By Audrey Siva­sothy, author of The Sci­ence of Black Hair: A Com­pre­hen­sive Guide to Tex­tured Hair Care

Every­one has had to deal with dan­druff at one point or anoth­er.  And let’s face it, those flakes are just nev­er wel­come!  For most of us, a quick wash­ing with Head and Shoul­dersNizo­ral, Sel­sun Blue, or some tea-tree inspired some­thing is enough to clear up most flake flare ups— but some­times dan­druff can be, well … not real­ly dan­druff.  If you’ve used every dan­druff treat­ment in the book and still can’t seem to beat the flakes, it might be that you are real­ly fight­ing some­thing oth­er than dan­druff.

How do you know if your dan­druff is just dan­druff, a false alarm, or a real symp­tom of some­thing else entire­ly?

Before we talk about the dan­druff false alarms— let’s talk about real dan­druff.  Some­times dan­druff real­ly is dan­druff.  Real dan­druff is believed to be caused by exces­sive growth of a fun­gus calledmalasezzia.  Male­sezzia is nat­u­ral­ly found on the scalp in non-dan­druff suf­fer­ers, but the fun­gal pop­u­la­tion is out of con­trol in those who are plagued with dan­druff.  Experts are not quite sure why malassezia mul­ti­plies on the scalp, but many attrib­ute its growth to hav­ing exces­sive amounts of oil on the scalp from infre­quent cleans­ing, hav­ing a com­pro­mised immune sys­tem, poor diet, or sim­ple hor­mon­al changes in the body. In most cas­es, a stan­dard sham­poo reg­i­men will clear up dan­druff in a few weeks.  Com­mon sham­poo active ingre­di­ents include zinc pyrithione, keto­cona­zole, sele­ni­um sul­fide, coal tar, tea tree and oth­er tingly active ingre­di­ents.  For stub­born cas­es, the active ingre­di­ent in the sham­poo may need to be rotat­ed for best results (for exam­ple, using zinc pyrithione sham­poo dur­ing weeks 1 and 2, and a sele­ni­um sul­fide-based sham­poo in weeks 3 and 4).

The False Alarms:
1. Dry Scalp

One com­mon­ly mis­tak­en dan­druff looka­like is plain old dry scalp.  Some prod­ucts have a knack for dry­ing out the scalp— sham­poos are a com­mon cul­prit.  Reg­u­lar­ly using a soap or sham­poo for­mu­la that is too harsh (usu­al­ly sul­fate-based) will lead to scalp dry­ness over time.  Oth­er dry scalp insti­ga­tors include weath­er changes, using water with a high min­er­al con­tent or pH, and using water that is too hot.  Those who chem­i­cal­ly treat their hair with relax­ers, tex­tur­iz­ers, or hair col­or­ing prod­ucts and those who overdry their hair when blowdry­ing may also run into this kind of prob­lem as those treatments/techniques tend to dehy­drate the scalp.  If you aren’t hydrat­ing your body from with­in by drink­ing water, you’ll also tend to have dry skin— not just on the scalp— but all over.   Prop­er diet is also key to main­tain­ing the skin— and essen­tial fat­ty acid and Vit­a­m­in C defi­cien­cies are com­mon trig­gers of dry, itchy scalp  You can add more fish, cit­rus fruit, nuts and leafy green veg­gies to your diet to work around this, but know that it can take three months of good nutri­tion or more before the results improve. 

2. Product Buildup

Pro­duct buildup and less than thor­ough rins­ing can also lead to dan­druffy look­ing con­di­tions!  Con­di­tion­er is the num­ber one cul­prit here, and in kinky-curly hair (or relaxed hair with con­sid­er­able new growth) con­di­tion­er can become “trapped” near the roots upon rins­ing.  If efforts aren’t tak­en to gen­tly agi­tate or free con­di­tion­er that has set­tled close to the scalp, you will be in for an itchy, flaky mess once the hair dries.  In my expe­ri­ence, this type of buildup is also oilier and gum­mier— like a gross, icky blan­ket on the scalp.  Gels, serums and oils can also cre­ate sticky films that com­bine with sebum and reg­u­lar debris to pro­duce what looks like flaky, dan­druffy scalp con­di­tions.

