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Flaky scalp problems: is it dandruff or a dry scalp?

Flaky scalp problems: is it dandruff or a dry scalp?

Ugh, dandruff. It can be embarrassing, annoying and sometimes bewildering. An itchy or flaky scalp isn’t exactly pleasant but it is actually harmless and very common. Most people have had a flaky scalp at some time in their lives. What is that causes your scalp to shed those little white flakes? 

Dandruff vs flaky dry scalp: is there a difference?

There is a difference between a flaky dry scalp and dandruff, even though both seem very similar. A dry scalp is the result of a lack of moisture in the top layer of skin. The skin on the scalp usually feels irritated and can flake off, much like skin does after sunburn. 

Environmental factors, like the weather, are often the cause of a dry scalp. Especially during winter when your scalp is subjected to blasts of cold wind and then central heating which dries the skin out. The summer sun can also be drying on the skin.

A person’s age and hormonal balance can also be a cause of a dry scalp. At various stages of life your scalp might not produce enough sebum (natural oil) to keep the scalp suitably moisturised. 


hairy jayne pre-shampoo treatment oil

If you do have a flaky dry scalp, our Pre-shampoo Treatment Oil is designed to soothe the irritation or any itchiness while redressing the moisture balance in the scalp’s surface. It has a blend of plant oils and essential oils that stimulate blood flow to the follicles and regulate the production of sebum on the scalp, naturally.

Our Pre-shampoo Treatment Oil, which is also part of our Scalp Saviour bundle, is a great remedy for a flaky dry scalp but it is not recommended for treating dandruff, and I’ll explain why later in the post.

So is it dandruff, and if it is what causes it?

Dandruff occurs when the scalp’s microbiome is out of balance. It’s actually a fungal condition where certain yeast organisms, called malassezia, over-populate. Malassezia is normally present on the scalp but when there is too much of it in the scalp’s microbiome it’s irritating to our skin and causes the skin cells to become flakes. 

Unlike a dry scalp, dandruff is actually caused by an oily scalp.  An overly oily scalp encourages the malassezia yeast organisms to grow. Malassezia love warm, humid places. The yeast organisms feed off of the sebum and produce oleic acid. Some people can be sensitive to oleic acid – hence the irritation!


woman cradling head with fingers in hair


This is another way to help figure out whether or not your flaky scalp is dandruff or just a dry scalp. Dandruff flakes will feel oilier than dry scalp flakes.

Sebum production and dandruff can be triggered by changes in seasons, hormonal changes, stress, changes in diet and sensitivities to certain cosmetic ingredients. The thing dandruff is not triggered by is a dry scalp itself. 

So treating dandruff is not the same as treating a flaky dry scalp. Using oils on your scalp during a dandruff flare up will not help, it will only exacerbate the problem.

Holistic remedies for dandruff (other than hair care) 

There are so many dandruff shampoos on the market (with very serious sounding names!) that have antiseptics and anti-fungal agents in them to target the over growing yeast. It’s worth noting that the yeast has many different variations so a product may work well for one flare up and not the next. 

One medicated shampoo alone might not be enough to tackle the problem of dandruff as they all have differing active ingredients to attack the problematic fungi, and the fungi can build up a resistance to the ingredients. 

And because there are factors like stress and bodily functions involved in flare ups, a holistic approach can be very beneficial in keeping on top of the problem and dealing with the root cause: the unbalanced microbiome.


photo of a woman's bare stomach


Here are some things to consider in the long term:

1. Consult a nutritionist to address your diet

You’ve tried all the anti-dandruff shampoos and medicated hair care products and they haven’t worked for you. It may be a sign that yeast is overgrowing somewhere else in your body too, possibly in your digestive system. A good nutritionist can advise on which foods to avoid to minimise yeast growth in your body, or whether increasing your omega 3 intake might help.

2. Cut out certain foods for a while to pinpoint any irritants

This is by no means an instant fix, but trying an elimination diet can be helpful in finding any foods which may be dandruff triggers. Experiment with cutting out dairy, sugary foods, wine and champagne as these are common culprits for scalp flare ups.

3. Boost your healthy gut bacteria with probiotics

Your gut’s microbiome can be improved with either probiotic supplements or fermented foods that are high in probiotic bacteria. Foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha are a great way to introduce healthy organisms into your microbiome to fight any unwanted bacteria.

4. Apple cider vinegar (or lemon juice) for high pH levels

An apple cider vinegar rinse can be used to treat dandruff due to its high pH level and antiseptic qualities, but I’d be hesitant to recommend it as a regular treatment because of its high acidity, which may damage your hair in the long run. 

5. Don’t encourage fungi to live on your scalp

Wearing a hat will encourage dandruff as the unwanted yeast organisms thrive in a warm, humid climate – like your scalp under a hat. Even worse if your scalp is already oily as that’s what they like to eat! Always make sure your hair is completely dry before going to bed, too. 

hairy jayne herbal shampoo bar

6. Use hair care products with essential oils that keep fungi at bay

If you prefer to use natural products rather than synthetic ones, then regularly using a natural shampoo with essential oils that are astringent and anti-fungal in will regulate sebum and hinder yeast growth on the scalp. Essential oils to look out for in hair care products are tea tree, peppermint, rosemary, clary sage and lavender. It’s by no means a medicated dandruff shampoo, but our Herbal shampoo bar has the latter three essential oils in it so is great for minimising scalp problems and flare ups.

When to seek medical advice for flaky scalp problems

Seborrhoeic dermatitis is an inflammatory rash that occurs on areas of skin where sebum is produced. The skin becomes inflamed and sore, with large, tightly-packed yellowish flakes covering a red area. The flakes are very oily and tend to stick in the lengths of the hair. It is generally hereditary but can also be caused by stress, hormones, illness and intolerances.  

Psoriasis is an auto-immune condition that typically causes tight, thick, white scales. Unlike dandruff, these scales are usually red with bleeding points underneath them. Psoriasis requires prescription products and treatments, so medical advice is essential for dealing with this issue.

If you’re concerned with your scalp problems because your scalp is sore, it’s important you see a GP for a correct diagnosis, so you can be prescribed the proper treatment.

Your scalp health is important 

Scalp care is just as important as skincare. Regular cleansing and moisturising is necessary, ideally with a mild shampoo that has moisturising ingredients in. If your scalp isn’t looked after properly, then a build-up of sweat, dirt and sebum can block the follicles. This can result in a range of issues including inflammation, itching and dandruff. A healthy scalp grows healthy hair, too.

Before reaching for any oils to nourish your flaky scalp, it’s worth asking yourself first: is it dandruff? While using oils on the scalp is helpful when it’s dry, doing so when you have dandruff will only make things worse. An oily, humid scalp is the perfect place for yeast organisms to multiply and upset the scalp’s microbiome. If the flakes seem to be oily, it’s probably dandruff. 

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