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Dandruff vs Dry Scalp: What's The Difference + Natural Solutions

Apr 28, 2018 BY Seanna Cohen

The next time you reach for the dandruff shampoo to treat a flaky scalp, first consider whether it’s actually dandruff or just a dry scalp.

We tend to use the term ‘dandruff’ generally to include all symptoms that include a flaky, dry and itchy scalp (you can thank popular shampoo commercials for this!). When it comes down to it, dandruff and the related condition of seborrheic dermatitis, have very unique characteristics including dry skin and require different treatment.

Dry Scalp

What is it?

Small, white flakes of dead skin is often the first symptom of a dry scalp, which can also tingle and feel itchy.

Causes of Dry Scalp

• Washing your hair too often and stripping the scalp of natural oils

• Using a shampoo that contains sodium laureth sulphate or sodium lauryl sulphate (SLES/SLS)

• Using baking soda as a hair wash (the ‘no poo’ hair washing method may have many benefits for certain hair types, but baking soda is very alkaline and can cause skin irritation for most people)

• Weather changes and humidity levels

Sun burn

Natural Solutions for Dry Scalp 

• Wash your hair less often and use a SLS-free shampoo

• Wet your hair and scalp and massage in a nourishing oil like argan, letting it fully absorb overnight. Follow up by washing your hair in the morning.

• Once a week, rinse your scalp with a diluted apple cider vinegar solution (2 parts water, 1 part vinegar). Dry skin is alkaline, meaning it has a high pH (normal skin has a pH around 5.5). Apple cider vinegar can help to decrease the scalp’s pH level and balance the alkalinity of dry skin.

• Exfoliate your scalp. We often neglect the scalp but just like your face, it can benefit from regular exfoliation.

Exfoliation treatment

Apply full fat Greek yogurt to your scalp using a large makeup brush (do this in the same way a hair stylist applies hair dye to your roots). Cover your hair with a cap and let it sit for 15-20 minutes. The lactic acid in the yogurt will help to gently break down dead skin cells, leaving your scalp flake free.

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What is it?

Dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis (SD) are related conditions that affect the scalp and sometimes the body (in the case of SD). Dandruff looks very similar to a dry scalp but flakes may be larger and more widespread. SD also causes a flaky scalp, but flakes may look yellowish and sometimes waxy because it’s an inflammatory skin disorder generally found in areas where oil glands are most prevalent. For babies, SD is known as “cradle cap”.

Causes of Dandruff

Some people may be more prone to dandruff and SD than others and is generally associated with bacterial or fungal growth, overproduction of skin cells, and overactive oil glands (which is why you see cradle cap in infants because their oil glands have not yet regulated production).

Natural Solutions For Dandruff

•Anti-fungals such as tea tree oil

• For a natural solution, apple cider vinegar or tea tree oil used in a shampoo or hair rinse can help relieve symptoms

• For severe cases, consult a naturopathic doctor for a natural treatment plan

• Infant cradle cap is best left alone. For a temporary solution, you can massage the scalp with coconut oil or olive oil and gently removed the crusts using a soft bristled brush. There’s no permanent solution to cradle cap except to wait it out until your infant outgrows the condition (often around 8-12 months of age).

The next time your scalp is dry and itchy, hold up on buying those dandruff shampoos! You may just need to switch up your shampoo and give your scalp a good exfoliating or moisturizing treatment.

Have you experienced dandruff? What solutions have you used that work?

Apr 28, 2018 BY Seanna Cohen
Nicky   •   May 1, 2018

I learned something new today. Thanks for this post.

Rachel Molenda   •   May 2, 2018

Happy you enjoyed it Nicky :) Rachel - Joyous Health Team

Hollie   •   May 3, 2018

My hair is very oily, but it still have flakes. What do you think it is and/or what do you recommend?

Seanna   •   July 3, 2018

Hi Hollie, it could potentially be seborrheic dermatitis if the flakes appear to be yellowish. Before you embark on any serious treatments though, I would make sure the shampoo you are using is gentle, SLS free and non drying. Just like the face, the scalp may be over producing oil if it's severely dehydrated (which is why you see flakes). When your scalp is properly moisturized, it will maintain a happy equilibrium and only produce as much oil as it needs. If you have the chance, go a few days without shampooing your hair which can help regulate the oil production (see this article You can also try using a full fat greek yogurt mask on your scalp to exfoliate the dead skin (lactic acid in yogurt is a natural exfoliant) and milk fats are naturally moisturizing. I know it sounds gross and messy, but works! Use a cosmetic brush and work in sections to apply the yogurt only on your scalp. Leave on for 15-20 minutes. Shampoo and condition as usual. Hope that helps! - Seanna (

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Jen   •   July 2, 2018

What if you have dry and itchy scalp because of eczema? What is the best oil to use to moisturize. I’ve tried coconut oil especially overnight but when I wake up it gets all dried up and flaky.

Rachel Molenda   •   July 5, 2018

Hi Jen, You may want to try doing a coconut oil hair mask or another type of hair mask and leaving it in at night and washing it out in the morning. But if eczema is at the root of your flaky scalp, it's best to address that through diet, supplementation and lifestyle. Do you have a copy of our Eczema Healing Guide? If not, I would highly recommend it! Rachel - Joyous Health Team

Jen W.   •   September 10, 2018

I have a question about the exfoliating treatment. Can I still use Greek yogurt if I have an intolerance to dairy since it’s just going on my scalp and since I’m not ingesting it? Or should I use non dairy yogurt?

Rachel Molenda   •   September 11, 2018

Hey Jen, It should be okay unless you have an actual allergy to dairy. But typically food sensitivities and topical sensititives do not translate to each other. With that said, I would double check with your natural health care practitioner or consider testing it on a small patch of skin on your hand before doing so if you are concerned. Rachel - Joyous Health Team

Jen W.   •   September 13, 2018

Hi Rachel, sorry for asking this again.. but I get confused between allergy vs. intolerance. I guess I have an allergy since I had blood work done and I can't have dairy. Since this is the case, would I still be able to use the yogurt treatment?

Rachel Molenda   •   September 13, 2018

Hey Jen, It sounds like you did an IgE test which would test for allergies that potentially lead to hives and more severe reactions. Whereas an IgG test would test for food sensitivities. If you have an allergy to dairy, I would advise against the yogurt treatment to avoid potential skin irritation. I hope that helps! Rachel - Joyous Health Team 

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