Do I have dandruff or a dry scalp?

Dandruff is a common condition that causes a dry itchy scalp. Dry scalp happens when your skin doesn't hold enough moisture. Dry scalp is typically caused by dandruff, but it can be a symptom of another condition.
Dandruff is a common condition that causes a dry itchy scalp. Dry scalp happens when your skin doesn't hold enough moisture. Dry scalp is typically caused by dandruff, but it can be a symptom of another condition.

About 50 million Americans have dandruff, and they spend relatively $300 million dollars on treatments for their scalp to ease itching and flaking. Dandruff is typically a mild condition that needs to be treated with proper shampoo, but it can leave flakes on your clothing that may negatively impact your self-esteem.

Dry scalp is a symptom of dandruff, because dandruff damages the skin on the surface of your scalp. This causes dryness and irritation. Dry scalp is typically caused by dandruff, but it can be a symptom of another condition.

What is dandruff vs. dry scalp?

Dandruff and dry scalp make your head feel itchy and irritated. If your symptoms are severe, you may scratch your scalp causing redness or small sores. Picking at your scalp can worsen your infection and infect your hair follicles.

What is dandruff?

Dandruff occurs when your scalp is dry and itchy. If you have dandruff, you may see little white flakes of your scalp in your hair or on your clothing. Using a dandruff shampoo or scalp treatment can help manage skin flaking. 

Dandruff is a very common and mild condition. It is not something that can be spread from person to person. If you have darker hair, you may be more likely to notice the flakes than people with light colored hair. The flakes range in color from light white to yellow. 

What is a dry scalp?

You may notice you have a dry scalp if your head is often itchy. The constant scratching can be accompanied by dandruff, soreness, and hair loss. Dry scalp is a symptom of many different causes. The most common cause is changing weather or harsh ingredients in your hair care products. 

Dry scalp happens when your scalp doesn’t hold enough moisture. Your scalp needs oil to keep it moist. Your hair can also look dry because the oil conditions your hair. If you have dry skin, you might be more prone to a dry scalp.

What are symptoms and signs of dandruff vs. dry scalp?

Dandruff and dry scalp can be related, and their symptoms can look very similar. Dandruff or a dry scalp can develop over time.

Dandruff symptoms

Dandruff happens when dead cells stick together because of surface debris and oil in your hair. The symptoms include: 

  • Flakes of dead skin
  • Itching
  • Irritation
  • Tight or dry feeling scalp

Dry scalp symptoms

If you have a dry scalp, you may experience some of these common symptoms: 

  • Skin flaking 
  • Tight-feeling scalp
  • Itching
  • Redness

What are causes of dandruff vs. dry scalp?

There can be many causes of dry scalp, which is a symptom and not a condition in itself, but the cause of dandruff is much simpler. Knowing if you have dandruff or dry scalp can help you determine the right treatment plan. 

Causes of dandruff

A common misconception of dandruff is that it’s caused by poor hair washing habits, which is not true. However, if you do not wash your hair frequently you may be able to notice the symptoms of dandruff more. Also, stress and cold weather can make dandruff worse. 

Dandruff is caused by a skin fungus on the scalp’s sebaceous glands, which secrete oil into hair follicles to keep them moist. This skin fungus is called Malassezia. The fungus triggers an immune response that makes your skin break out into a rash, and your scalp becomes irritated and flaky. 

Causes of a dry scalp

Dry scalp is a symptom of the damage dandruff creates. A dry scalp happens because the natural moisture defenses in your skin cells are harmed. The irritation damages your outer layer of skin and causes flakes and itchiness.

How to diagnose dandruff vs. dry scalp 

In most cases, dandruff can be self-diagnosed. You typically have no reason to visit the doctor for symptoms of dandruff or dry scalp. Dandruff is a chronic condition that often occurs in middle-age. It can disappear in warmer months and become more severe in colder months, since the cool temperature makes your skin dry. You’ll be able to know if you have dandruff if it responds well to over-the-counter dandruff shampoo. 

If you have a dry scalp that is accompanied with other painful symptoms, you may need to visit your doctor for a diagnosis. An itchy, scaly scalp can be difficult to diagnose, especially since the scalp’s sensitive sebaceous glands can cause numerous medical conditions.

Treatments of dandruff vs. dry scalp

The best way to treat your dandruff is by using dandruff shampoo and scalp treatments. Use caution when using certain special shampoos like coal tar, because it can discolor light-colored hair. Make sure to follow the instructions on your shampoo to keep from further burning or irritating your scalp. 

In most cases, your dandruff and dry scalp do not require medical attention. But if your dandruff or dry scalp is becoming overwhelming and affecting your daily life, you can see a dermatologist for treatment.

In some cases, flaking and itching on your scalp can be a medical condition like seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, fungal infections of the scalp, or eczema. These illnesses require additional treatment from a doctor. 


Ringworm is caused by a fungus. See Answer

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

Medically Reviewed on 2/26/2021

American Academy of Dermatology Association: "10 REASONS YOUR SCALP ITCHES AND HOW TO GET RELIEF."

American Academy of Dermatology Association: "HOW TO TREAT DANDRUFF."

Harvard Health Publishing: "Dandruff."

Harvard Health Publishing: "What is the best way to treat severe dandruff?"

International Journal of Trichology: "Scalp Condition Impacts Hair Growth and Retention via Oxidative Stress."

Journal of Investigative Dermatology Symposium Proceedings: "Clinical diagnosis of common scalp disorders."

Journal of Investigative and Clinical Dermatology: "Seborrheic Dermatitis and Dandruff: A Comprehensive Review."

National Health Service: "Dandruff.” National Health Service: "Itchy Scalp and Dandruff."

Patient: "Common causes of an itchy scalp."