• Post published:January 18, 2023

Dr. Ziering Quoted in Oprah Daily | Is It Dandruff or a Dry Scalp? We Asked Experts to Weigh In

Here’s how to diagnose yourself and then find the right treatments for these common scalp concerns.

Scalp concerns are downright uncomfortable. They can also be difficult to figure out. Because the symptoms of a dry scalp and dandruff overlap—itchiness, flaking, irritation—it’s difficult to know which one you have. Taking the time to diagnose yourself, however, is key since the right course of treatment is different for a dry scalp (which needs more hydration) versus a case of dandruff (which needs haircare products with certain active ingredients).

To guide you, we turned to top dermatologists, trichologists, and scalp educators to help explain the differences between dry scalp and dandruff, what causes each, and how to fix them.

What is dandruff?

Dandruff is a common and chronic oily scalp condition related to fungal and bacterial imbalances on your scalp, says Anabel Kingsley, president and consulting trichologist at Philip Kingsley. It’s also sometimes known as seborrheic dermatitis (SD), which Kingsley calls dandruff’s angry sibling. “The exact causes of dandruff and SD aren’t fully understood, but we do know that they’re reliant on the presence and overgrowth of Malassezia yeasts,” she says.

Malassezia is a fungus naturally found on the scalp. However, when it proliferates, it causes flaky, itchy, and irritated skin, explains Chuck Hezekiah, a scalp expert, educator, and brand ambassador for René Furterer. A few factors, including stress, fatigue, and genetics, cause this yeast to overproduce. The most prominent, though, is excess oil production. “Malassezia yeasts feed on sebum (oil), so when your scalp is overly greasy, you’re prone to yeast overgrowth and microbiome imbalances,” says Kingsley.

You’re more likely to have a greasy scalp if you’re genetically predisposed to it, if you aren’t washing your hair often enough, if you’re experiencing high levels of stress, or if you have a medical condition that causes excessive oiliness, like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), explains Kingsley.

What is a dry scalp?

A dry scalp is when the skin on your head lacks water and moisture, says Craig Ziering, DO, FAAD, dermatologist, hair transplant surgeon, and owner of Ziering Medical. You can experience a dry scalp for several reasons, including washing your hair too often. This strips the scalp of the natural oils it needs to stay hydrated. Weather shifts (cold weather causes skin and scalp dryness) and even hair products are other common culprits. “A scalp that turns red, itches, and flakes after you wash it could be a result of contact dermatitis, which is an allergic reaction that can happen after using irritating shampoos, soaps, or other products in your hair,” says Ziering. Ultimately, a dry scalp is usually linked to environmental or external fluctuations and is often a transient issue rather than a chronic one, adds Kingsley.

What’s the difference between dry scalp and dandruff?

It’s tricky to tell the two conditions apart because they show up similarly. And dry scalp can often coexist with dandruff, says Dr. Atiya Jordan-Brown, senior scientist and senior manager of scientific communications at Procter & Gamble. “In fact, a dry scalp and itchiness are two of the most common symptoms associated with dandruff,” she says.

However, the best way to determine the difference at home is to analyze the appearance of your flakes. “Oily, large flakes typically point to dandruff, while dry, smaller flakes signal a dry scalp,” says Ziering. Dandruff flakes may have a yellowish tint. “Dry scalp flakes usually look like white salt, sand, or snow,” Hezekiah says.

Interestingly, there’s a chance that you have dandruff without any flakes, says Brown. In that case, pay attention to excess oiliness. Your scalp will feel oily or get oily quickly, and the skin may itch or look red and inflamed.

How to treat a dry scalp

Make sure you have a steady rotation of hydrating haircare products in your routine. Look for ingredients like glycerin or hyaluronic acid, suggests Hezekiah. We like the Ouai Hydrating Scalp Serum, which is an easy way to boost hydration after washing your hair. Soothing haircare products that hydrate the skin are also a good idea. Kingsley recommends the Philip Kingsley Flaky Scalp Toner.

Lifestyle changes like protecting your scalp with SPF during the summer, using a humidifier in the winter, washing your hair less frequently, and using lukewarm water to wash your hair can also do wonders in preserving moisture.

How to treat dandruff

Eliminating dandruff requires haircare with active ingredients that reduce Malassezia, says Hezekiah, who recommends anti-dandruff shampoos with zinc pyrithione and/or selenium. An affordable option is Head & Shoulders Clinical Strength Dandruff Defense Shampoo. Brown suggests using it every time you wash your hair for three weeks for the best results. As far as how often to wash your hair? Kingsley recommends daily cleaning your scalp and not going longer than two days between washing.

Adding a serum that targets inflammation can also help soothe symptoms associated with dandruff. The René Furterer Astera Fresh Leave-in Soothing Freshness Serum is a great option, per Hezekiah. “It’s also best to avoid applying oils directly to your scalp because oils feed the dandruff cycle,” Brown says.

At the end of the day, if over-the-counter options aren’t working and you still aren’t sure what you’re dealing with, it’s best to consult a trichologist or dermatologist.