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Dandruff vs. Seborrheic Dermatitis: What’s the Difference?

dandruff vs seborrheic dermatitis

Although the skin on your scalp is rarely seen, it can certainly make itself known. In the same way the skin on your eyelids can suddenly flake, the buildup of dead skin cells on your scalp can pepper the hair with unsightly white flakes.

Sound familiar? How about a scalp that’s kind of scaly-looking, one you can’t stop scratching at? While all these symptoms (and the light flakes that make your darker clothes appear to be dusted with snow) may point to one underlying cause, they’re actually two separate conditions entirely: dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis. Read on for the differences between dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis, and how to rid your ash blonde or dark brown hair of both.

Dandruff vs. Seborrheic Dermatitis: what's the difference?

Dandruff” is a word most of you have probably heard at least once in your lifetime because it is an extremely common condition. It’s seen commonly in babies (called “cradle cap”) but also in any sebum-rich place such as the scalp, eyebrows, nasolabial folds, etc.” With dandruff, dead skin cells flake off the scalp, peppering hair and clothes in an occasionally embarrassing fashion.

Seborrheic dermatitis, on the other hand, is slightly different. In this case, the skin on the scalp is inflamed. This inflammation is what causes the skin to dry and flake. It is typically characterized by an irksome rash or an area that’s swollen. Seborrheic dermatitis can cause skin on the scalp to flake, but sometimes it has the effects of making it ooze, blister, or crust. If you have hair on your scalp, this inflammation may not be as visible.

What causes dandruff and Seborrheic Dermatitis?

The causes behind dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis are virtually the same. One of the instigators that could be behind both dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis is an excess amount of sebum, the oil your skin naturally produces. Another underlying cause has to do with yeast. “[Dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis are] caused by an abnormal response to Pityrosporum (malassezia) yeast,” board-certified dermatologist, and consultant, Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali says.

How to help prevent the recurrence of dandruff and Seborrheic Dermatitis

Luckily, both dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis are not very aggressive conditions and can be prevented in a few different ways. We present them to you, one by one, below.

Shampoo regularly

Kind of like the skin under your arms or on your chest, you may occasionally forget to take special care of the skin beneath your hair. It’s lack of prominence, however, doesn’t make it any less important. Make sure you lather shampoo into your scalp regularly every time you hop in the shower to make sure it’s getting the moisture it needs. Otherwise it can get dry and flake.


Stress can trigger a lot of other skin conditions, which is already annoying. Even more annoying is that you can add dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis to that list. Being stressed can worsen these conditions, so make sure to treat yourself to an at-home spa day.

Manage your moisture

Even though we typically see both conditions on the scalp, there are some instances where they can appear on other areas of the skin. Flakes can powder your eyebrows, and even the hair on your arms. Set up a moisturizing routine catered to your skin’s needs.


How to address dandruff and Seborrheic Dermatitis

Already have dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis? Here’s what you can try:

Search for specific ingredients

When browsing the shampoo aisle, keep your eyes peeled for products containing pyrithione zinc, coal tar, or salicylic acid. These are active ingredients that can help control the symptoms of dandruff and/or seborrheic dermatitis and can help to reduce the recurrence of scaly skin.

Interested in more expert tips? Use our salon locator to book an appointment at a salon near you. 

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