Scalp problems can be unsightly and unpleasant. If you notice that your scalp is sore, red, flaky, and itchy, you may be dealing with scalp conditions such as dandruff or dry scalp.
Although they may look similar, they are actually quite different. Here is a comparison between dandruff and dry scalp:
“Dandruff is a mild form of a skin condition called seborrheic dermatitis that affects only the scalp,” explains Dr. Iris Rubin, MD, dermatologist and founder of SEEN Hair Care. “Dandruff usually has no visible inflammation. (More advanced seborrheic dermatitis can cause redness and flaking that spreads to the ears and face.)”
The biggest difference between dandruff and dry scalp is that dry scalp is not related to seborrheic dermatitis.
“A dry scalp is just a dry scalp that can lead to flaking and itchiness,” says Rubin. “Scalp irritants can also contribute to dry scalp.”
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What causes dandruff and dry scalp?
If you suspect you have dandruff or a dry scalp, it’s important to know that they are caused by a variety of factors that can help you determine which one you’re dealing with.
“While we don’t fully understand all the causes of dandruff, we do know that the oil on our skin (sebum), the friendly yeast that lives there (Malassezia), and our sensitivity to the interaction between them can all play a role. role in how likely we are to get dandruff,” he says Doctor. Caroline Robinson, MD, FAAD, board certified dermatologist and founder of Tone Dermatology. “Dandruff can have a variety of symptoms and manifestations, but the most common are white to yellow, oily flakes and itching,” says Dr. Robinson.
What about dry scalp? “A dry scalp is caused by dry skin, just like the rest of your body,” says Dr. Rubin.
However, it can be aggravated by other conditions and products applied to the scalp.
“Eczema can also lead to a dry scalp, and this can be exacerbated by a sensitivity to hair care products called contact dermatitis,” says Dr. Rubin. “Harsh ingredients like sulfates in shampoo can dry out your scalp. Although designed to wash away dirt and product build-up, these cleansers can also strip your scalp (and hair) of the natural oils that help maintain hydration, which can be a key factor in dryness, itchiness and flaking.”
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How to treat dandruff and dry scalp
It is important to know whether you have dandruff or a dry scalp, as they are treated differently.
“The symptoms of dandruff and dry scalp can be very similar, but the causes are different, so the treatments are different,” says Dr. Rubin.
There are many topical treatments for dandruff. “There are several over-the-counter dandruff medicated shampoos with active ingredients such as ketoconazole, selenium sulfide, salicylic acid, and zinc pyrithione,” says Dr. Rubin. “Some may need a prescription shampoo, and more frequent hair washing may also be helpful.”
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Dr. Robinson recommends Neutrogena Scalp Therapy Anti-Dandruff Shampoo, which contains four different formulas of salicylic acid to effectively fight dandruff and control many dandruff symptoms.
Dry scalp: “Dry scalps respond better to mild sulfate-free shampoos that don’t cause irritation, as opposed to medicated shampoos that are commonly used against dandruff,” says Dr. Rubin.
And if you’re not sure which product is causing your dry scalp, start eliminating one by one.
“Sometimes it can be difficult to pinpoint the cause of a dry scalp, but I often encourage patients to change one thing at a time, whether it’s washing frequency or product, to start the journey toward relief,” says Dr. Robinson.
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How to prevent dandruff and dry scalp
There are simple ways to stop dandruff and dry scalp. “One of the best ways to prevent dandruff is to pay attention to your hair care,” says Dr. Rubin.
She adds that washing your hair more often can help. “Avoid foods with heavy oils. Consider using a regular anti-dandruff shampoo for prevention if you are prone to dandruff.”
The same goes for avoiding a dry scalp: take a look at your hair care products.
“Dry scalp can be prevented simply by using the right hair care products. “Consider going sulfate-free and using shampoos and conditioners that have gentle, soothing and nourishing ingredients that care for the scalp,” says Dr. Rubin.
And be aware of how your scalp reacts to different products.
“To prevent a dry scalp, it’s important to constantly pay attention to how your scalp feels from wash to wash, season to season, and year to year, and make the necessary changes to soothe your scalp,” says Dr. Robinson.
Finally, don’t be afraid to see a dermatologist if dandruff or dry scalp persists.
“It’s important to remember that the difference between dandruff and a dry scalp is not always stark—some patients with dandruff may have a drier scalp, and vice versa,” adds Dr. Robinson. “So if you have persistent dryness, itchiness or flaking, it’s important to consider seeing a board-certified dermatologist.”
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