Itching? Flaking? Sounds a lot like dandruff. But is it actually? It’s easy to confuse dry scalp, or other skin conditions, with dandruff. And many of the symptoms might overlap. Scalp discomfort is no fun, but it’s important to understand that dandruff isn’t a catch-all term for topical irritation. It’s a specific skin condition and it requires specific treatment. The simple dry scalp does too.
Understanding your scalp symptoms is the key to effective treatment. That’s why we sat down with Dr. Elyse Love, a board-certified NYC-based dermatologist, to discuss all things dandruff and dry scalp. Read on to find out more about the difference between these conditions and the ways you can treat them.
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How Are Dandruff and Dry Scalp Similar? How Are They Different?
Symptom overlap often leads to confusion when it comes to differentiating between dandruff and dry scalp. While both conditions can cause flaking and irritation, dandruff has an entirely different root cause.
“When people speak of “dry scalp” and “dandruff” they are usually referring to a condition called seborrheic dermatitis,” Dr. Love explains. “This is a condition that presents with redness, itching, and flaking,” she continues, “oftentimes people assume that the scalp is dry because of the itching and flaking, but it’s actually due to excess oils on the scalp.”
The difference is in the details. “Our scalp microbiome is made up of normal, healthy yeast and bacteria,” Dr. Love says, “seborrheic dermatitis is caused by an overgrowth of healthy yeast.” Excess oil is the root cause of the condition we call “dandruff,” and it tends to flare in the winter and during stressful time periods. Dry scalp, on the other hand, is a mere lack of moisture.
Itching , Flaking, and Excess Oil Indicate Dandruff
The first step to effective treatment is recognizing warning signs of dandruff. Lucky for us, Dr. Love has some expert insight in that arena. “At its most subtle form, people may notice mild itching of the scalp if they go longer without washing their hair than normal,” Dr. Love says. But itching is just the beginning. “At its worst, people notice dryness, flaking, and itching of the scalp as soon as the day after washing,” Dr. Love adds. Yikes. According to Dr. Love, the frontal hairline, the crown and the back of the scalp are the most common places for flakes. If you notice larger, sometimes oily flakes on your dark colored clothing, you may be dealing with dandruff.
If Left Untreated, Scalp Conditions Have Serious Side Effects
It’s all fun and games until the side effects start kicking in. Dandruff is more than just an inconvenient irritation. “Mild seborrheic dermatitis may have minimal effect on hair health, but more prominent seborrheic dermatitis may have an effect on hair growth,” Dr. Love explains. “Prolonged inflammation may cause hair shedding. Repeated scratching may also cause hair loss through repeated pulling and tugging.” You heard that right. Hair loss. No one wants to deal with that over dandruff.
Opt for Gentle Cleansers to Combat Dry Scalp and Dandruff
Luckily, those side effects can definitely be avoided. With the proper haircare, of course.
According to Dr. Love, many people can prevent dandruff just by finding a gentle hair cleansing routine that can be done on a somewhat frequent basis. “One example is Hairstory’s New Wash —a cleanser that cleanses the scalp without stripping the hair,” Dr. Love recommends. (Yes, that is an affiliate link. Yes, we will make a small share of the sale off any purchase you make.)
But for more significant cases, Dr. Love recommends Dove Dermacare Scalp Shampoo which contains zinc – a natural anti-inflammatory. If your dandruff does not respond to these over-the-counter options, a prescription shampoo or prescription anti-inflammatory may be necessary to regain control.