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Lice vs. Dandruff: How to Tell the Difference?

Lice vs. Dandruff: How to Tell the Difference?
Created on 
December 3, 2018
Updated on 
July 23, 2023

Lice and dandruff are both common scalp conditions. Both can cause itching, and both involve foreign bodies in the head hair. Because they can share certain similarities, it can be hard to tell the difference between the two. Knowing how to spot the difference can help you avoid mistaking dandruff for lice and vice-versa.

Let's explore the differences between lice and dandruff, including their symptoms, causes, and lice treatment options. If you're dealing with an itchy scalp, or wondering what those extremely small light things in your child's hair are, we'll show you how to tell difference between lice and dandruff.

Can Dandruff Be Mistaken for Lice?

Dandruff flakes are often mistaken for lice or nits. Sometimes even professionals have a hard time trying to tell the difference.

On a child's head, it can be very challenging to determine whether that's a head lice egg vs dandruff. But using a magnifying glass in good lighting, or a zoomed-in, high-definition photo with a white background, you can quickly learn to spot several important differences.

The Importance of Proper Diagnosis for Lice and Dandruff Infestations

Proper diagnosis of head lice (technically pediculus humanus capitis) is one of LiceDoctors' most important services. Wrong diagnosis can lead to ineffective treatment, worsening of symptoms due to side effects from the wrong treatment, and potential spreading to others.

Differentiation involves a thorough examination of the scalp and head hair. But we never trust our eyes alone. If your lice technician can’t immediately tell the difference visually, a thorough oiled comb-through can detect even early cases of lice.

Lice Vs. Dandruff: What Is the Difference?

Is There a Link Between Dandruff and Head Lice?

The only links between the two are the similarities in appearance and the body part they affect. Dandruff is not a symptom of head lice, and neither causes the other, although the symptoms of both can include red skin, a crawling sensation, and severe itching. In both, symptoms may come and go.

There's a common stigma that both lice and dandruff are due to poor hygiene. This is untrue in both cases.

5 Key Differences Between Head Lice and Dandruff

Here are some key differences to tell if it's lice or dandruff.

1. Appearance: Dandruff causes white flakes; seborrheic dermatitis can cause yellow flakes. These are very different from teardrop-shaped lice eggs.

2. Location: Dandruff flakes are loose anywhere on the entire scalp. Viable lice nits stick to the hair shaft within about 1/4" of the scalp, usually behind the ears, at the nape of the neck, or at the temples.

3. Contagion: You cannot catch dandruff; it's not contagious. Head lice are highly contagious, and spread through human contact. Suspect lice if you've had close contact with anyone with head lice or if multiple family members develop an itchy scalp.

4. Who is Affected: Head lice most commonly affects school-aged children, who rarely get dandruff.

What Causes Lice and Dandruff?

The causes are vastly different between dandruff and head lice.

Causes of Lice

Lice are parasitic insects that live only on the human head. These small parasitic creatures crawl onto hair, feed on human blood, and sometimes cause itchiness due to allergic reaction to their bug bites.

An active infestation of head lice is transmitted from person to person, most often by direct head to head contact with an infested individual.

Causes of Dandruff

Dandruff is a skin condition that causes an itchy head due to dry skin and shedding of excess skin flakes. Dandruff affects the scalp, and has many causes, including oil accumulation on the scalp, skin irritation or dryness, fungal infections, and allergic reactions. Dandruff can also have a genetic link.

Itchy, flaky scalp with dry skin in winter can be due to low humidity or heated air. If you develop yellowish flakes and dry skin after a switch in your hair care regimen, consider whether your scalp may be reacting to the new product. Confusingly, some over the counter treatments for lice can cause flaky dandruff patches as a side effect.


Symptoms of Head Lice vs Dandruff

Here are some expert tips to help you determine the difference between dandruff or lice symptoms.

Lice Symptoms

Aside from the obvious presence of something living on your head, there are a few head lice symptoms to be alert to:

  • Itching caused by lice bites.
  • Crawling sensation on the head.
  • Red itchy bumps on the head, neck, and ears.
  • Irritability.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Presence of lice and nits, although nits tend to be visible first.

One of the first things people take note of when they have lice is intense itching. Many people have had dandruff at some point in their life, but the itching from lice can feel somewhat different. It may be caused by feeling the adult head lice crawl around, or from a reaction to the saliva from the lice biting you as they feed on human blood from the scalp. Because of these bites, another symptom may be the presence of itchy bumps on the scalp, ears, or neck.

Constant scratching from intense itching may bring about another symptom, which would be irritability from difficulty sleeping. The good news is that the itching will go away once the infestation is properly treated. Some people with lice do not feel a thing, so be sure to keep a close eye out for nits and/or bugs that will be present with an infestation.

Dandruff Symptoms

Symptoms that may indicate you have dandruff include:

  • Itchy scalp.
  • Flakes on the scalp and hair.
  • No eggs or bugs on the head.

Like a case of head lice, in many people dandruff causes itchiness. However, the type of itching in dandruff will be more persistent and long-term. People have bouts with dandruff that may be seasonal, especially due to dry weather, and some people just may be more prone to having dandruff.

In either case, you may notice itching when you have dandruff. Accompanying the itching will be flakes of dandruff or flaky skin on the scalp.

It is usually seborrheic dermatitis that causes the skin on the scalp to peel off in dry and flaky small patches. Dandruff flakes are irregular in size and shape and fall off of the hair quite easily; these flakes are generally larger and more visible than lice nits. In addition, with dandruff, there will be nothing alive on your head, although dandruff flakes are loose, which can create the impression of movement.

What Does Lice Look Like vs Dandruff?

