These two medical conditions almost have the same symptoms. Only a proper understanding of them can help enable needful treatment. But, not many people take efforts to understand them.

You may think it is dandruff when you see your scalp turning dry with flakes. In reality, it may not be dandruff that you are suffering from. It may be a condition called dry scalp. Then what really is dandruff? It is the same itchiness and the dry flakes falling off your scalp.

There are of course a few differences between these two medical conditions.

Dandruff is caused when your scalp is exposed to an excessive amount of oil. It is this oil in excess amount that forms as skin cells. These eventually fall off from your scalp. This is different from dry scalp wherein your skin dries off and starts flaking. These flakes fall off, making it resemble like dandruff. The difference may be subtle, but these are distinctively different conditions. Due to this, the treatment approaches and remedies are also different.

What causes these medical conditions?


The key reason why you may suffer from dandruff is a condition called dermatitis (also known as seborrheic dermatitis). This medical condition renders an extra level of oiliness to your skin. In the process, your skin develops scales and may also turn red. It occurs not only on your scalp. It may affect your armpits, inner thighs, near your eyes, etc. The scales formed on your skin may soon flake off and thus lead to dandruff.

Clinical research has identified the root cause of this condition. It is attributed to a fungus that lives at the scalp. Research also shows some people do have more of this fungus living off their scalp. The excessive quantum of fungus is the reason why such people see skin cells in their scalp growing faster than others. The risk factors include anxiety levels, changes in your hormonal balance, etc.

Dry scalp-

This medical condition is formed not due to excessive oil; instead, due to very low level of moisture in your scalp. Inadequate levels of moisture tend to make your skin dry. So, it is not only your scalp that turns dry but also several other parts of your body such as lower and upper limbs, etc.

The reasons why you may develop dry scalp include aging of skin (seen in elders), dermatitis triggered by skin care or hair care products (to which you are allergic to), etc. A few clinical studies have also established a link between incidence of dry scalp and people living in dry yet cold regions.

How to know if it is dandruff or dry scalp that you are suffering from?

Both these conditions develop an itchy sensation on your skin. But, there is a simple way to know. The flakes of dandruff are oily. In fact, they are of larger size as well. The big sized scales are due to the multiplication of skin cells, abetted by excessive amount of oil in your scalp.

What are the distinctive signs of these two medical conditions?


The signs of dandruff are- fairly big sized flakes, color of flakes is either white or yellow and the distinctive oiliness is a sure sign of dandruff. Your skin may change color; often into red. Apart from the discoloration, you will notice excessive oiliness coupled with scales on the skin.

Dry scalp-

The signs of dry scalp are distinct only on the size and constitution of the flakes. As against dandruff, the flakes here are smaller and very dry. So, the nature of flakes reveals whether it is dry scalp or dandruff. Apart from this key differentiator, your skin also does not develop oiliness (like dandruff). Instead, a few of your body parts may turn dry. Otherwise, dry scalp also develops an itchy feeling on your skin, very similar to dandruff.

Medical support

Of these two conditions, dandruff may be treated with a shampoo. You are advised to use a softer shampoo which can minimize the oil content in your scalp. However, if the formation of flakes is severe, you may choose a medicated shampoo, specially made to keep dandruff at bay. These medicated shampoos (dandruff fighting shampoos) work to remove the flakes on your scalp by destroying the fungus.

However, if the oily flakes do not fade away, and if the skin develops a red color, it is then time to seek medical attention. You are advised to meet a qualified skin doctor (also known as a dermatologist). The doctor will examine your scalp and the nature of flakes, with scientific conclusions drawn based on the signs.

On the other hand, if it is dry scalp that you are suffering from, you may use a conditioner that moisturises your scalp soon after using a shampoo (of a milder type). The easiest way doctor employ to establish if the condition is dry scalp is the usage of a moisturiser. You may be advised to apply a milder moisturiser onto your scalp during bedtime. On waking up, if you kind the flakes are gone, then it is dry scalp.

Some commonly administered tactics to prevent these medical conditions

Dry scalp-

Stay away from using overactive substances such as alcohol or even coloring agents. These substances are known to render an artificial dryness to your scalp. You are also advised to spend time for breathing exercises as well as other relaxation measures such as meditation, etc.


Expose your scalp to some amount of sunlight each day as it can help cure dandruff. Use a medicated shampoo (specially made to treat dandruff) and rinse the residue off thoroughly. This is because residue of the chemicals can trigger adverse side effects.

Medical treatment

Selenium sulfide is a substance proven to have antifungal properties. However, this chemical can also change the color of your hair. So, if you have dyed your hair or if you have gray hair, seek your skin doctor’s consent prior to using this chemical.

Salicylic acid is known for its efficacy to remove scales off your scalp. But, stay aware of the adverse side effects as well. One such effect is the excessive removal of moisture from your scalp. This can lend dryness to your hair and make way for more scales to appear.

Tea tree oil based shampoos is a naturally procured item and is widely used for its antifungal capabilities. This oil is known to minimize scales with very limited adverse reactions on your scalp. You are advised to seek the consent of your dermatologist prior to using the oil. It is because a few people who have allergies to this oil may develop undesired side effects such as inflammation or discoloration.

In case your condition is fairly acute, dermatologists may recommend steroids (available as a topical application). If you are observing noticeable changes in your medical condition, it is recommended to taper off the usage of the steroids, tea tree oil or shampoos.

Of these two conditions, dandruff does not have a permanent cure. You skin doctor can tell you how to manage the signs over a fairly long period of time. It is often observed that flakes of dandruff can recur at periodic intervals. Your doctor may prescribe a medicated shampoo (often a milder variant) for frequent hair washes and thus keep flakes under control.


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