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scalp issues like dandruff and dry scalp

Dandruff Vs. Dry Scalp: Differences in Symptoms, Causes, & Treatment

When "dandruff" is mentioned, what comes to mind? 

Many people associate dandruff with an itchy and dry scalp. But dandruff and dry scalp are, in fact, two separate conditions. 

They have overlapping symptoms, which is why one is often mistaken for the other. However, it's important to differentiate between them as they have different treatment options. 

Let's explore the main differences in symptoms, causes, and treatment approaches for both dandruff and dry scalp. 

Table of Contents: 

What is a Dry Scalp? 

dry scalp


A dry scalp occurs when the skin lacks enough moisture, sebum, or natural oils to keep itself hydrated.

Because of this, the top layer of the skin begins to dry out, leading to symptoms such as flaking and itching. 

If you have a dry scalp, you may notice tiny white flakes formed from dead skin cells on your hair and scalp.

Dry Scalp Causes

A dry scalp occurs for different reasons. 

People who naturally have dry skin are more prone to this condition. Apart from this, other possible causes of dry scalp include: 

  • Harsh hair products that strip your skin of its natural oils 

  • Excessive heat from hair drying or hairstyling 

  • Cold weather and dry air 

  • Excessive washing of your scalp and hair

  • Contact dermatitis, or an allergic reaction of your skin to a certain chemical or product

What is Dandruff? 

Dandruff is a prevalent condition that affects people of all ages. Some research studies show that it can affect up to 95% of a specific population [1]

This condition is typically associated with an oily, flaky, and itchy scalp. You'd likely notice larger yellowish or white flakes. These result from the buildup of dead skin cells, which cluster together to form visible flakes. 

Dandruff is a mild form of another skin condition known as seborrheic dermatitis. Both also share symptoms such as an itchy and flaky scalp. 

They can be tricky to tell apart. So, if you're unsure of the real cause of your symptoms, it's best to seek professional medical advice. 

What Causes Dandruff? 

malassezia fungus and its link to dandruff


Dandruff is not a fungal infection in itself, but it is linked to a type of fungus called Malassezia. 

This naturally occurring fungus resides on your scalp and feeds on your scalp's natural oils, known as sebum. Research suggests that there's a link between an increased population of Malassezia on your skin and the occurrence of dandruff symptoms [2]

As the Malassezia feeds on the excess oil on your skin, trouble begins to brew. While feeding, it breaks down these oils into byproducts, some of which can irritate the skin. That's when dead skin cells accumulate to form the dandruff flakes you'd notice on your hair, scalp surface, and shoulders. 

The Difference Between Dandruff and Dry Scalp 

A dry scalp and dandruff share overlapping symptoms, so it can be tricky to tell the two apart. That said, observing their symptoms and presentation is the best way to differentiate them.

The following table summarizes the main differences between these two skin conditions: 

 Dandruff Dry Scalp
More severe and visible symptoms  Usually less severe symptoms 
Larger yellowish or white flakes that are oily  Smaller dry white flakes 
May be associated with a little skin redness and irritation  No skin redness or inflammation 
Linked to Malassezia fungus  Can be caused by different factors, such as harsh hair products or dry air 


dandruff vs. dry scalp differences

The Importance of Differentiating Dandruff and Dry Scalp

While both dandruff and dry scalp share similar symptoms, they aren't treated the same way. That's why it's crucial to tell one apart from the other. 

By determining the root cause of your symptoms, you'll be in the best position to find an effective treatment approach. 

Plus, some people who mistake dandruff for a dry scalp may use hair products or moisturizing shampoos containing oils like coconut oil, jojoba oil, and sunflower oil. 

hair oils for dandruff and dry scalp


These oils could harm more than help. That's because they contain fatty acids that serve as food and fuel for Malassezia, spurring its growth.  

So, before you pick up a new medicated shampoo or scalp care product, be sure to dig a little deeper to pinpoint the true cause of your symptoms. 

How to Treat a Dry Scalp

A dry scalp is best treated with moisturizing ingredients, which can sometimes be found in a specialty shampoo, conditioner, or scalp serum.

Some ingredients with impressive moisturizing properties include:

  • Hyaluronic acid

  • Aloe vera

  • Oat extracts

  • Plant oils*, such as coconut oil or avocado oil

  • Scalp moisturizers

*Keep in mind that if you have actual dandruff, most plant oils like coconut oils can actually make your flaking and itch worse.

