How to Tell if You Have Dandruff or a Dry Scalp, According to a Derm

September 29, 2022
Alyssa Kaplan
By: Alyssa Kaplan | by L'Oréal
Photo of woman with curly hair leaning back and touching her hair

If you’ve experienced a flaky, itchy, uncomfortable scalp, perhaps you assumed it was dandruff. If you weren’t sure what the culprit was, maybe you did a quick Google search and came up with some confusing results. Dandruff, also known as a form of seborrheic dermatitis, can be tricky to diagnose and even more difficult to treat. So, we consulted the expertise of Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist in NYC, to help you determine if you have dandruff and how you can treat it. 

What Is Dandruff, or Seborrheic Dermatitis?

Dandruff is a form of seborrheic dermatitis that, according to the National Center of Biotechnology Information, is restricted to the scalp. Seborrheic dermatitis can also exist in other seborrheic areas, like the chest or back. 


“Seborrheic dermatitis is characterized by flaking and redness 一 what we typically call dandruff,” says Dr. King. “A yeast found on the skin called Malassezia can contribute to the inflammatory response in seborrhea. This yeast feeds on sebum and therefore thrives in oily areas. This is why some anti-dandruff ingredients have antifungal properties 一 they decrease the Malassezia and thereby decrease the inflammatory response.” 

How to Tell if You Have Dandruff

Just because you have symptoms of dandruff, doesn’t necessarily mean you have it 一 you could simply have a dry scalp. While they can look very similar, dandruff and dry scalp are not the same thing. Your scalp, just like your skin, can be dry without there being flakes. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), dry scalp occurs when the skin loses too much water as a result of sun damage, overly stripping hair products, low humidity and cold climates. While they do differ, a dry scalp can progress into dandruff. 

dandruff or a dry scalp

How to Manage Dandruff 

While you’ve probably heard that shampooing less frequently is beneficial for your hair, doing so may not actually be healthy for your scalp. “If you are prone to dandruff, then showering less frequently can contribute to a flare,” says Dr. King. “This may be because of yeast on the scalp that contributes to inflammation.”  She recommends using over-the-counter dandruff shampoos that contain selenium sulfide or zinc pyrithione. “If that's not sufficient, a dermatologist can provide a prescription topical corticosteroid that will help decrease inflammation in the scalp,” says Dr. King. 


To remove excess oil, product buildup and dry flakes from your scalp, try using a scalp scrub like the L’Oréal Paris EverPure Sulfate-Free Scalp Care + Detox Scrub. It’s formulated with apricot seeds that gently exfoliate the scalp without being harsh or stripping moisture. If you’re experiencing a dry scalp, the Carol's Daughter Goddess Strength 7 Oil Blend Hair & Scalp Oil is great because it’s formulated with castor oil that nourishes the scalp as well as the hair to help prevent breakage and split ends. 



Photo: Chaunte Vaughn


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