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Is it Dandruff or a Dry Scalp?

By HERWriter
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hair Via Pexels

During changes in season, our skin and scalp may develop dryness. Dryness of the scalp can cause shedding of skin flakes but you may wonder if it is just dry skin or dandruff flakes falling from your hair.

Dandruff can be caused by dryness of the scalp but flakes from dry skin are usually smaller and less oily than flakes from dandruff. Plus, if you are having dry skin on your scalp, you will likely have dry skin elsewhere on your body at the same time.

The scalp gets oil from the hair follicles on your head so it typically does not get dried out like other skin surfaces. If you don’t wash your hair often enough, you can develop dandruff from the build up of cells not being washed away.

Other irritations to the scalp can cause dandruff. A yeast-like fungus called malassezia is often considered to be the culprit. Malassezia lives on everyone’s scalp but in some people can cause irritation.

According to the Beauty Brains website, malassezia releases oleic acid through their metabolism and that chemical causes the irritation in some people. More skin cells grow in response and when those cells die off, they are shed as larger whitish flakes.

Other causes of dandruff not due to malassezia are sensitivity to certain hair products and other skin conditions such as psoriasis or eczema, but these causes are not considered to be true dandruff.

Seborrheic dermatitis is another frequent cause of dandruff, according to Mayoclinic.com. It appears as red, greasy skin covered with white or yellow scales or flakes. On infants, seborrheic dermatitis is also known as cradle cap.

Treatments may be similar to dandruff treatments but also may include cortisone medications, antibacterials or antifungals, and light therapy.

There are several shampoo treatments for dandruff, so you may have to try a few to see if they work for you. Read the labels of dandruff shampoos to find the active ingredients listed below.

1) Zinc pyrithione

Zinc pyrithione is an antibacterial and antifungal agent. This is an active ingredient in popular shampoos such as Head and Shoulders or Selsun Blue.

2) Selenium sulfide

Selenium sulfide fights cell turnover and malassezia. This is an active ingredient in Selsun Blue, and Head & Shoulders Dandruff Shampoo Intensive Treatment shampoos. It is worth noting that it can discolor blond or dyed hair so make sure you rinse it well from your hair after use.

3) Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that helps eliminate flakes. It increases the sloughing off of old cells but does not treat malassezia. It is recommended that you use a good conditioner afterwards to prevent excessive dryness of your scalp.

4) Coal tar

This byproduct of coal manufacturing helps slow how quickly scalp cells die and flake off. It is also used to treat seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis. Denorex and Neutrogena T/Gel are two shampoos that contain coal tar. Coal tar does have a strong odor that may bother some people.

5) Ketoconazole shampoo

The active ingredient in this shampoo is an antifungal that treats malassezia. Nizoral is a common brand that is available over the counter as well as in prescription strength. It may affect hair texture or color when used.

If after using various dandruff shampoos you do not find an improvement, consult a dermatologist. You may need a prescription-strength shampoo or other medication treatment to combat the dandruff.


Dandruff. Mayoclinic.com. Retrieved June 14, 2014

Dandruff and dry scalp – what’s the difference? The Beauty Brains. Retrieved June 14, 2014.

Seborrheic dermatitis. Mayoclinic.com. Retrieved June 14, 2014.

Michele is an R.N. freelance writer with a special interest in woman’s healthcare and quality of care issues. Other articles by Michele are at http://contributor.yahoo.com/user/499625/michele_blacksberg.html

Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.