Update 4/21/15: Paul Mitchell, the company I most highly recommend as a professional hairstylist, recently started selling their products onlne at Loxa Beauty – the only place approved by Paul Mitchell to purchase authentic PM products. For your convenience, you can use this or any of the partner links later in the post to purchase products at Loxa Beauty! Simply copy the name of the product you’d like from this page, and paste it into the “Search” bar on Loxa Beauty’s website.
Dandruff vs. Dry Scalp – what’s the difference?
We’ve all seen the commercials for Dandruff shampoo where a nice man or woman in a dark colored shirt is caught in an embarrassing situation with unsightly little white flakes of scalp snowing down onto their shoulders. “Oh,” their friend or colleague will assure them, “try this shampoo and your flakes will be gone!” Right? No. Yes. Well, maybe.
You see, it’s not quite as simple as that. The flakes we see on their shoulders aren’t usually dandruff; they’re dry scalp, and yes there is a difference. Unfortunately these commercials cause people to misidentify their problem, and often mistreat it, possibly making it worse.
Let’s go over a few of the major differences between Dandruff and dry scalp. I should also make it clear before we get into the thick of it that your hairstylist may be able to give you their personal and professional opinion on what scalp condition you have, but Dandruff can only be diagnosed by a doctor, and I certainly can not diagnose you online.
We’ll start here, since this is what the majority of people who think they have Dandruff actually have. Dry scalp is characterized by small, white flakes of scalp. It can be caused by severe dehydration and over-shedding of the scalp, using poor quality shampoo and conditioner which are stripping your scalp of it’s natural oils, over-washing your hair, washing your hair with hot water, or change in the seasons. It may also be accompanied by itching and irritation. Here are some ways that you can combat dry scalp. (Note that dry scalp can also be genetic, in which case there isn’t a whole lot to be done about it)
1. Make sure to drink plenty of water. I often forget to do this in the winter-time, but staying well hydrated in the winter is important for our skin because we are often moving in and out of heated buildings, which can suck moisture from your skin. If you’re well hydrated on the inside, your whole body will function better, and your hair and skin will look and feel better since your body will be more easily able to turn over new cells.
2. Switch to a professional shampoo and conditioner. Many drugstore brand shampoos have harsh cleansing agents which will strip your hair of the natural oils that it needs to stay hydrated. Beware of claims that drugstore products are “pH balanced”. This means nothing. They are allowed to make this claim no matter what because everything that is water soluble has a pH, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the same pH as your hair and skin. Most professional products ARE balanced to the pH of your skin unless they are meant to serve a certain purpose like clarifying shampoo for swimmers. A couple of good professional products are Paul Mitchell Instant Moisture Shampoo and Instant Moisture Daily Treatment, and Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Special Shampoo and Conditioner (available here). One of my favorites for dry scalp is Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Hair and Scalp Treatment. The tea tree is soothing for itchiness, and the treatment should be massaged into your scalp and has little beads to help exfoliate dead skin cells so that they don’t fall off later, when you don’t want them to. The tea tree treatment isn’t necessary to use every day, and you want to make sure to rinse it out thoroughly. I should also mention that although Paul Mitchell’s Tea Tree products are fairly color safe, anything with tea tree oil has the potential to fade color, so if you have your hair colored, you probably won’t want to use tea tree products every day.
3. Wash your hair less often and with cooler water. Hot water strips the natural oils from your skin causing it to feel tight and dry. I know a lot of people love to take scalding hot showers, but it’s really terrible for your skin and can cause all kinds of irritation and problems down the road. Also if you think you have a dry scalp, and you wash your hair every day, try to cut it down to every other day at the most; this will give your skin a chance to create the oil that you need to protect your skin and re-balance it’s own natural pH.
4. Gently brush your scalp before washing your hair. Use a brush that has bristles which are close together and not too stiff. Start at your hairline and work around your head, making sure to brush all areas of your scalp. This will help loosen dead skin cells which are ready to shed off so that you can wash them out.
Dandruff is usually characterized by larger, greasy or waxy flakes or clusters of skin cells and are usually yellowish or grey. They may come off in your hair brush or stick to your hair or scalp, and are accompanied by itching. Dandruff, unlike dry scalp, is usually associated with a fungal or bacterial infection of the scalp. If you have dandruff, you should clean and disinfect brushes, combs, hats, towels etc. between each use. [edited: and as one commenter’s dermatologist recommended, changing your pillowcase daily may help as well!] The type and cause of Dandruff can only be diagnosed by a medical professional. Here are a few things you can try to help combat Dandruff, but be sure to check with your doctor/dermatologist, especially if it is accompanied by severe itching, bleeding, or oozing.
1. Shampoos and conditioners which contain Tea Tree oil can be effective against dandruff caused by infection because tea tree has natural anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. I recommend Paul Mitchell’s line of Tea Tree products, which are available here. [edited: As one commenter suggested, dilute any essential oils with water instead of applying directly to your scalp. Or you can add a couple of drops to your shampoo before use]
2. Cut down on styling products, especially if they are greasy or waxy. Too much product and improper shampooing creates build-up on your hair and scalp, which can cause dandruff, or make it worse.
3. Don’t scratch. Scratching can damage your scalp, making it vulnerable to infection. Extreme damage to your scalp and follicles can result in hair loss which may be permanent.
4. Of course, see your doctor! Your doctor will be able to properly diagnose your condition and recommend or prescribe products and routines to manage your Dandruff problem!
I hope this helped to clear up some of the misconceptions you may have had about dandruff. Remember, I am a cosmetologist, not a medical professional. This article is meant to be informative, based on the information that I have, but I can not claim 100% accuracy and I absolutely can not diagnose you. You are most welcome to leave a comment to share your experience and suggestions, but since the comments and emails regarding this post have become numerous, I will no longer be responding to them individually.
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By Kelsi Eldredge