol (too drying)  
  • Adding a home humidifier to increase the moisture content of the air in your home  


Dandruff is unlikely to respond to these measures. To rid your scalp of dandruff, you have to fight the Malassezia fungus that causes it. One way to do this is to use a medicated shampoo for dandruff. These shampoos contain ingredients that fight fungi and reduce oil production. If you use these shampoos regularly and as directed, you should see a reduction in flaking and oiliness. The best approach is to switch your current shampoo for a medicated shampoo twice per week. 


Also, make sure you're shampooing enough that oil isn't building up on your scalp and promoting the growth of the Malassezia fungus. Also, keep your immune system healthy and manage stress, since stress can trigger outbreaks of dandruff too. Simple techniques like yoga, meditation, and spending time in nature are good stress relievers. 


The Bottom Line  


A dry scalp and dandruff are two different entities and won't respond to the same treatments. The size of the flakes can be one clue. Dandruff usually gives larger flakes than a dry scalp, where the flakes are tiny. If you make changes and your symptoms persist, a consultation with a dermatologist is your best bet.

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