Dandruff, Dryness & Buildup (Oh My): How To Determine Which Flakes You Have
Dandruff, dryness, and buildup: Each contribute to a less than stellar hair day, yet identifying which condition you have is no easy task—they all have overlapping symptoms (namely, flakes and itchiness), but treating them incorrectly can leave you with an even bigger shedload of itchy flecks. All that to say, it takes more than pure guesswork to ensure a healthy and shiny scalp.
So, how can you tell which you have—dandruff, dryness, or buildup? We gathered derms to weigh in.
What's the difference between dandruff, dryness, and product buildup?
Let's chat dandruff: Technically, dandruff is seborrheic dermatitis, a form of eczema, that's caused by a yeast called Malassezia furfur, board-certified dermatologist Raechele Cochran Gathers, M.D., tells us about the condition. These flares tend to happen for a multitude of reasons (read all about 'em here), but the most common triggers tend to be a change in weather—both cold and humid temperatures—as well as stress.
Product buildup, on the other hand, happens when residue from (yep) hair care products accumulates on the scalp and suffocates those hair follicles. But even if you don't use products, you can get buildup from going too long between washes: oil, dirt, and dead skin cells can accumulate between strands pretty easily. When there's prolonged buildup, you can face what's known as scalp inflammation—which includes symptoms like irritation, itchiness, and flaking (aka, very similar signs to dandruff).
There's also just general scalp dryness, which is a whole other conversation: Scalp dryness typically happens due to natural skin shedding when your scalp is in dire need of hydration (like how the skin on your face may flake when it's parched). It's not dandruff, or buildup, but it's just as important to tend to, especially as the weather turns crisp.
Needless to say, it's crucial to I.D. your flakes, as they require totally different types of treatment. For example, if you think you're facing some run-of-the-mill scalp dryness, you might skip a shampoo or two—a parched scalp is frequently attributed to over-shampooing—or lay on the hydrating scalp masks and oil treatments. But if it's product buildup, you actually need to wash your hair more in order to lift all the gunk off the strands. And if it's dandruff, applying more oil onto the scalp may only increase the amount of itchy scales. See the issue here?
So how can you tell which you have?
You may want to take a closer look at the flakes themselves (gross but necessary): According to board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D., flakes from buildup typically leave fine, powdery flakes on the scalp. Whereas "Dandruff flakes tend to be large, individual scale-like flakes on the scalp or base of the hair." As for dryness? Those flakes look similar to traditional dandruff flecks, just a bit smaller and more white (dandruff can look a bit yellowish, especially if you have large, oily scales).
You may also notice that product buildup is more "sticky" on the hair, while dandruff and dryness tend to flake out. Hair care products were made to deposit residue on the strand, after all, so it makes sense the leftover buildup would adhere to the hair. Run your fingers through your hair or massage your scalp for a beat—if those flakes fall (or you find them along your ears or in your eyebrows), they're likely from dandruff.
Of course, if the buildup is bordering on severe, it can certainly flake out, too. That's why board-certified dermatologist Iris Rubin, M.D., founder of SEEN Hair Care, recommends a little experiment to figure out which condition you truly have: "Try a clarifying shampoo, and if the flakes persist, it is more likely dandruff," she says. Zeichner agrees: "Product buildup goes away with clarifying shampoos," he says. "It may happen once and never again if you change your hair care routine." Dandruff, on the other hand, can come and go—he mentions finding a shampoo with zinc pyrithione, which lowers levels of the yeast that drives the inflammation. (Salicylic acid and tea tree oil also provide great results.)
Dandruff, buildup, and scalp dryness may all look similar at first glance, but they require totally different treatments. You might be itching to pile on the scalp products as soon as the first flake falls, but take a moment to peer more closely at the flecks themselves—those slight differences have tons to say.
Jamie Schneider is the Beauty & Wellness Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare. In her role at mbg, she reports on everything from the top beauty industry trends, to the gut-skin connection and the microbiome, to the latest expert makeup hacks. She currently lives in New York City.