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How to tell what is dandruff or dry scalp and how to treat it

One of the most important aspects of a healthy head of hair is a healthy scalp. Haircare starts with the scalp, ensuring that it is clean and has the correct oil production. You can do this by balancing the pH levels or checking to ensure hormones are balanced if shampoo or scalp treatments do not produce results.

The difference between dandruff and dry scalp is that dandruff is caused by an overproduction of oil in the scalp, while a lack of oil causes dry scalp.

Causes of dandruff

According to the Mayo Clinic, dandruff is “considered to be a mild form of seborrheic dermatitis.” Seborrheic dermatitis is also known as “cradle cap” in babies. The leading causes of dandruff are a build-up of oil in the scalp, an overproduction of oil, or an imbalance of hormones. Often overusing products such as curling mousse, hairspray, styling gel or paste without washing the hair enough can result in dandruff.

Dandruff treatment pros

The pros of dandruff treatments are that they can effectively cleanse and remove dirt, product, oil build-up and dead skin cells. In most cases, just a couple of treatments and routine maintenance are enough to get on track toward a healthy scalp.

Dandruff treatment cons

The cons of dandruff treatments are that some of them can be too harsh for sensitive skin. It is also vital not to over wash with these products because they can dry the scalp, resulting in more flakiness. 

Best treatments for dandruff

Nizoral Anti-Dandruff Shampoo

The Nizoral Anti-Dandruff Shampoo is a highly recommended shampoo to eliminate dandruff within just a few washes while still being gentle on color-treated, chemically processed hair as well as grey hair. While this is a more expensive option than other products, it is powerful enough to combat severe cases. 

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Head and Shoulders

A classic go-to for dandruff treatments is Head and Shoulders. This is one of the most well-known anti-dandruff shampoos. It is perfect for anyone looking for credible treatment at a great value.

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Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal and Coconut Oil Micro-Exfoliating Shampoo

If you’d like something more natural to occasionally incorporate into your shower routine, this Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal and Coconut Oil Micro-Exfoliating Shampoo is an excellent choice. Charcoal has a great cleasing power and coconut oil will keep your scalp moisturized.

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Heeta Scalp Care Hair Brush

Additional accessories to help remove dandruff, dirt, oil and product build-up are shampoo brushes such as the Heeta Scalp Care Hair Brush, which you can also use to massage the scalp gently.

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For more selections on recommended dandruff treatments, read the full buying guide for anti-dandruff shampoos by BestReviews.

Causes of dry scalp

The primary difference between dandruff and dry scalp is that an excess or overproduction of oils from the scalp causes dandruff. Dandruff is typically caused by hormones, washing the hair too often or not washing the hair enough. By contrast, a lack of oil production causes dry scalp, appearing as flaking on the scalp.

A lack of oil in the scalp can result from harsh shampoos, damage from coloring the hair and other abrasive treatments that can irritate the scalp. It can also be caused by simply shampooing too often. It is important to note that how often to wash your hair depends on the hair type and texture. In many cases, hair texture that is thick, curly or kinky is usually drier and should not be washed as many times throughout the week as fine or thin hair, which tends to be more oily. 

Dry scalp treatment pros

Dry scalp treatment pros include the benefits of a replenished scalp that feels refreshed, soothed and moisturized.

Dry scalp treatment cons

If done excessively, it could make the scalp too oily or irritate.

Best treatments for dry scalp

Tea Tree Special Shampoo

The Tea Tree Special Shampoo is a soothing, minty treatment that refreshes and revitalizes the scalp, providing moisture and taking away itchiness.

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Malibu C Scalp Wellness Shampoo

The Malibu C Scalp Wellness Shampoo has an inviting spearmint and eucalyptus scent that calms and prevents dry, flaky scalp. Apply only a small portion to test how dry it may make your hair for the first wash.

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Derma E Scalp Relief Shampoo

Derma E Scalp Relief Shampoo is a gentle and nourishing way to give relief from dry scalp. It contains tea tree and menthol, which cools on contact. This is also a 100% vegan, sulfate-free and GMO-free product.

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Himalayan Salt Scalp Scrub

This Himalayan Salt Scalp Scrub shampoo is perfect for moisturizing and making hair soft and shiny. It naturally exfoliates and detoxifies while giving a refreshing peppermint and rosemary scent.

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For more information and recommendations on dry scalp, be sure to check out the buying guide on BestReviews.

Should you get a dandruff treatment or a dry scalp treatment? 

Whether you should choose a dandruff treatment or dry scalp treatment depends heavily on what symptoms you are experiencing. Although dandruff and dry scalp may look similar regarding the tiny white flakes, there are still ways to tell which one it might be. Most often, with dandruff, after running your fingers through the top of your head, you should be able to feel an excess of oils. With a dry scalp, however, by touching the scalp, you should sense less oil and more dryness. Often dry scalp may feel itchier, but the most distinct difference should be how oily or dry the scalp is.

If you are washing more than twice a week and have tried dandruff shampoo with no results, it could be a dry scalp. In that case, an oil treatment or a gentle replenishing shampoo may be best. If you often find your scalp and hair oily, the best place to start would be an anti-dandruff shampoo and possibly a scalp exfoliator to cleanse the dead skin cells and excess oil.


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Mary Hicks writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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