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Dandruff vs. Dry Scalp: What’s The Difference?

Written by Robbie Salter
Reviewed by Julie Karen, M.D.
Dandruff vs. Dry Scalp: What’s The Difference?

If you’re confused about the difference between dandruff and dry scalp, we’ve got great news - you’re in good company. Most people experience both conditions and may not realize that they’re not exactly the same thing.

Dandruff and dry scalp are closely related, but in ways you may not expect. The two conditions have overlapping symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment - and one person may have both conditions.

In other words, it’s a muddy concept. But we’ve got your back on this one. In this article, we’ll peel back the confusion around dandruff and dry scalp, so you can get a little savvier about your scalp health.

Remember, the key to any issue, especially when it comes to our bodies, is to understand the underlying cause. Once you know the difference between a dry scalp and dandruff, you can better treat your specific condition.

Dandruff And Dry Scalp: The Basics

What is Dandruff?

You probably already know that your skin naturally sheds over time. In fact, the average adult sheds millions of skin cells every day. And, like anywhere else on your body, the skin on your scalp also sheds. 

This is totally normal and even though it sounds similar, isn’t the same as the flaking we experience when we have a dry scalp or dandruff.

When the process of skin-shedding on your scalp gets a bit out of control, it results in dandruff. Dandruff is simply flaking that results from irritation of the scalp and the build-up of oily skin cells. Those pesky flakes that appear on the shoulder of your black sweater are, of course, dead skin cells that your scalp is shedding. 

So what causes this haywire shedding process? It can be triggered by a number of conditions that irritate the scalp, including psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, and - yep - simple dry scalp (more about that in a moment).

But why exactly do these irritating conditions cause dead skin to flake off in big chunks? Surprisingly, we still don’t really know. While there are some strong theories out there, even the American Academy of Dermatology states that the jury is still out on the pathology of dandruff. What we do know pretty well are the conditions that tend to coincide with dandruff. That’s what gives us the ability to treat it.

What is Dry Scalp?

On the flip side, a dry scalp is a fairly simple (and less severe) condition. Typically, the skin of the scalp is lubricated by natural oils. When these oils are inadequate, or we’ve stripped too much of them using harmful products or dyes, the scalp dries out. This might occur due to weather fluctuations, changes in a person’s diet and hair care routine, and other factors. When the scalp is dry, it can become itchy, red, and irritated. It might even start to flake. That’s right - dry scalp can (but doesn’t necessarily) cause dandruff. 

Dandruff is simply flaking that results from irritation of the scalp.

Symptoms of Dandruff and Dry Scalp

The most obvious sign of dandruff is the appearance of flakes (dead skin cells) on your shoulders or in your hair. Dandruff flakes caused by dry scalp are smaller and white, while dandruff flakes caused by seborrheic dermatitis tend to be larger and yellow. 

Other symptoms of dandruff and dry scalp are very similar, which often leads to the two becoming confused for each other. Here are some of the most commonly cited symptoms of both dandruff and dry scalp:

  • Itchy, irritated scalp

  • White or yellow flakes on shoulders

  • Oily or scaly facial skin

  • Facial rashes

  • Eyebrow or beard rashes

Do You Have Dandruff or Dry Scalp?

This part is tricky, because it’s not really an either-or question. You can have dandruff without dry scalp. Or you can have dry scalp without dandruff. Or you can have both. Or neither. (In that case, congrats!)

Generally, the differences between dandruff and dry scalp are subtle. However, you’re more likely to have dandruff if:

Your Scalp Feels Greasy or Oily

The flakes we experience from dandruff are usually thicker, denser, and more saturated with oil.

Your Hair is Greasy to The Touch 

If you’re regularly shampooing and still having an issue with grease, dandruff could be to blame.

Intense Scalp Irritation and Itchy Scalp Persist Even After Moisturizing.

Conditioning and moisturizing will usually soothe the symptoms of a dry scalp, so if you’re still feeling these symptoms, it’s a sign there’s something else going on.

Take a closer look at the flakes you see on your shirt. Typically, flaking as a result of a dry scalp will look lighter and smaller. If you’ve ever scratched at your elbow while it’s dry, you’ve probably seen tiny skin particles pop up to the surface. 

That’s what flaking from a dry scalp will look like. 

Treating Dandruff

While dandruff cannot be cured, your flaky scalp can be easily managed with an anti-dandruff shampoo. Quality dandruff shampoo coupled with a moisturizing conditioner is your first line of defense for combatting itchiness, excess oil, and other side effects like white flakes and dry skin. Some over-the-counter hair care products use coal tar, salicylic acid, or selenium sulfide as a scalp treatment, but we prefer a gentle shampoo that packs a punch. At Jupiter, our Balancing Shampoo, a shampoo formulated with Zinc Pyrithione (a safe and effective compound that helps eliminate dandruff), will quickly make flakes a thing of the past.