3. Psoriasis and Seborrheic Dermatitis

Some­times real dan­druff can be a symp­tom of some oth­er scalp con­di­tion— and mak­ing a dis­tinc­tion between plain dan­druff, pso­ri­a­sis and seb­or­rhe­ic der­mati­tis can be tricky.  What real­ly helps dis­tin­guish the con­di­tions from one anoth­er is the degree and kind of flak­ing you tend to get.  In pso­ri­a­sis and seb­or­rhea, dan­druff is usu­al­ly the main symp­tom among oth­er symp­toms like red­ness and crust­ing, for exam­ple.  Pso­ri­a­sis tends to pro­duce thick­er, dri­er look­ing scales of skin than seb­or­rhea does— and it also tends to appear on oth­er parts of the body (knees/elbows).   Seb­or­rhea tends to pro­duce an oilier kind of flake.  For­tu­nate­ly, treat­ments specif­i­cal­ly tar­get­ed for basic fun­gal dan­druff can help clear up out­breaks of pso­ri­a­sis and seb­or­rhe­ic der­mati­tis. A quick vis­it to the der­ma­tol­o­gist will help you fig­ure out if your dan­druff is just dan­druff, a false alarm, or if you’ve got a dan­druff as a symp­tom of some­thing else.

Ladies, have you ever mis­tak­en one of the­se con­di­tions for dan­druff?

Audrey Siva­sothy is a Hous­ton-based free­lance writer, health sci­en­tist and author of The Sci­ence of Black Hair: A Com­pre­hen­sive Guide to Tex­tured Hair Care (avail­able on & Barnes&

For more insight from The Sci­ence of Black Hair— relaxed, nat­u­ral or in between, vis­it us on the web and on face­book & twit­ter.

Black Girl With Long Hair

Leila Noel­lis­te, founder of Black Girl with Long Hair (April 2008). Social media, pop cul­ture and black beau­ty enthu­si­ast. bell hooks’ hair twin…

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39 Comments on "3 Hair Conditions that are Mistaken for Dandruff"

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For any­one with SD that wants a quick over the coun­ter fix, I’ve used both Neutrogena’s T-Gel sham­poo (treats pso­ri­a­sis and SD) and the Equate gener­ic ver­sion (at Wal-Mart in the sham­poo aisle at the bot­tom with all the oth­er med­icat­ed sham­poos) and I have to say, they worked won­ders for me (Equate actu­al­ly worked bet­ter for me, at almost half the price). I went my whole life think­ing my scalp was just dry at cer­tain points, and then when I would for­go wash­ing it to try and let it recu­per­ate, it was a greasy mess. No in betweeen! Also,… Read more »
I have extreme­ly dry tight scalp and face, I had eczema real­ly bad as a child and grew out of it and into asth­ma, which a doc­tor told me they are both relat­ed. I have nev­er nev­er had dan­druff or acne a day in my life and I am in my 40s. I am not brag­ging, its actu­al­ly a real prob­lem. Every time I go to research dry scalp I see loads of peo­ple com­plain­ing about dan­druff. I do not under­stand how peo­ple con­nect dan­druff with a dry scalp. Dan­druff and acne are both asso­ci­at­ed with sebum pro­duc­tion, which means… Read more »

My issue is my edges gets white And flaky after remov­ing my sat­in scarf… I do have eczema.. I do acv rins­es and hen­na… It use to help now it doesn’t.. I have a ton of pre­scribed creams I just refuse to use them.. I would prefer a more nat­u­ral approach.


I’m still try­ing to deter­mine if mine is just bad dry scalp or some­thing more seri­ous. I’ve had the prob­lem forever, but I feel like it’s got­ten worse as an adult.


For pso­ri­a­sis I sug­gest going on the pill if you’re healthy and dont suf­fer migraines etc. It cleared my skin up for 2 years with only dry hands in the win­ter. Chang­ing your diet can also help. Before the pill I used to use this pre­scribed cream from my doc­tor on my flakey scalp. Wear­ing light coloured shirts will also help hide falling flakes. The hor­mones in the com­bined con­tra­cep­tive pill are most like­ly to be effec­tive. Hope this helps. X

