How to Distinguish Between Dandruff vs. Psoriasis

scalp psoriasis vs dandruff
scalp psoriasis vs dandruff

Scalp Psoriasis vs. Dandruff: What’s the Difference?

You’ve been noticing flakes in your hair lately, but is it psoriasis or dandruff?

Many people have asked this question when they discover white flakes in their hair and around their scalp. It can be unnerving to have to live with the condition, so what can you do about it?

Before you can take steps toward treatment, you need to know what you’re treating. The difference between dandruff and scalp psoriasis is significant. One is a relatively minor issue, and the other can be a more serious skin condition.

Knowing the difference between scalp psoriasis vs. dandruff is crucial for making the right decision and staying on top of your health. This article will discuss these two conditions in-depth and go over which course of action is right for each one.

What is Dandruff?

Dandruff is an extremely common skin condition. It is estimated 50 million Americans will have dandruff at any one time. Over the course of a lifetime, 50% of all Americans will experience an episode.

Thankfully, dandruff is not a serious skin condition and rarely requires the attention of a medical professional. When comparing scalp psoriasis vs. dandruff (seborrheic dermatitis), the key difference is the latter can be treated at home.

The white flakes that appear on the hair and around the scalp are no more than dead skin cells. While its appearance can cause some worry, dandruff is not an indication of serious health problems and is not contagious to others.

What is Psoriasis?

Psoriasis can also afflict the scalp, as well as other parts of the body. It is a condition characterized by red, scaly patches of skin. The reason for the confusion between scalp psoriasis vs. dandruff is that the flakes that come off these areas of skin may look remarkably similar to dandruff flakes.

Most people’s hair covers these patches, and so many people think they’re simply having a dandruff episode. However, scalp psoriasis can be a much more serious problem as it results from an autoimmune disorder. It is also a chronic problem and may flare up every so often.

Scalp Psoriasis vs. Dandruff: What’s the Difference?

Understanding the difference between dandruff and psoriasis can help you take the right course of action. One of them is not a major issue, whereas the other may requires medical attention.

In this section, you will learn about the key differences between psoriasis scalp vs. dandruff in several categories.


Psoriasis is an autoimmune disorder and potentially represents a serious medical issue. In most cases, dandruff results from too much oil in the scalp. It is important not to confuse dandruff with dry scalp.

Dry scalp vs. psoriasis may display similarities, but the former is a completely different condition to dandruff, even if they share many of the same causes.

There are several causes of dandruff that can lead to irritation and oiliness in the scalp, including:

  • Using certain hair care products
  • Fungus
  • Lack of hygiene
  • Hormonal changes (particularly in males)
  • Impaired immune systems

On the other hand, the autoimmune disorder of psoriasis occurs largely due to genetics. Sufferers of psoriasis experience a situation where the immune system goes into overdrive and begins attacking healthy skin cells. The sheer number of skin cells killed by the immune system leads to the buildup of dead skin that manifests as white scales or flakes.

Not everyone who experiences psoriasis will battle it every day. While it is chronic, most patients say that the condition comes and goes. Common triggers of a psoriasis flare-up include:

  • Infections, including strep throat
  • The weather
  • Skin injuries
  • High-stress levels
  • Tobacco smoking
  • Certain drugs
  • Heavy alcohol consumption

Like with many disorders, the severity of psoriasis depends on the individual. It’s why when comparing dandruff vs. scalp psoriasis many people confuse the two if they only have a mild case of psoriasis.


How do you tell the difference when comparing dandruff vs. dry scalp vs. psoriasis?

Firstly, dry scalp and dandruff display the same symptoms. Itchy scalp and white flakes falling from the head are the two most common signs of either condition. The difference with dandruff is the sufferer may also experience greasy and oily hair.

With psoriasis, the main sign is also white flakes. Pay attention to these flakes. Psoriasis tends to produce flakes that are more scaly or powdery in nature. Depending on the severity, sufferers may also find that their scalp is not just itchy but painful.