Lice and their eggs are very different in appearance from dandruff, especially once you know what you are looking for and how to identify lice. A case of lice consists of bugs and their eggs.

The bugs are not easy to spot because they hide from light and movement of the hair. They are small, 6-legged, wingless creatures with heads about the size of a sesame seed. They appear grayish, brownish, or even reddish depending on how long ago they had their last meal, human blood from the scalp.

Lice eggs (nits) blend in with the strands of hair. They are uniform in size, curved on one end with a tiny antenna on the other end. Usually, they are found within ¼ of an inch from the scalp on the hair shaft if they are still viable and can appear white, clear, brown, or tan on the hair strand. Removed from the hair and placed against a white background they will appear brown.

Simply put, dandruff is white, flat, flaky, loose, and easily removed from the hair. Flakes of dandruff are flatter than nits and usually wider. Unlike the eggs of lice, if you place these dandruff flakes against a white background, they will blend right in.

What does lice look like vs dandruff

How to Check for Lice vs Dandruff on Your Scalp

Diagnosing head lice or dandruff based on symptoms alone is unwise. A scalp examination is crucial, looking for live lice, and nits attached directly to the hair shaft. It's impossible to check yourself, since nits may be behind the head close to the skin. It is wise to recruit a friend or a professional for help.

Dandruff flakes off, while nits are attached to hair shafts. If the specks don't come off easily, shampoo and gently dry hair on low. If the specks are gone temporarily, it's likely dandruff. If not, pull one off; if you cannot feel it catch your fingernail, it's likely dandruff. If you can feel it, place it on a white piece of paper, and look at it under bright light with a magnifying glass. Or, take a photo on macro setting, and zoom in. If you see a tan or brown egg with a clear border and an antenna, it's likely a nit.

Dandruff vs Lice Treatment: Understanding the Differences in Treatment Options

If you cannot distinguish head lice from dandruff, don't just jump into treatment. Treatment for one may worsen the other!

Dandruff Treatment

The best treatment for dandruff itching depends on the cause of the skin condition. Dandruff will not improve with the use of over-the-counter lice remedies.

For dandruff from dry scalp, try using a hair shampoo that provides more moisture, lower pH, or anti dandruff shampoos that can be purchased over the counter. Regular usage of an anti dandruff shampoo can help you manage your flaky skin from seborrheic dermatitis, which may be an acute or chronic skin condition. There are several OTC anti dandruff shampoos on the market.

When dealing with oil accumulation type of dandruff, as with cradle cap, you can use a shampoo that is formulated for oily scalp. If the dandruff is due to an allergy, switch to a product that your hair and scalp are used to. There are some home remedies that can also help ease the discomfort from dandruff or oily scalp.

Dandruff associated with a yeast infection or patchy red and silver scaly skin warrants a trip to the doctor.

Lice Treatment

The difference between lice and nits is these parasitic insects with six legs are more vulnerable to chemicals, but can move quickly across the scalp through the head hair to avoid detection. Head lice eggs, however, are glued to the hair and easier to see, but very challenging to remove or kill with chemical head lice treatment.

If you find nits, then hatched lice have been and probably still are in the hair. This is definitely the time to seek out a treatment option that works quickly to eliminate lice infestation, because of this very simple truth: each female louse can lay up to 70 eggs in a week, and these nits hatch in a matter of days. The lice infestation can exponentially expand on the scalp in a very short period of time.

The best treatment for lice is removing lice nits and adult lice from the hair manually with a metal nit comb (not a plastic lice comb or a regular fine tooth comb). The National Pediculosis Association, a national watchdog organization, corroborates this. Head lice cannot be treated with dandruff shampoos.


LiceDoctors Professional Lice Treatment

Your LiceDoctors technician will do a lice and nit check on family members. She will not use any chemical lice remedies purchased over the counter or prescription medication for lice. She will be able to diagnose lice vs dandruff definitively. She will apply oil to the head, thoroughly comb the wet hair from the hair follicle to the end with a head lice comb to search for early cases of head lice. She'll also differentiate the white flakes of dandruff, scalp infection or irritation, and other causes of itchy scalp this way.

If you have head lice and/or nits, she will meticulously remove all remaining, visible ones. The steps involve not just fine tooth combs, but nitpicking by hand. This requires a lot of expertise in order to get out all of the nits. This is the key step to eliminating head lice permanently.

She will go over a basic aftercare plan that makes sure that the head lice do not return. We have an unequaled 99.6% success rate of getting rid of adult lice and nits, and all-natural nit-picking means no side effects, either short-term or long-term.

Prevention Strategies for Lice vs Dandruff

To prevent dandruff symptoms, cleanse the itchy scalp regularly with gentle or medicated shampoo with zinc pyrithione. Limit hair product use on the scalp, and heat styling close to scalp, and use hypoallergenic products with a low pH. Consider a shower filter or water softener.

To prevent lice, keep hair tied back with hair products when in close quarters with others, especially children. If any family members have an active infestation, they're contagious; avoid close contact until all family members are completely louse free.

lice tips treatment dandruff get rid lice

Trust Our Expert Team to Accurately Diagnose and Treat Lice With Precision and Care

While head lice and dandruff can cause similar symptoms, the difference between lice and dandruff is their causes and treatments. Whenever you have head lice, you have to get out all head lice and nits to prevent your case from recurring.

LiceDoctors will take care of your problem for you and will do so right in the security and privacy of your own home. There is no need to subject your family to the risks of a head lice salon or head lice clinic. LiceDoctors all-natural treatment for lice is also less expensive than most other lice centers.

When you discover head lice in your family, that is the best time to contact us at 800-224-2537 to book an appointment.



We provide a friendly in-home lice removal service

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