Hey! I live in France, I have SD diag­nos­ti­cat­ed since last year but had dan­druff all my life. I man­aged to calm it down by switch­ing sham­poo each time i need to wash (3wash/week). My der­ma­tol­o­gist told me that this con­di­tion tend to accus­tom with one kind of sham­poo: so i have 5bot­tle of sham­poo (3der­ma­to­log­i­cal, 1mois­tur­iz­ing, 1an­ti-dan­druff) which I switch, and it helps! It is not a mir­a­cle, I still have dan­druff but on a man­age­able scale. But for sure, when I deal with stress, my scalp does like a dry desert… I con­tin­ue my mos­tur­iz­ing rou­tine on my… Read more »
Wow it is real­ly refresh­ing to see this top­ic and so many that relate! I’ve had SD all my life and actu­al­ly man­ag­ing it has been an adven­ture. Back in my relaxed days my hair would break at a cer­tain point due to flare ups and man­age­ment and slid­ing the scales down the shaft of my hair thus weak­en­ing the hair and so on and so forth. I went nat­u­ral my first time over 15 years ago for the expe­ri­ence, for learn­ing how to care for my own hair and for the dis­cov­ery of how beau­ti­ful it was and what… Read more »

[…] end up scratch­ing all over your scalp. With that being said there is noth­ing wrong with try­ing to com­bat dry scalp. How­ev­er, because you are com­pen­sat­ing for the change in weath­er with more oils to your scalp you […]

Michal Benestad

Most peo­ple will devel­op some kind of skin con­di­tion at some time in their life. Whether you suf­fer with a rash, itchy skin, skin fun­gus or infec­tion, skin bumps, or skin tags, talk to your doc­tor because there’s treat­ment avail­able. If you have oily or dry skin it makes sense to learn the best meth­ods to clean, treat, and pro­tect your skin type.‘..””

Our own web page <

Brenda Eldridge

I have ingrown hairs on my scalp. Went to the doc­tor and got some­thing to treat it that also can cause ingrown hairs. I have been nat­u­ral for a few years and have had to keep my hair cut very, very short. Are there any nat­u­ral prod­ucts out there that will real­ly help me?

I alter­nate between keto­cona­zole and ciclopirox (both pre­scrip­tion anti fun­gals) sham­poos about every 2 weeks. I wash my scalp every 4–7 days depend­ing on how much I sweat dur­ing my 6 day a week work­outs and whether I’ve been swim­ming. Dur­ing real­ly bad flare ups I use ciclopirox olamine cream on affect­ed areas. Be wary of the “oil your dry scalp” or “mas­sage ‘insert name here’ oil/butter into your scalp” sug­ges­tions. Aside from cer­tain essen­tial oils like tea tree, laven­der, and oth­ers, most oils tout­ed by nat­u­rals just feed the malassezia fur­fur and exac­er­bate symp­toms. Malassezia fur­fur is the oppor­tunis­tic… Read more »

Coconut oil works because it is anti­fun­gal and anti bac­te­ri­al. Of course it needs to be vir­gin coconut oil first cold pressed and organ­ic.


So help­ful!

Wow. i always thought I had like sev­ere dan­druff. I need to read the labels on my sham­poo and con­di­tion­ier. i’ve been using the same stuff for about 5 years and I dont think it’s real­ly help­ing, unless my hair-wash­ing habits are bad. I live in Las Veg­as and i admit i do not drink enough water or use enough oils in my hair. I nev­er cared enough b/c my hair was grow­ing in-between relax­ers. I will have to invest in good prod­ucts before the sum­mer hits or i wont have any good hair. it’s cur­rent­ly break­ing off and very un-even.… Read more »

I def­i­nite­ly have a dry scalp. I nev­er thought that my diet is what needs to change. My hair is weird. Oils just sit on my scalp and in my hair. That also caus­es build up. It does­nt pen­re­trate at all. Ive tried all kinds of oils for my scalp and every­thing just sits there. It makes my hair feel gross and greasy. This wad very help­ful. Thank you.

I have dry scalp and pro­duct build-up but the rea­son I still use soap over sham­poo is that I’ve found that what works best on my eczema-prone skin also works best with my scalp. There­fore, Pears/Yardley/Jergens works best with my skin so I wash my hair with them too; mix­ing min­er­al oil with coconut, cas­tor, & tea tree oils help with my skin (espe­cial­ly dur­ing an aller­gic reac­tion to grass/insect bites) and I’ve also found this works great on my scalp too; adding some of the same oil com­bi­na­tion to a low-scent­ed lotion or cream works great on my skin… Read more »

you should try apple cider vine­gar for your hair when scalp build up occurs. I had once had that prob­lem but with one treat­ment had no more build up dan­druff and its cheap it can be done at home


Yep, I’ve had them both!

