Don’t Flake on Finding Out the Difference Between Dandruff and Dry Scalp

Photo: Getty Images/Justin Lambert
It's the winter time, which means you get to witness the gorgeous sight of snowflakes dusting the streets, trees, buildings, and your, er, scalp and shoulders. Wait, could that just be dandruff instead? 'Tis the season for not only flakes to fall from the sky, but from your head as well.

To alleviate the mystery of the head flakes, I spoke to a hair pro to find out everything you need to know about flakes, which as it turns out, aren't always dandruff. Commonly, there are a few types of flakes: those that result because a yeast called malassezia that feeds off greasy hair, those that happen because of a dry scalp, and even those that are due to a condition called seborrheic dermatitis. Here's how to get to the bottom of what kind of flakes are happening and, beyond that, how to get rid of them.

What is dandruff?

Basically, those flakes are dead skin cells that fall off of your scalp. "Dander or dead skin cells appear in the hair and flake off in large numbers," says Dominic Burg, PhD, chief scientist and hair biologist at Evolis Professional. "It's quite normal to shed skin, as it's constantly replenishing itself—but when this happens excessively, it can lead to visible flakes on the hair and clothing."

Dandruff itself though is caused by a yeast on the scalp. "There's an organism that lives ubiquitously on all of our scalps—it's M. Furfur or P. ovale, and both have been implicated in the cause of dandruff," says Purvisha Patel, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare. "This yeast-like organism loves to grow in damp, warm environments, and thrives in those with oily hair, or those that use edible oils on their heads." In other words: Beware, coconut and olive oil fans. Dandruff stems from your body's immune response—which is to flake the yeast off—and it causes the flakes and mild itching, she explains. You'll notice flatter, oily yellow-tinged flakes if you have dandruff.

On the other end of the spectrum, your flakes can simply be from a dry scalp and not dandruff at all. "Dry scalp and dandruff can often appear to be the same thing," says Dr. Patel. "Dry scalp is generally itchy and the hair is dry—the scalp may be red and inflamed. This is caused by allergy to hair products, changes in the climate or environment, washing the hair too frequently, or changes in your diet or immune system." This condition's more common because, according to Dr. Burg, everyone's scalp sheds its dead skin cells. "The skin of your scalp is much like the skin on your face—some people are simply more prone to dry and flaky skin and scalps," he says. These flakes tend to be smaller and more rounded.

Also to blame? Product buildup. Those who spray dry shampoo on the reg are likely to find that the product can gather and flake off the scalp in either dusty particles or full-on flakes. Excess shedding can, additionally, sometimes be classified as a side effect of seborrheic dermatitis. "This is an inflammatory skin condition characterized by flaking skin, skin irritation, redness, and sometimes sores," says Dr. Burg. "It's a medical condition that requires dermatologist care." If you notice these things happening on your scalp, consult a dermatologist to get to the root of the problem.

Get rid of the flakes—and keep them away

When it comes to treating good old-fashioned dandruff, the easiest thing to do is reach for a dandruff-specific shampoo treatment—they'll typically have one of a number of ingredients that fight the yeast causing the flakes. "Common ingredients like zinc pyrithione, ketoconazole, and selenium disulfide are antifungal and have shown some good results in reducing dandruff," says Dr. Burg. For more natural options, certain essential oils and extracts have got your back. "Natural alternatives for treating dandruff include rosemary oil, lavender oil, green tea extract, and mangosteen—all have great antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic properties that can be helpful for those with dandruff," he adds. "Salicylic acid also has good evidence for dandruff-fighting qualities."

That's not to say you have to use a dandruff shampoo forever—really it all depends on the individual, according to Dr. Burg. "While some people may require continual treatment, others may find that they can use a medicated treatment once a week while keeping their oil levels under control. Some people only need to control the symptoms seasonally, and for others it can be self-limiting," he says.

If you're suffering from a dry scalp, on the other hand, the key is to hydrate—not dry it out. So you won't need a dandruff shampoo. "If your dry scalp is not caused by dandruff, it's helped by using gentle shampoos," says Dr. Patel. "They may contain ingredients such as aloe, chamomile, sage and panthenol. Using products free of sulfates, fragrances and too many chemicals generally help dry sensitive scalp conditions." So generally, look for light-wash shampoos that can help to remove debris without parching your noggin and consider a scalp scrub once a month to nix the flakes if they happen.

Though there isn't one way to definitively prevent the flakes from happening in the first place, there are methods you can try in order to help keep them at bay. "Use products with added hair moisturizers like baobab and other essential oils to maintain hair and scalp health and hydration," recommends Dr. Burg. "Also look for products with anti-inflammatory and antiseptic botanicals such as rosemary and lavender to maintain a healthy scalp environment." Essentially, treat your scalp more like you treat your skin, and then reap the healthy benefits.

On a similar note, here's how to treat folliculitis (AKA scalp zits) at home. And for added head health, may I highly recommend that you try a scalp facial

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