Here’s How To Tell The Difference Between Dandruff And Dry Scalp (And How To Treat Each In The Winter)

    Here's how to finally get rid of those pesky flakes.

    Winter is officially here and although I'm one who loves a little snowfall on the ground and sitting cozy by the fire, something that I dread is...a flaky scalp.

    Do I have dandruff? Just a dry scalp? Am I not washing my hair often enough? Are the flakes due to product build-up? It's always been a big mystery to me!

    A closeup photo of dark hair and a dandruff scalp

    Determined to get to the bottom of this — and I'm sure I'm not alone here — I turned to a few experts to learn the difference between dandruff and a dry scalp and most importantly, how to treat both.

    They are:

    • Rebekkah O'Neill, master stylist and founder of The Orchard Hair

    • Dr. William D. Yates, board-certified hair loss surgeon and expert

    • Dominic Burg, trichologist and scientist for Evolis

    • Sharie Wilson and Tonya Thompson, founders of DreamGirls Hair

    • Fabio Scalia, hairstylist 

    First things first: Before you freak out after finding white flakes on the back of your sweater, know that it's completely normal for your scalp to shed skin from time to time.

    A man looking over his shoulder at the white flakes on the back of his collar

    To know how to properly treat your scalp, it's important to understand the difference between dandruff and a dry scalp.

    "Dandruff is a condition that is caused by a growth of fungus. It's a mild form of seborrheic dermatitis that increases and decreases over time," said Rebekkah O'Neill. 

    "Its most obvious form is noticeable white flakes," she said. "And it will never truly go away without proper treatment."

    O'Neill explained that it's easy to confuse a dry scalp for dandruff but they are different from one another. 

    "A dry scalp is often mistaken for dandruff. Some of the causes of dry scalp are excessive washing, sensitivity to hair care products, and a scalp struggling to maintain or produce moisture."

    If you're not sure which one you have, consult a doctor or dermatologist.

    With that in mind, here are some expert-approved tips and tricks on how to best care for your scalp this winter — whether you're dealing with dandruff or dry scalp. If you have some to add, share in the comments!

    For dandruff:

    Avoid hair products that contain alcohol, sulfates, and phthalates.

    A person reading the back label of a shampoo bottle

    Avoid over-washing your hair and using "detox" shampoos.

    The back of a person washing their hair and holding a shower head to rinse out the shampoo

    Make sure you are getting enough vitamin D.

    A person pouring vitamins into their hand

    Look for products with natural dandruff fighters.

    A close-up image of a rosemary plant

    Swap your regular shampoo for one with zinc, salicylic acid, or tea tree oil.

    A person pouring shampoo into the palm of their hand

    Or opt for a shampoo that contains apple cider vinegar, which can help balance pH levels.

    A bottle of apple cider vinegar against a white background

    Don't let your scalp get too oily.

    A person combing through their hair showing an oily scalp

    Realize that your diet can affect the health of your scalp.

    A big bowl of yogurt, berries, and honey

    If you see no improvement after troubleshooting products, wash frequency, and/or diet at home, see a professional.

    "The yeast infection has to be addressed. If you're unsuccessful with getting rid of dandruff, prescription shampoo may be needed from your doctor," said Dr. Yates. 

    For a dry scalp:

    Use products that contain natural oils such as jojoba.

    A dropper pouring oil into a bottle

    Keep your scalp moisturized with an oil treatment.

    A shower cap hanging in the shower

    Use a moisturizing shampoo with nourishing ingredients — like coconut oil or colloidal oat extract — to help treat any scalp dryness.

    A woman wearing a mask in a supermarket looking at shampoo bottles

    Do you have any dry scalp or dandruff tips that have worked well for you? Tell me in the comments below!