Good top­ic. Man­ag­ing scalp pso­ri­a­sis has been a strug­gle with my 4a/4b nat­u­ral hair. I’ve often been curi­ous about how oth­er nat­u­rals deal with the con­di­tion. My longest strands are about 12″. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, my hair has grad­u­al­ly thinned due to break­age from (1) over-wash­ing my hair to keep the scaling/plaques under con­trol and (2) exces­sive tan­gles (even when my hair is wet with con­di­tion­er) when try­ing to remove scales that get caught in my coils (I know… it’s kin­da gross, but I’m sim­ply explain­ing in order to get a bit of feed­back). Wash-and-goes… noto­ri­ous for caus­ing tan­gles and knots… have… Read more »

I SO feel you about your flakes being so big, they are scales that need to be removed…I actu­al­ly have to slide them down the hair shaft to keep from dam­ag­ing my strands. Does your scalp itch as well? Just curi­ous…


oh my gosh. i thought i was the only per­son who ever had to do this (slid­ing the big scale down hair). com­fort­ing to know you aren’t alone

just a girl
Thank God for this arti­cle! I too have to slide scales down the shaft of the hair- only prob­lem is I have locs! And now this prob­lem, which start­ed about2 years ago and was only a minor nui­sance until last year, has caused so much trou­ble. First: it’s unsight­ly and gross. I work in a pro­fes­sion­al envi­ron­ment, and I don’t want any­body being able to say any­thing about my hair! The dead skin tends to look like build up on my scalp and in my locs, which means I wash and twist more often than I should to try and… Read more »
You and I are exact­ly the same. Locs, huge flakes, pro­fes­sion­al work­ing envi­ron­ment, break­age and unkempt­ness from pick­ing at flakes con­stant­ly. I’m real­ly con­sid­er­ing try­ing to wash more often. It’s just that I take a whole day to retwist when I wash and retwist­ing too often isn’t good in the first place. And I’m not a fan of the chem­i­cal stuff der­ma­tol­o­gists gives you. My last der­ma gave me a mix­ture that seemed to work some­times and when I called to get some more, appar­ent­ly the sup­pli­er died and didn’t leave a suc­ces­sor. SMH. I’m real­ly tempt­ed to just cut… Read more »
Yes, slid­ing the scales down my hair shaft is exact­ly what I have to do as well. It is quite tedious… and the scales that I miss seem to cause the prob­lem with tan­gles and break­age when I cleanse.  I do have prob­lems with itch­ing, but treat­ing my scalp with aloe vera has worked won­ders. I lit­er­al­ly get imme­di­ate relief from itch­ing once I apply aloe vera to the affect­ed area. I use pure aloe vera from the leaf (I basi­cal­ly puree the inner gel, strain it, then add a bit of vit­a­m­in c pow­der to the extract to help… Read more »
I had seri­ous flakes in my head, I could remove them all and they would be back 12 hours lat­er like they nev­er left. Flakes was ruin­ing my life. I couldn’t func­tion. Then I tried the Shea Mois­ture Purifi­ca­tion Masque(black label). I can final­ly go a whole week with­out wash­ing my hair due to flakes. That stuff has changed my life. I rub it gen­er­ous­ly on my scalp, put a plas­tic bag on my head and let it sit for a few hours, then rin­se it out. I also try not to have my hair tied up all the time… Read more »

Thanks, I can def­i­nite­ly iden­ti­fy with the frus­tra­tion! I will look for this pro­duct.

So…nothing about eczema? I have eczema on my scalp, and it makes its way down my fore­head. My doc­tor said it is not just dry scalp (I drink plen­ty of water), build up or pso­ri­a­sis. I do have eczema in oth­er areas of my body, but this one is the worst. We know its eczema because it is “the itch that rash­es”. I do lots of things to ‘cov­er up’ the dry, sca­ly look­ing areas, but only a liv­er flush real­ly makes it go away. Coconut oil works well, as does a peppermint/tea tree oil mix (for me). It also… Read more »

I tried co-wash­ing and I guess I’m just use to sham­poo. I switched to Dr. Bronner’s Pep­per­mint Castile soap.


