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

Written by Robbie Salter

Reviewed by Julie Karen, M.D.

If you’re confused about the difference between dandruff and dry scalp, we’ve got great news - you’re in good company. 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.

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. 

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. 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 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, 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
  • Your hair is greasy to the touch
  • Intense scalp irritation and itchy scalp persist even after moisturizing

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.

Treating Dry Scalp

Bringing a dry scalp to optimum health is relatively easy. Our Nourishing Conditioner with probiotics, Vitamin E, and colloidal oatmeal help moisturize a dry scalp and keeps hair looking healthy. We formulated our products with clean ingredients that moisturize and care for your scalp and hair. These ingredients include:

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is one of the most effective 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.

Aloe Vera

Aloe vera isn’t just for sunburns, it can help your scalp retain moisture. Aloe can also help soothe a dry scalp.

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.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is a natural moisturizer and helps to improve the appearance of a dry, rough scalp.


Probiotics help to moisturize the scalp and support a balanced scalp microbiome.

Maintain a Healthy Scalp

Whether it’s dandruff or dry scalp, it’s easy to maintain a healthy scalp with no dryness, no flaky skin, and no sebum. Just find the right products and simple lifestyle choices, and start shampooing! Jupiter’s dandruff care products will help control your skin condition and flakes of skin while our scalp care products can help soothe and moisturize a dry scalp. . Learn more here.

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.

See Details

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.

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