Blog/Is It Dandruff or Seborrheic Dermatitis?
5/8/2023 | 2 min read

Is It Dandruff or Seborrheic Dermatitis?

Understanding the differences for proper treatment

Closeup of a man's scalp that shows some white particles in his hair.

If you’re experiencing an itchy, flaky scalp, it’s likely either dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis (a form of scalp eczema). They are two of the most common scalp conditions that can cause flaking, itching and an aversion to wearing black (our flaky friends will get it). While they share some similarities, they actually have two different causes and require different treatment methods. 

What is Seborrheic Dermatitis?

Seborrheic dermatitis is a chronic inflammatory skin condition that can affect various parts of the body, including the scalp. It is characterized by red, itchy and flaky skin that may be greasy or oily. The exact cause of seborrheic dermatitis is not known, but it is thought to be related to the overgrowth of yeast on the skin. Certain factors can trigger or worsen the condition, such as stress, hormonal changes and cold weather.

What is Dandruff?

Dandruff is a common scalp condition, and often a symptom of other conditions, that causes flaking and itching. It is characterized by small, white flakes of dead skin that may appear on the scalp or hair. The exact cause of dandruff is also not known, but, similar to seborrheic dermatitis, it is believed to be related to the overgrowth of yeast (Malassezia) on the scalp or an increase in oil production. Dandruff can be triggered or worsened by certain factors, such as stress, hormonal changes and poor hygiene.

How to tell the difference between seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff?

The main difference between seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff is the severity of the symptoms. Seborrheic dermatitis is a more severe form of dandruff that can cause more intense symptoms, such as severe itching, redness and inflammation. In some cases, it can even cause hair loss. Dandruff, on the other hand, is usually milder and causes only mild to moderate itching and flaking.

Another difference between seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff is the location of the symptoms. While both conditions can affect the scalp, seborrheic dermatitis can also affect other parts of the body, such as the face, chest and back (though it does not always). Dandruff, on the other hand, is typically localized to the scalp.

Additionally, seborrheic dermatitis is an ongoing chronic condition that can go away and come back (either on the scalp or other parts of the body). It requires continuous treatment to manage the symptoms whereas mild dandruff can typically be resolved. 

Treatment for seborrheic dermatitis vs. dandruff

The treatment for seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff also differs. Dandruff can often be managed with over-the-counter shampoos that contain active ingredients such as salicylic acid, pyrithione zinc or selenium sulfide. In more severe cases, prescription-strength shampoos or topical medications may be needed. Lifestyle changes, such as washing the hair regularly and avoiding hair products that contain harsh chemicals, can also help prevent or manage dandruff.

Seborrheic dermatitis, on the other hand, often requires medical treatment. Prescription-strength shampoos or topical creams may be needed to manage symptoms. In some cases, oral medications may also be prescribed. It is also important to identify and manage any triggers that may be exacerbating the condition.

These triggers can include:

  • Stress

  • Your diet

  • Change in seasons 

  • Certain shampoos

  • Hard water

  • Change in hormones

It’s important to note that these triggers can be different for everyone and may not be included in this list. It’s important to recognize when a flare up occurs and identify any to your routine that may have caused it. 

How can Agile help with common conditions?

At Agile, we believe everyone should have access to excellent healthcare, regardless of where you are or when you need it. We offer convenient, virtual care across the U.S. for your most common medical conditions. Our network of providers are ready to address your unique concerns to deliver effective, personalized treatment in a timely manner. 

To tap into fast, cost-effective care now, schedule a consultation with one of our licensed clinicians!