We created our MCT Scalp Moisturizer to help keep your scalp moisturized, nourished, and healthy. 

You can also make some changes to your hair routine. Try to steer clear of harsh hair or scalp products. A simple skin patch test should help you to sniff out potential culprits and remove them from your hair routine. It's also best to avoid excessive heat when drying or styling your hair. 

How to Treat Dandruff (Mild Seborrheic Dermatitis)

Treating dandruff (as well as seborrheic dermatitis) can be a complicated process.

After studying these conditions and treating our moody skin for years, we have developed a reliable three-step process.

In order for your dandruff treatment to be effective, it's important to address the Malassezia problem. 

Here's the three-step process that can help you manage dandruff issues: 

Step 1: Disrupting the biofilm 

The biofilm is a natural, protective shield that guards the fungus from external danger and threats. It has an impressive ability to adapt and form a greater resistance against antifungal agents, which can dampen the efficacy of your dandruff shampoos. Thus, to properly get rid of the fungus, you'd first need to weaken or eliminate its biofilm.

Natural remedies targeting biofilm include colloidal silver and apple cider vinegar. 

Step 2: Clearing the fungus 

The next step is addressing the culprit — Malassezia. 

Natural remedies with antifungal properties against Malassezia include sea salt, tea tree oil, raw honey, grapefruit sea extract, and MCT oil.

Step 3: Soothing the skin

The final step is to keep the skin well-nourished, moisturized, and calm. 

However, it's important to ensure that the product or remedy you're using does not fuel the growth of the fungus. There are only two types of oils that do not feed the fungus. They're squalane oil and MCT oil. 

Other Malassezia-safe ingredients that can calm and soothe irritation of the skin include aloe vera, cucumber extract, and hyaluronic acid. 

Most Shampoos Make Dandruff and Dry Scalp Worse

shampoo for dandruff and dry scalp


Many shampoos and hair care products contain ingredients that may worsen dandruff and dry scalp. 

As mentioned earlier, oils like coconut oil, avocado oil, jojoba oil, and argan oil all contain fatty acids that can become a food source for Malassezia. This can increase dandruff symptoms. 

Apart from this, these hair care products may also have fragrances, dyes, and sulfates that are harsh on the scalp and can dry it out.

Our Recommendations for Dandruff and Dry Scalp

Now that you're equipped with the information you need to differentiate between dandruff and dry scalp, you can create a scalp care routine that targets the root cause.

Our recommendations differ based on what you actually have — whether that's dandruff or a dry scalp. 

Calming Seborrheic Serum

dermazen calming seborrheic serum for dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis


If you have dandruff, we'd recommend the Calming Seborrheic Serum as the first line of defense. This serum is formulated with a comprehensive blend of ingredients that help weaken the defense mechanism of the fungus and control its population on your scalp. It also contains ingredients that help to soothe and calm your skin. 

On the other hand, if you have a dry scalp, we'd recommend starting first with our MCT scalp moisturizer. You can then add the Calming Seborrheic Serum to your routine anytime for some extra scalp nourishment.

MCT Scalp Moisturizer

Dry scalps are best addressed first with our MCT scalp moisturizer. Fueled by Mother Nature, this scalp moisturizer gently nourishes and hydrates the scalp while also providing hair growth support. 

The star ingredient, MCT oil, is one of the only three oils that are safe for Malassezia-related conditions. Thus, our MCT Scalp Moisturizer is great for dandruff-prone scalps as a second-line remedy. It helps soothe and nourish your skin without acting as a food source for the fungus.

Cleansing Dandruff Shampoo

dermazen anti dandruff shampoo


The Cleansing Dandruff Shampoo is an anti-dandruff solution that addresses your symptoms through the holistic three-step process we discussed earlier. 

It contains simple yet powerful ingredients that work together to eliminate the fungus, disrupt the biofilm, nourish the skin, and support hair growth. These include tea tree oil, apple cider vinegar, sea salt, aloe vera, and grapefruit seed. 

Our unique Dermazen shampoo allows you to enjoy all the hair and scalp health benefits of these ingredients through a single, convenient formula.

dermazen cleansing dandruff shampoo benefits
dermazen cleansing dandruff shampoo review

Recommended Product

Calming Seborrheic Serum

This all-in-one serum clears away malassezia fungus while soothing irritated skin. Provides relief for the scalp, face, and body.

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