Difference Between Lice And Dandruff: What Do You Have?

difference between lice and dandruff

A child with an itchy scalp usually means panic bells at school. Or maybe you’re the one scratching your head, wondering about those white specks in your hair. Is it dandruff or head lice? Let’s take a look at how the two are different in appearance, causes, and treatments.

What Is The Difference Between Lice And Dandruff?

Dandruff is a very common skin condition indicated by flakes of white or gray skin in your hair. They may even fall down onto your shoulders, dusting your clothes with flakes. Your scalp may also feel itchy when you have dandruff.1


Head lice, on the other hand, is an infestation by a parasite known as Pediculus humanus capitis. This is a tiny, wingless, brown-hued creature that lives on human blood. If you examine your scalp closely (especially where it itches), you’ll be able to see these parasites sticking to your hair. They may appear to be tiny specks, much like dandruff flakes. But unlike dandruff, which falls off easily, lice tightly hold onto hair with their claws. Nits (head lice eggs) also firmly stick to hair. It is often difficult to remove the casing even after the lice have hatched.

Unlike dandruff, you won’t see flakes of skin when you have lice. But itching is common in a lice infestation, too. In this case, however, the itching is due to an allergic reaction to louse bites. You may also get a tickling feeling, as if something is moving in your hair. Since head lice tend to be more active in the dark, they can disturb your sleep, too.2


How Do You Get It?

Several things can cause dandruff. Most commonly, you might have a condition known as seborrheic dermatitis or seborrhea. This is characterized by greasy skin with yellow or white flakes. It’s also associated with the overgrowth of a fungus (malassezia) on the skin. Some cosmetic products have also been known to cause a scaly, itchy scalp if you’re sensitive to certain ingredients. Incidentally, other skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema can also cause the skin on your scalp to flake.3

Meanwhile, lice are mainly spread through head-to-head contact. They may also hitch a ride on hair brushes or clothing like hats and scarves. However, they cannot jump or fly (they crawl, rather) and are not spread by pets. And according to the Centers for Disease Control And Prevention, lice infestations are most common among pre-school children in child care, elementary schoolchildren, and family members of infested children. After all, head-to-head contact is common during play within this age group.4


Keep in mind that the common belief that poor personal hygiene can cause lice and dandruff does not have merit. Dandruff may be more visible and obvious if you don’t wash your hair frequently, though.5

How Do You Treat It?

Dandruff is usually treated with over-the-counter anti-dandruff shampoo. These shampoos contain ingredients like salicylic acid, zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide, ketoconazole, or coal tar which can help with flaking skin. Your doctor may also prescribe medication if you have a severe case.6


Pesticidal lotions and sprays are used to treat head lice. However, some of them might not be suitable for small children under the age of two. This may also be the case for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.7

Luckily, you can always try natural remedies for both dandruff and lice. Tea tree oil, neem, and honey can be used to treat dandruff. Both tea tree oil8and neem leaf9extracts are effective against the fungus associated with dandruff. Try adding a teaspoon of tea tree or neem oil to a bottle of regular shampoo for relief.10Honey also relieves itchiness and scaly skin. A weekly application can even prevent the recurrence of dandruff.11


[Read: Effective Ways To Use Tea Tree Oil For Lice]

Meanwhile, special combs with flat, closely spaced teeth can manually remove lice. To use one of these combs, wet your hair, work in a conditioner, and comb your hair. The conditioner will make it difficult for the lice to move.12Applying petroleum jelly to suffocate head lice is another home remedy that has been found to work, though it might not be as effective as pesticidal lotions or manual combing. Research has found that neem seed extracts can kill lice, too.13Add a few drops of neem oil to your hair wash for an even stronger home remedy.14