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Lice Vs. Dandruff—How Do I Quickly Tell the Difference?

Both lice and dandruff are uncomfortable conditions to deal with, but both have great differences. Telling the difference between lice vs. dandruff earlier on can also save you from trouble later on, especially in cases of head lice. This article will walk you through the difference between lice vs. dandruff, prevention, and treatment options.

Differences Between Lice and Dandruff

Dandruff falls onto clothing

The main difference between lice and dandruff is that head lice are a temporary infestation, whereas dandruff is more of a chronic skin condition. Both are treatable but with different methods as well.

But exactly is dandruff? Dandruff is diagnosed under the name seborrheic dermatitis, and it is a long-term skin disorder. With seborrheic dermatitis, your scalp will produce flaky dandruff patches that will fall off, accompanied by a few other symptoms.


While both conditions occur on the head, there is a slight difference in where they occur. Dandruff flakes fall off of the hair easily because the issue is with the top layer of skin on the scalp. Adult head lice cling to the scalp and lay eggs at the base of hair follicles.


A head lice infestation is contagious, whereas dandruff is not. Dandruff creates flaky skin that often falls off and onto clothing and surfaces, but another person cannot catch dandruff as they can lice. Just being around another person who has recently had lice, you could very likely start to show head lice symptoms.


Both lice and dandruff cause an itchy scalp, however, in different degrees. Because lice are actively feeding on human blood from the scalp because they are parasitic insects, which causes severe itching. Head lice can also create a sensation where you can feel the lice moving.

Lymph Nodes

Head lice can create bacterial infections, most often due to scratching the scalp. When you itch your scalp, and if you scratch too hard, you open up areas that can become infected. This potential infection can cause your lymph nodes to swell, or your ears to feel swollen as well, as your body fights the infection off.


Dandruff is either white or yellowish flakes that are noticeable at most times. Lice are black and brown and are quite small. You may even want or need to use a magnifying glass to see head lice. Head lice can be more difficult to spot in darker hair because of their color.

Symptoms of Lice vs. Dandruff

dandruff on head

From a distance, head lice and dandruff can appear similar. But upon closer examination, the list of symptoms for both conditions differs quite a lot.

Lice Symptoms

Head lice are more common and prone to happen amongst children and those who work with children. This includes healthcare workers, teachers, babysitters, and so on. Look for these symptoms to know if you or your child have head lice.

  • Intense itching
  • Touching or scratching the head constantly
  • Bloody spot on the scalp
  • Red spots on the scalp
  • Lymph nodes may be swollen
  • Tear-shaped eggs in the hair
  • Tiny black spots in the hair

With every new school year, it is a good idea to have a head lice comb on hand to check your hair and your child’s hair periodically. The comb will be able to pull adult lice and their eggs out of the hair, and it will also make it easier for you the inspect the hair follicles and roots.

Dandruff Symptoms

While dandruff most commonly forms on the scalp, it is possible to have seborrheic dermatitis in other areas of the body. The most common symptom that people know and are aware of is the flaky, patchy skin that falls off the scalp. This can occur on the head, behind the ears, and on the neck, chest, and face.

Other dandruff symptoms include:

  • Oily or dry patches of skin
  • White or yellowish dandruff flakes
  • Itchiness in the scalp
  • Red patches of skin on the scalp
  • Becomes worse during dry weather or cold winter months

Because of the nature of the skin condition, it is common to lose a hair follicle or two, especially if you’re itching a lot.

However, if you’re symptoms don’t begin to ease or go away after using treatment (discussed later on), then the symptoms could be a result of another condition. Talk to your doctor about potentially having a yeast infection, eczema, or even an autoimmune disorder.

How to Prevent Lice vs. Dandruff

There are multiple shampoos for both lice and dandruff

Lice Prevention

To prevent head lice from overrunning your household, it’s highly recommended to wash and dry clothes, bedding, sheets, and so on at 130 degrees Fahrenheit to kill off the adult lice and their eggs.

