Skip To Content

    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.

    MTV / Via

    My scalp usually gets itchy and flaky when I have a lot of product in and my hair is due to be washed. But during the winter, the flakes multiply — which I've always assumed is due to the change in weather.

    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
    Doucefleur / Getty Images/iStockphoto / Via Getty Images

    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

    • Dr. 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
    Andreypopov / Getty Images/iStockphoto / Via Getty Images

    "Simply having dry skin on your scalp that is a little flaky and produces a few flakes of dander here and there is nothing out of the ordinary," explained Dr. Dominic Burg. 

    "But when the shedding is excessive and visible, it may be a sign that it is something more than just dry skin," he said. 

    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
    Oscar Wong / Getty Images / Via Getty Images

    These ingredients are all drying and make the scalp prone to irritation, according to Dr. William D. Yates.

    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
    Skynesher / Getty Images / Via Getty Images

    Dr. Dominic Burg said over-washing and using 'scalp detoxing' shampoos are big mistakes you can make if you have dandruff. "Over-washing can cause your scalp to produce more oil than usual, which exacerbates the underlying cause of the dandruff." 

    "Some scalp detoxes can be extremely drying to the scalp and can further damage your scalp microbiome, which could lead to a larger imbalance of yeasts, and further dandruff issues," he said. 

    Make sure you are getting enough vitamin D.

    A person pouring vitamins into their hand
    Science Photo Library / Getty Images/Science Photo Library RF / Via Getty Images

    "Vitamin D deficiency is also associated with outbreaks of dermatitis and other skin issues, so ensuring you are getting enough sunlight or taking a supplement can also help keep dandruff at bay," explained Dr. Burg. 

    Look for products with natural dandruff fighters.

    A close-up image of a rosemary plant
    Dukai Photographer / Getty Images / Via Getty Images

    "The inflammation associated with dandruff can be soothed by ingredients like rosemary, pomegranate, and mangosteen which all contain the actives ellagic acid and alpha-mangostin respectively," said Dr. Burg.  

    "Both are good natural antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that can have a positive impact on scalp health," he said. 

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

    A person pouring shampoo into the palm of their hand
    Juanma Hache / Getty Images / Via Getty Images

    "Over-the-counter or drugstore shampoos that contain zinc, salicylic acid, or tea tree oil can really help alleviate flakes," said Dr. Yates. 

    Zinc and tea tree oil are both anti-fungals which means they can kill fungus, bacteria, and microorganisms that cause an itchy, flaky scalp. Salicylic acid helps soothe and moisturize the scalp. 

    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
    Tylim / Getty Images/iStockphoto / Via Getty Images

    "In addition to shampoos focused on dandruff, adding in a clarifying shampoo that helps remove build-up is also a great idea," said Dr. Yates. 

    "Look for a clarifying shampoo that contains apple cider vinegar which can help return the pH balance to normal and reduce inflammation and irritation," he explained. 

    Don't let your scalp get too oily.

    A person combing through their hair showing an oily scalp
    Sinhyu / Getty Images/iStockphoto / Via Getty Images

    "Allowing the scalp to get too oily can cause increased dandruff severity and symptoms. The most important action to take is to neutralize the fungi and yeast on the scalp by washing your hair when it starts to look oily and dirty," said Dr. Yates. 

    If you feel the need to drown your oily hair in dry shampoo, that means it's time to give it a good wash. 

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

    A big bowl of yogurt, berries, and honey
    1989_s / Getty Images/iStockphoto / Via Getty Images

    Dandruff is caused by an overgrowth of yeast — and sugary, processed foods can contribute to the growth of yeast. To help combat dandruff, pay attention to what you're eating.

    Fabio Scalia recommends adding in whole foods that are rich in probiotics, vitamins, amino acids, antioxidants, and minerals. 

    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
    Anna Efetova / Getty Images / Via Getty Images

    "For a dry scalp, look for products with nourishing natural oils such as baobab and jojoba, which are fantastic for the scalp and hair," said Dr. Burg.  

    "Jojoba oil has a similar structure to your natural oils, so it's specifically an amazing moisturizer," he said.

    Keep your scalp moisturized with an oil treatment.

    A shower cap hanging in the shower
    Norrie3699 / Getty Images/iStockphoto / Via Getty Images

    "We recommend oiling your scalp with an intense oil treatment. Use one that contains almond oil and soybean oil which aid in moisturizing your hair and scalp," said Sharie Wilson and Tonya Thompson. 

    Oiling is a technique that consists of applying and massaging oil on your scalp in a circular motion. Once the oil is massaged in, cover your head with a shower cap, leave on overnight, and wash your hair like normal the next day. You'll be left with a happy, hydrated scalp. 

    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
    Ergin Yalcin / Getty Images / Via Getty Images

    "Use a gentle, moisturizing shampoo to prevent hair and scalp dryness," said O'Neill.

    Be on the lookout for shampoos with nourishing ingredients such as coconut oil, soothing colloidal oat extract, and amino acids. 

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