Zinc Pyrithione has antifungal properties, and is an FDA-listed active ingredient that fights dandruff. Remember before we mentioned that the scalp’s process of shedding skin cells gets out of control when we see dandruff? Well, the reason for that imbalance, more often than not, is an overgrowth of a yeast called Malassezia

Technically a fungus, this species naturally appears all over our skin and especially on our scalp. Some of it is meant to be there. But when an overgrowth occurs, Malassezia munches on our scalp’s natural oils, depriving our scalp of what it needs to shed skin cells naturally.

That’s why so many anti-dandruff shampoos, including ours, contain an antifungal ingredient. Zinc Pyrithione prevents Malassezia from regenerating and restores balance and harmony to our scalp. Ah, what a relief.

There is also some evidence indicating a zinc deficiency in your diet can lead to dandruff. Eat foods rich in zinc and pay close attention to the ingredients label on your hair care products. If they don’t include Zinc Pyrithione or another active antifungal ingredient, it’s time to replace them. 

Treating Dry Scalp

Compared to dandruff, bringing a dry scalp to optimum health is relatively easy. Generally, we experience irritation on our scalps because we’ve removed too many of our natural oils.

Shampoos that contain sulfates tend to do a little too good of a job of cleansing our roots. They can remove grease, excess oil, and all the natural oil we need to keep our scalps lubricated and refreshed. When we look to treat dry scalp, we’re looking to restore that natural barrier between the skin cells on our head and the world around us. 

We formulated our products with clean and cruelty-free ingredients that moisturize and care for your scalp and hair. These ingredients include:

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is one of the most effective natural remedies available for a dry scalp. Not only does coconut oil make your hair smell amazing, but it can exfoliate and moisturize your scalp. Other oils like tea tree oil can also help scalp conditions. They’ll act as an emollient, creating a barrier to protect your scalp.

Aloe Vera

Aloe vera isn’t just for sunburns, it can help your scalp retain moisture. Aloe can also help soothe a dry scalp, resulting in a cooling sensation that should bring you some relief from inflammation.

Colloidal Oatmeal

Colloidal oatmeal works to not only soothe the scalp but also to moisturize and hydrate. As a bonus, it also works as a natural skin cleanser. Just another example of Mother Nature providing us with everything we need to stay balanced and healthy.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is a natural moisturizer and helps to improve the appearance of a dry, rough scalp. It also has antioxidant properties, further helping to protect your scalp from external factors.


Probiotics help to moisturize the scalp and support a balanced scalp microbiome. They essentially introduce ‘healthy’ live bacteria to your body. As counterintuitive as that may sound, probiotics are effective at relieving imbalance on our skin.

Pataua Oil

Breakage tends to happen when our hair is feeling dry. Pataua oil helps restore our hair’s natural seal and strengthens damaged ends.

Green Tea Extract

And lastly, because we believe your future hair is as important as your current hair, we included green tea extract, which helps support healthy hair growth and serves as a natural anti-aging ingredient.

Maintain a Healthy Scalp

While eye masks and long naps can help us feel more rested and restored, and are important for our mental health, it’s important to remember that the practice of self-care also includes prioritizing our physical health. 

It can be easy to forget about scalp health. Between exercise, skincare, and maintaining a healthy diet, sometimes it feels like our bodies ask too much of us.

The good news is it’s not hard to treat an irritated scalp or a stubborn case of dandruff. You just have to be willing to try. No matter what you’re experiencing, you can maintain a healthy scalp with no dryness, no flaky skin, and no sebum. 

Invest a little time into finding the right products, read their labels closely and carefully, build a care routine that works for you, and start shampooing your way to a healthier scalp!

Jupiter’s dandruff care products will help control your skin condition, no matter the cause, while our scalp care products can help soothe and moisturize a dry scalp, leaving you rejuvenated and refreshed. In addition to our Balancing Shampoo and Nourishing Conditioner, check out our leave - in Restoring Serum that controls dandruff between washes. 

If your hair and scalp are looking for a little more love, we recommend trying our Purifying Mask, which clears away the build-up of excess oils and pulls out impurities. It’s a spa treatment in a bottle, and we’re obsessed. For our full line of dandruff and scalp care products, save some money with The “Whole Darn Set” Set.  We know you’ll love it, and your scalp will too. 

Balancing Shampoo
Balancing Shampoo

Meet our medicated head honcho. This soothing cleanser gets to the root of dandruff (flaking, irritation, dry scalp), thanks to our star active ingredient, Zinc Pyrithione. Proven to also reduce hair breakage by 30% - with a lush aroma of mint, vanilla, sage, and lavender - it’s bound to elevate your mood and your shower.

The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice, nor is it a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician with any questions you may have about the information contained herein, as well as the risks or benefits of any treatment.