Along with using a metal or plastic lice comb, you will also want to use OTC head lice treatments. However, be aware that some of these parasitic insects are resistant to lice treatment. In these cases, you will need to see a doctor to discuss alternative remedies.

Soak all of your brushes and combs in water that is also 130 degrees Fahrenheit for at least five to ten minutes. When treating lice, only use a lice comb to remove dead and live lice to avoid recontaminating your hairbrushes.

Make a point to vacuum all carpets, rugs, and even fabric furniture to gather as many of the head lice as possible. They cannot survive without a host, so getting them trapped in the vacuum will kill any head lice and nits off within 48 hours.

But even after doing all you can to prevent lice, and your household still catches it, what can you do to treat lice? Head lice treatment often revolves around special shampoos that contain permethrin and pyrethrin. After using the medicated shampoo, you will need to check for any remaining live lice and nits, the possible reapply the shampoo after 7 to 10 days.

Dandruff Prevention

There are multiple ways to treat dandruff, including anti-dandruff shampoo, home remedies, and prescription medication. Before investing in anti-dandruff shampoo and medicated creams, consider trying any of these options first:

  • Tea tree oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Aloe vera gel
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Salicylic acid
  • Increase intake of omega-3s and probiotics
  • Exfoliate scalp using backing soda

There are many anti-dandruff shampoos out on the market today to choose from as well. OTC anti-dandruff shampoos are your best option, as they often contain both ketoconazole and salicylic acid.

Lice combs are often metal and have small prongs

Coconut oil and aloe vera are good choices to use alongside the shampoo, as they can help ease your itchy scalp rather than focus on treating dandruff.

Lice vs. Dandruff Frequently Asked Questions

What Do Lice Look Like vs. Dandruff?

Head lice are the little black or brown dots that you’ll see in someone’s hair and on their scalp. Their color is what can distinguish head lice from dandruff the best, in combination with the crawling sensation that many people report feeling when they have head lice.

Both dandruff and the lice eggs are mostly similar in color, but movement sets the two apart. Dandruff will also cause the scalp to become dry or oily, whereas lice will create red or bloody dots to appear due to itching.

How Do You Check for Lice vs. Dandruff?

Dandruff is easier to check for than lice is. With lice, you will want to use a comb to carefully examine the entire head for white dots (eggs) and black or brown dots (grown lice). Lice also move, while dandruff won’t move unless disturbed (scratching, shaking hair, etc.), so you will need to patiently watch as you examine.

With lice, look for the white dots in the hair shaft. These white specks cling to hair to grow and feed off the nutrients in the strands.

When checking for dandruff, you will want to look for patches of red and dry or oily skin. The white specks you will see fall out easier than lice. You might also notice that dandruff has extended to the ears, chest, neck, or face, which does not happen with lice.

How Big Is Dandruff vs. Lice?

Adult lice are about the size of a sesame seed, on average, so they are still quite small. Dandruff does come off in small flakes, yet it’s more noticeable because of the number of flakes that fall off.

Dandruff can easily fall out and cover the shoulders of your shirt, tabletop surfaces and counters, and so on.

How do you know if it’s lice or dandruff?

Lice spray is a go-to option for treating lice

While both conditions cause itching, lice cause more severe itching. The way the insects move as well gives it away that you are dealing with lice and not dandruff.

Also, think about who you’ve been around lately. Have you been around the target group of people that would have lice, including children and teachers? If not, there is probably a less likely chance that you’d have lice.

Key Takeaways

Lice can be a pain to treat and rid your hair and house of, but washing all fabrics in hot water and cleaning all hair-related items is one way to keep your house lice-free.

Dandruff is a medical skin condition that may not go away, but it is manageable. However, keep in mind that if you already have a dry scalp or dry skin in general, dandruff hair products could worsen dry skin.

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