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Scaling the Truth: Decoding Dry Scalp vs. Dandruff

Updated: Feb 24

Blonde with Flakey Scalp

Hey there! Welcome to our ultimate guide on tackling those pesky dandruff and dry scalp issues. We totally get it—they can be a real pain, causing all sorts of discomfort, annoying itchiness, and even hair loss if you let them run wild. Not the kind of Frosted Flakes you want.  But fret not! We've got your back with a bunch of awesome scalp treatments that can help kick these problems to the curb. So, let's dive right in the understanding the differences between Dandruff and Dry Scalp, and some seriously effective preventatives and remedies.

Understanding Dandruff and Dry Scalp

Dandruff and Dry Scalp are not mutually exclusive.  According to the Cleveland Clinic, Dry scalp without dandruff is condition that occurs when your scalp loses too much moisture. Hair care products, the weather, age and various skin conditions can cause dry scalp. 

So before we dive into the treatments, let's understand what causes dandruff and dry scalp, and how they are different from one another.

What is Dandruff and What Causes It?

Dandruff is a common condition that causes flakes of skin to appear on the scalp and in the hair, accompanied by itchiness and redness. Dandruff can be caused by factors like overgrowth of yeast on the scalp, dry or oily skin, allergic reactions to hair products, and even stress.

What is Dry Scalp and What Causes It?

Dry scalp occurs when the skin on the scalp becomes dry and flaky, caused by factors like cold weather, hot showers, harsh shampoos, hair styling products, and sun exposure.

Have you ever experienced “Winter Scalp”?  This happens when the temperature outside is cold and the humidity is really low.  If you are not prepared so an environmental change, you may experience a little extra itch up top.

What Happens If Left Untreated?

If you leave dandruff or dry scalp untreated, things can go from bad to worse. Ignoring these conditions can lead to a host of unpleasant consequences. First off, you'll likely continue to experience discomfort and persistent itchiness, which can be quite irritating. But it doesn't stop there. Untreated dandruff or dry scalp can also result in more severe issues like inflammation, redness, and even hair loss. Yep, you read that right—your precious locks could be at risk! So it's important to take action and find the right treatments to nip these problems before they escalate.

If you experience persistent dry scalp or if it is accompanied by itching, redness, or flaking, it's advisable to consult with a dermatologist or healthcare professional to identify what is really going on internally.  Many Autoimmune diseases can have a side effect of a thick flakey scalp, such as psoriasis, eczema, or a hormonal imbalance. 

Scalp Treatments for Dandruff and Dry Scalp

There are many effective scalp treatments available that can alleviate the symptoms of dandruff and dry scalp. The best way to ease and clear symptoms would be to exfoliate the dead and dry cells, then nourish the scalp to balance sebaceous moisture.  Here are some of the most effective treatments:

Citrus Rich Exfoliation:

For a deep exfoliation, using a citrus rich exfoliator is very effective. Make sure to follow it with a nourishing treatment to avoid dehydration. Here are 2 great products that I recommend for a serious deep clean:

NUTRAFOL's Build-Up Blocker Scalp Microbiome Exfoliating Mask

nutrafol build-up cleanser

Clinically shown to dissolve excess sebum and balance oil production, remove dirt and product build-up, and visibly improve dryness and flakiness. In a clinical study, 100% of users had an immediate reduction in sebum and 97% of users had an immediate reduction in product build-up.

Hair Cleansing Cream Clarifying Shampoo

redken hair cleansing cream

Redken Hair Cleansing Cream is a detoxifying and clarifying shampoo for all hair types (including colored treated hair) and hair textures that removes dry shampoo and product build up, hard water minerals, excess oil, and pollution residue in just one use, all while strengthening the hair cuticle.

Make sure to use a conditioning scalp and hair mask after these treatments to really seal the deal on rebalancing your scalp while protecting your hair.

Lactic Acid:

Products containing lactic acid can actually be quite beneficial for the scalp. Lactic acid is a gentle exfoliant that helps to remove dead skin cells, promoting a healthier scalp environment. By using lactic acid-based products, you can effectively combat dandruff and dry scalp. This acid works by gently sloughing off the buildup of dead skin cells, unclogging hair follicles, and promoting a balanced pH level on your scalp. The result? A refreshed and revitalized scalp that's less prone to flakiness and dryness. So, when you come across products with lactic acid as an ingredient, consider giving them a go—they might just be the secret weapon your scalp needs! What I recommend for this is:

NUTRAFOL's Stress Reliever Scalp Microbiome Essence

nutrafol scalp stress reliever

Clinically shown to boost the overall health of the scalp by calming redness and irritation, reducing dryness, and visibly improving hydration. In a clinical study, 97% of users felt their scalp was soothed after incorporating Stress Reliever into their weekly routine for 4 weeks.

Apple Cider Vinegar:

If you are ok with the natural aroma of vinegar, then this natural astringent can be used as a rinse after shampooing or as a scalp treatment by diluting it with water and massaging it into your scalp to balance the pH of your scalp and reduce inflammation.