The easiest way psoriasis sufferers can compare dandruff vs. psoriasis is by examining the rest of their bodies. Dandruff is an issue with the head (scalp and face), but psoriasis displays red and scaly patches that impact the elbows, knees, the skin around the ears, and the back of the neck.

It is not uncommon for someone with scalp psoriasis to also find patches elsewhere on their bodies. Psoriasis can creep past the hairline and onto the forehead or behind to the back of the neck.

Anyone with symptoms and/or signs of psoriasis or dandruff that refuse to disappear should consult their doctor to rule out the condition.


Diagnosis for both conditions is relatively simple. Doctors can perform a physical examination of the head and scalp. If a primary care physician is unsure, they may provide a referral to a dermatologist to carry out further tests.

Skin examinations typically reveal all because, with a thorough inspection, a dermatologist can look at the color of the scalp. Any evidence of red, purple, or brown patches under the hair may indicate a case of psoriasis. Normal, healthy skin will show either dandruff or dry scalp.

Dermatologists that suspect psoriasis may remove a sample of the skin to send to a laboratory for further testing. The lab report will diagnose whether a patient is suffering from scalp psoriasis or a more benign condition.


Treatments differ for both conditions. Dandruff can be treated at home with over-the-counter medications or simply changing a haircare product. Scalp psoriasis has no cure. The best the medical field can do at this time is to suppress the symptoms and take preventative action to stop episodes from arising in the first place.

What are the Treatments for Dandruff?

Dandruff can be treated with OTC shampoos. These shampoos contain ingredients like salicylic acid, coal tar, selenium sulfide, and zinc pyrithione. If the dandruff has been caused by a yeast infection, anti-yeast shampoo is also available.

More serious cases of dandruff may require prescription shampoo available via a dermatologist, but this is rare.

When comparing dry scalp vs. psoriasis, the treatment for the former is much the same. The difference is shampoos will focus on ingredients that moisturize and cleanse the scalp to prevent dryness and irritation.

What are the Treatments for Scalp Psoriasis?

The main difference between scalp psoriasis vs. dandruff is the intensity of the treatment. Scalp psoriasis, in particular, can be more difficult to treat than psoriasis elsewhere on the body because of the hair covering.

Doctors typically begin with basic anti-inflammatory medications in the form of a topical. These medications are usually effective at dealing with milder cases of psoriasis. There are even OTC products that are aimed at psoriasis. They contain many of the same ingredients used to fight dandruff, such as coal tar and salicylic acid.

In more serious cases, dermatologists may prescribe phototherapy as a treatment option. Phototherapy utilizes UV rays to slow cell growth and prevent out-of-control skin replication on the scalp. A comb and a hand-held device can deliver phototherapy in a matter of minutes.

Oral systemic medications are also available that target the molecules within immune cells. These medications are reserved for more serious cases of the condition, where a patient’s psoriasis has not responded to other forms of treatment.

Biologics are another option for severe psoriasis. These have been a game changer because they target the overactive immune system directly. The downside is they do come with side effects and are unsuitable for everybody.

What About Lifestyle Changes?

Many lifestyle factors act as a trigger for scalp psoriasis. Stress is perhaps the biggest trigger of them all. Where topicals and other medications fail, lifestyle changes could lessen the severity of episodes and increase the likelihood of vanquishing the condition.

Dermatologists often recommend major lifestyle changes to people who have to live with this chronic condition. Reducing stress, quitting smoking, and adopting a better diet have all shown results when examining the frequency and severity of psoriasis flare-ups.


Dandruff vs. psoriasis is an easy issue to confuse. The fact that the hair hides the most visible signs of psoriasis means that many people live for years believing they suffer from a severe case of dandruff, when they really have a potentially serious autoimmune disorder.

As it stands, there is no comprehensive cure for psoriasis. Advancements are being made to deliver better treatments with fewer side effects, but this research requires comprehensive clinical trials.

If you suffer from psoriasis, you can join a psoriasis clinical trial near you. To learn more about clinical trials in your area, visit the Vial trials page.

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