Hair Know-How: Is It Dandruff or Dry Scalp?

Find out what's at the root of your flurries.

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Half of us have dandruff, so please let's not be too embarrassed to talk about it. Read on to find out what's at the root of your flurries, because it might not actually be dandruff at all. Whatever's dusting your shoulders, we'll clear it right up.

Is It Dandruff?

Maybe not — some flakes are caused by a dry scalp and call for a totally different defense strategy. What has you scratching your head?

3 Signs of Dandruff

  1. My flakes are waxy and can be yellowish.
  2. My scalp feels a little bit oily when I touch it, and it can be itchy, too.
  3. Come to think of it, I also have some flakiness around my eyebrows.

3 Signs of Dry Scalp Flaking

  1. My flakes are like snowflakes: tiny and white.
  2. My scalp feels tight, as if it's two sizes too small.
  3. My scalp itches, and my skin everywhere else feels pretty dry too.

What Causes Dandruff?

Everyone has a yeastlike fungus growing on their scalp (bet you wish you didn't know that!), but some people develop an overgrowth of it, says Antonella Tosti, MD, a professor of clinical dermatology at the University of Miami who specializes in hair disorders. "The fungus feasts on your scalp oils and triggers redness, irritation, and flakes," she explains.

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This inflammatory condition, called seborrheic dermatitis, causes faster-than-normal cell turnover and can produce flakiness on your face, too. With a healthy scalp, those sloughed-off skin cells are barely visible, but with dandruff they come off in clusters that are large and waxy, either white or yellow.

An oily scalp can make things worse because it provides more food for the yeast, says Melissa Piliang, MD, a dermatologist who specializes in scalp and hair diseases at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

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Dandruff vs. Dry Scalp

Having too little oil on your scalp can leave you with small flakes and a lot of itchiness, says Paradi Mirmirani, MD, a dermatologist at Kaiser Permanente Northern California. Besides being itchy, your scalp may feel tight and parched. Mirmirani says her African American patients, who have naturally dry scalps and hair, are especially susceptible.

With some people a dry scalp is genetic, but others may actually be stripping away essential oils with the wrong hair care. Major culprits include sulfates and other harsh detergents in shampoos, as well as alcohol-heavy styling products such as gel and hairspray. Cool temps, dry air, and long, steamy showers can also zap moisture from your scalp.

This story originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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