Tea Tree Oil:

This natural antifungal and antibacterial agent can be added to your regular shampoo or used as a scalp treatment by diluting it with a carrier oil and massaging it into your scalp. Make sure that you test a small section of skin first to avoid any allergy.

Coconut Oil:

This natural moisturizer can be applied to the scalp as a treatment by warming it up and massaging it into your scalp to alleviate the symptoms of a dry scalp.

Aloe Vera:

This natural moisturizer can be applied directly to the scalp as a treatment or added to your regular shampoo to soothe and hydrate a dry scalp. It has an enzyme making it another natural antifungal.

Fun Tip: Aloe Vera is also great to add to any hair styling gel if it is too strong.

Salicylic Acid:

This common ingredient in many dandruff shampoos works by breaking down the buildup of dead skin cells on the scalp to alleviate the symptoms of dandruff, and works to prevent flakiness.

My favorite scalp treatment and one that I offer in salon is MoroccanOil's Dry Scalp Treatment

moroccan oil scalp treatment

This five-minute pre-cleansing treatment is infused with a powerful blend of natural ingredients and essential oils to provide instant relief for dry, flaky, or itchy scalps.* It is formulated with salicylic acid, geranium oil to soothe, argan oil to nourish, and Vitamin E to help revitalize and repair damaged hair. Together, they help protect the scalp from future outbreaks and imbalances and moisturize to help maintain the look and feel of a healthy scalp, resulting in fuller, shinier hair. Features a natural aroma with a deeply relaxing lavender and geranium blend.

In a consumer perception study conducted on 50 respondents, after just 2 weeks:

before and after scalp image after cleanse

  • 96% said the scalp felt soothed

  • 94% said the feeling of scalp itchiness was reduced

  • 94% said their scalp felt moisturized

  • 94% said overall scalp health felt improved

  • 90% said the formula cleansed scalp of loose flakes


The element is another excellent ingredient that can work wonders for the scalp. It plays a crucial role in maintaining a healthy scalp environment and can effectively combat dandruff and dryness. Zinc helps to regulate oil production, soothes inflammation, and promote cell regeneration on the scalp. By incorporating zinc-based products into your hair care routine, you can help control the overgrowth of yeast (which is a big contributor to dandruff) and promote a balanced, moisturized scalp.

Additionally, zinc has antimicrobial properties that can help prevent scalp infections. So, if you're dealing with dandruff or dry scalp, products containing zinc, such as REDKEN's Scalp Relief Dandruff Control Shampoo, can be a fantastic addition to your arsenal, keeping those pesky flakes at bay.

REDKEN's Scalp Relief Dandruff Control Shampoo

redken scalp relief shampoo

Redken's Scalp Relief Dandruff Control Shampoo is a gentle dandruff shampoo that contains Pyrithione zinc and has been dermatologist tested. This specialized hair treatment clarifies and relieves the scalp while leaving hair silky smooth.

The Zohan Silky Smooth image

How You Can Prevent Dry Scalp

Preventing dry scalp involves maintaining a healthy balance of moisture and oils on the scalp.  Here are some tips to avoid Dandruff or Dry Scalp:

  • Regular Shampooing - Use a gentle shampoo and avoid harsh chemicals... keyword being “harsh".  Maintaining a healthy shampooing regimen is really important… not too much, and not too little.

  • Use a Moisturizing Conditioner - Make sure you focus on the ends of the hair and work your way up to near the scalp.  Ensuring that there is more product on the hair with little on the scalp to avoid any buildup.

  • Humidity Control - Use a humidifier to add moisture to the hair, and help to prevent “Winter Scalp”… moisture in the air makes a big difference (ask any Floridian)

  • Limit Heat Styling - Avoid using hair styling products that contain alcohol.

  • Avoid hot showers - use lukewarm water instead,  or at least finish lukewarm or cold.

  • Protect Your Head from the Sun - Wear a hat or use sunscreen to protect your scalp from the sun.

  • Massage Your Scalp - Show yourself some self care in your routine.

  • Eat a Balanced Diet - A balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals plays a big role in the health of your hair and scalp.

  • Drink More Water - This may be the most important tip... Stay Hydrated!!! 

Health Tip: Keep in mind that your skin is a reflection of what is happening inside your body.  Staying hydrating is not just important for your scalp, but for your overall health.  Inflammation in the body comes out in all kinds of ways.  Diet and hydration play the biggest role in this. 

Wrapping Up...

The secret to fabulous hair is a healthy scalp. That's why it's crucial to give your scalp the care it deserves. Whether you prefer natural remedies or at home salon treatments, using the right scalp treatments can work wonders in alleviating those pesky symptoms and boosting your scalp's overall health. Of course, if you find that your symptoms persist or get worse, it's always wise to reach out to a dermatologist or healthcare provider for expert advice. So why not give some of these treatments a try? Incorporate them into your hair care routine, and get ready to witness the amazing difference they can make for the health of your scalp and your luscious locks.

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