I always was told by my hair styl­ist that I had real­ly bad “dry scalp”. I assumed that she just meant that I had dan­druff. Even­tu­al­ly, the flakes were all over my scalp & larg­er than just the fine dust that dan­druff looks like. After talk­ing to my mum & a der­ma­tol­o­gist, I dis­cov­ered that I have Seb­or­rhe­ic Der­mati­tis. I haven’t found any­thing to com­plete­ly get it under con­trol though.

Jessica Liz
I have seb­or­rhe­ic der­mati­tis, i find not putting oil on my scalp helped alot, which makes sense because the con­di­tion is your skin pro­duc­ing too much oil which clogs and irri­tates your pores, i also wash my scalp reg­u­lar­ly, oo and also try tak­ing a zinc sup­ple­ment i found once i did that, I might get a minor itch but my scalp isnt caked with dan­druff like it use to be. I also found when i my body was under stress, be it men­tal­ly or my immune sys­tem was down (e.g. win­ter cold) my scalp is at its worse, so… Read more »
I have seb­or­rhe­ic der­mati­tis on my scalp and on my face (nose and eye­brows). I have tried EVERYTHING to con­trol it. I had keta­con­zol sham­poo pre­scribed and creams for my face. Going nat­u­ral helped my scalp a lit­tle, but still a NIGHTMARE. My mir­a­cle came from two sources: Coconut Oil and Cor­ti­zone (over the coun­ter cream). My boss told me to toss the pre­scrip­tion creams and use cor­ti­zone and it worked on my face. Then I read anoth­er arti­cle about a lit­tle girl in New Zealand whose hair wouldn’t grow b/c of der­mati­tis. the mom start­ed using coconut oil on… Read more »

All of you guys should check out the book the coconut oil mir­a­cle. Get it from the library. Has a good sec­tion about der­mati­tis and oth­er skin con­di­tions. Very inter­est­ing read as it gives some sci­ence behind why coconut oil is supe­ri­or. If cor­ti­zone is a ste­ri­od be care­ful with that stuff.


i don’t use the cor­ti­zone on my scalp, just on my face in the real­ly sca­ly parts. but if i’m dili­gent with the coconut oil, i usu­al­ly don’t have to pull it out. :)


I have had seb­or­rhea der­mati­tis all my life. The only thing that real­ly made a dif­fer­ence after I went nat­u­ral was wash­ing with a sham­poo with tea tree oil (I use Trader Joe’s Tea Tree Tin­gle), and putting tea tree oil on my scalp every day.


I have the same scalp con­di­tion. I have dreads though. Seri­ous­ly think­ing about cut­ting them off. How often do you wash your hair?

Oh no don’t cut your beau­ti­ful locs!! Read­ing all this, I just had to post on here just cause I’ve suf­fered from SD for 7 years — you need to cleanse from the inside out. ALL BEAUTIES READING THIS PLEASE do your­self a favour and do an inter­nal cleanse! Noth­ing top­i­cal will cure it in the long run and it will always return as long as the yeast in your body lives. Also look into can­di­da cleans­es as well. Or see a natur­opath. Drink a table­spoon of Apple Cider Vine­gar every­day; it’s the lit­tle things that start to keep it… Read more »

I have dreads too. And like you I’m tempt­ed to cut mine off because of my scalp con­di­tion. I just can’t seem to find a good treat­ment and my scalp flares up so bad some­times I’m embarassed and self-con­scious when I leave my house.


Good arti­cle! Yes I have mis­tak­en the first two for dan­druff. Num­ber two is why I gave up co-wash­ing. The build up was crazy. Hats off to whom co wash­ing works for cause its a great con­cept. I have fine hair build up can hap­pen over night. This espe­cial­ly sucks when you just washed your hair. One thing not men­tioned up there is keep­ing your scalp cov­ered too much with­out a breather. I notice that I get flaky scalp when I wear hats or scarves too long. Any­body else expe­ri­ence this?


yeah co-wash­ing only works if I don’t have much pro­duct in my hair and my hand is ‘heavy’ so co-wash­ing is a no-no for me now. I get flaky scalp when wear hats too often too but I always thought it was mate­ri­al from the hat/cap!!!