Updated: May 4, 2022
A flaky scalp can not only be inconvenient and embarrassing, but it can also be accompanied by discomfort such as tightness, itching and stinging. Find out what causes a dry flaky scalp and how you can help reduce the symptoms and even prevent the condition from coming back.
Dandruff vs. dry scalp: what's the difference?
When it comes to dandruff vs. dry scalp, there are some key differences that will help you in your dandruff/dry flaky scalp treatment. Read on to find out what causes these two flaky scalp concerns.
A dry scalp is literally when the skin on your head is dry, and does not produce (or retain) enough natural oils to keep it moisturised. This can be due to factors such as too much washing, excessive use of hair products, weather changes etc. People with dry skin are more prone to dry scalp, also with eczema or Psoriasis.
Whereas dandruff (described medically as pityriasis capitis or pityriasis sicca) is usually linked to an imbalance in scalp conditions, leading to an overactive production of skin cells. They can be difficult to differentiate because both result in white flakes on the scalp, but a dry scalp and dandruff require separate treatments.
Dandruff vs. dry scalp: similar symptoms, different causes
Dandruff is not necessarily due to your skin type, and usually looks different to the small white flakes that are caused by a naturally dry flaky scalp. While dry skin accompanies dry-looking hair, dandruff isn't related to your skin type – so you can have either greasy hair or dry hair with a flaky scalp. This is an important distinction, because dandruff is not treated in the same way as a dry flaky scalp.
What is dry scalp?
Skin types are usually divided into oily, sensitive, combination, normal and dry. The latter, dry skin, is caused by the skin's incapacity to produce enough sebum and natural oils to keep itself moisturised. As a result, the top layer of the skin dries out, cracks and sheds as fine flakes, which could be the reason why you notice small white flakes of skin on your scalp and in the hair. This condition can be diagnosed through a dry itchy flaky scalp, while dandruff does not often cause irritation.
Causes of a dry scalp
A naturally dry skin type can be behind a dry scalp, as well as some hormonal conditions and can be the side effect of certain medications (eg. oral acne treatments). A dry scalp can feel (like a dry complexion) tight and uncomfortable, and often results in frizzy and dull-looking hair, as the scalp isn't producing enough oil to lubricate it. This is where it differs from dandruff-related conditions, where the hair can appear oily yet flaky at the same time.
During the winter months in cold climates, the humidity in the air drops. Cold weather dries out the skin all over your body, including on your scalp. Blasting the heat can also be drying. Use warm water instead of hot water in your shower and bath to keep your skin and scalp moist. Don't stay under the water for longer than 5 or 10 minutes at a time. Spending too much time under hot water can strip your skin of its natural oils.
How to treat dry flaky scalp causes:
Restoring the natural moisture levels of your scalp isn't like moisturising your skin. You can't simply apply an emollient over the head, as this will leave the hair greasy and limp. The solution is in haircare designed specifically for sensitive scalps, like the Moroccan Oil range. Apply to towel-dried hair before lathering, rinsing and following with a conditioner tailored to your hair type.
What is dandruff?
Humans and animals both shed (skin, hair, fur, feathers) in a natural process known as "dander", which is possibly where dandruff gets its name. While everybody naturally sheds skin, usually these tiny cells remain invisible and are whisked off into the air to become dust. Dandruff, however, is when these dead skin cells build up on the surface of the skin and cluster in large, visible white flakes. They then break off from the skin and settle along the hair fiber and on your shoulders.
Causes of dandruff
Dandruff is not simply dry skin build-up, but is linked to many factors, including the presence of a naturally occurring fungus on the scalp surface. A scalp suffering from a skin condition is typically extra sensitive to haircare products, and can often feel tight and itchy, and in more severe cases can show patches of redness.
All skin naturally sheds continuously as part of the regeneration process, but for someone suffering from dandruff, these cells can cluster and produce those tell-tale white flakes of dandruff, regardless of how often you wash your hair.
How to manage dandruff:
To remove flakes of dandruff without irritating the skin, use a gentle clarifying product for flaky scalp concerns. Regular use will help balance the skin's moisture levels and help prevent visible flakes from forming.