If you have dandruff or buildup on the scalp, the symptoms of both are easy to spot: Your head itches and flakes of dead skin are snowing from your scalp into your hair and onto your shoulders. Before you attempt to treat this condition, it's important to determine whether you are suffering from dandruff or scalp buildup. There are significant differences between the two, from the type of skin cells that are shed to the type of treatment you will need.

Dandruff and Scalp Buildup

Dandruff is a chronic scalp condition, whereas buildup is conditional, caused by hair product usage and cleansing habits. Dandruff is caused by a yeast, which inflames the scalp, and is marked by scaling on the scalp that causes itching and flaking. Scalp buildup, on the other hand, occurs when hair is not cleansed adequately or often enough. While buildup typically causes itching and flaking, it does not have the scaling of dandruff and the make-up of the flakes is different.

About Your Scalp

The scalp, like the rest of your skin, is continually shedding cells. However, the rate of producing and shedding skin cells on the scalp is faster than on other parts of your body. Add to that, these shed cells are retained in the strands of the hair, making them more visible. Therefore, not washing for a week or two will create the appearance of dandruff in most people.

The Details of Dandruff

Dandruff occurs when a yeast called Malassezia inflames the skin of the scalp. It causes the whole process of producing and shedding skin cells to speed up.

These extra dead skin cells die, then clump together with oil from your hair and scalp. As a result, these oily clumps, which appear yellow in color, are larger and more visible than the skin cells shed from normal turnover, especially when they land on dark hair or clothing. A dandruff scalp may also feel itchy.

What Causes Scalp Buildup?

Scalp buildup is caused by two major factors: overuse of styling products and ineffective cleansing. Use of styling products (such as mousse, hairspray and gel) as well as heavy conditioners, particularly those with wax fillers can build up on your scalp, causing itching. If you do not shampoo regularly, or your shampoo does not clean thoroughly, in time, a combination of dead skin cells and oil will cause scalp buildup.

Controlling Dandruff

Mild cases of dandruff may need nothing more than daily shampooing with a gentle cleanser. However, more stubborn cases of dandruff will benefit from a medicated dandruff shampoo. Do not exacerbate dandruff by scratching or picking at your scalp. Instead, carefully comb out the loose flakes.

It is not uncommon to think you have dandruff when you merely have scalp buildup. Similarly, itchiness or flakiness that is caused by dry scalp, psoriasis or allergies is also regularly misdiagnosed as dandruff.

Controlling Scalp Buildup

In the case of scalp buildup, shampoo your hair more often and more thoroughly. You may need to shampoo twice, particularly if you use a lot of styling products. The first shampoo loosens the dormant products; the second shampoo cleanses the hair and scalp.

You can also use a clarifying shampoo. However, this should be done only once a week, at the most. These typically contain acetic acid, are quite potent and can dry the hair and scalp. Alternately, if you need a more intensive treatment, ask your stylist about a professional clarifying treatment, which most salons offer.