How to Tell the Difference Between Lice vs. Dandruff

Lice vs. Dandruff

Out of multiple hair issues, dandruff is one of the most common. Seeing white flakes on the scalp and hair is very frustrating. Luckily, there are many ways to prevent and treat dandruff. 

Likewise, another hair issue that people often face due to poor hygiene is lice. It is more dangerous than dandruff as it occurs due to parasites and is contagious too. 

Both these hair conditions are infuriating and share a few similar symptoms. However, since they are completely different from each other their line of treatment is also different. 

Let’s take a look into the difference between lice and dandruff and ways to combat them. 

What are Lice?


Lice is a parasite which is found in the scalp in three different forms- eggs, nymphs and adult lice. The size of adult lice is extremely small, making it difficult to find out between the hair shafts. 

It crawls smoothly in the head and can spread to people coming in contact. 

What Causes Lice?

The most common cause of lice is poor hygiene. People staying in unhygienic conditions and not washing their hair have higher chances of developing hair lice. They can spread from one person to another through sharing clothes, bedding, and using the same towel, comb and other hair accessories. 

What is Dandruff?


Dandruff is a scalp condition, also called seborrheic dermatitis. It occurs when the scalp’s skin gets flaky or scaly. As you scratch the scalp these white flakes come out and spread to the hair and fall over the clothes.  

Dandruff is not contagious; however, it runs in families. People with dermatitis have higher chances of developing dandruff and get flaky scalp. 

What Causes Dandruff?

Genetic and environmental factors contribute to the development of dandruff. Some common causes of dandruff include the following-

  • Extremely dry or oily skin 
  • Skin yeast 
  • Fungus 

Dandruff can occur among children as well as adults. Among newborns and babies, it is termed a cradle cap.

What Are Symptoms of Dandruff and Lice?

While most symptoms of these two hair conditions differ, itching is experienced by people in both cases. 

When lice start living on the scalp, it sucks on the skin to feed itself the human blood. The saliva of the parasite irritates the scalp, causing itching. Likewise, in the case of dandruff, excessive dryness of the scalp causes itching. 

Due to these similar symptoms, people often get confused about whether they have lice or dandruff.

What Is the Difference Between Lice and Dandruff?

Here is a table giving information on lice vs. dandruff under different heads-

CauseInfestation by parasitic insects (lice)Overproduction of skin flakes (fungus Malassezia)
LocationTypically found on scalp, hair shafts, and close to the scalpPrimarily found on the scalp, but can also affect other areas with hair
AppearanceTiny, wingless insectsFlakes of dead skin, often white or yellowish
MovementCan move quickly on the scalpDoesn’t move, flakes may fall off when disturbed
ItchingIntense itching, especially at nightMild itching, often not as severe as with lice
TransmissionDirect contact with an infected person or sharing personal items such as combs, brushes, hats, or beddingNot contagious, typically due to factors such as dry skin, oily skin, or fungal growth
TreatmentOver-the-counter or prescription lice treatments, combing out lice and nits (eggs), thorough cleaning of personal items and environmentMedicated shampoos containing ingredients like ketoconazole, selenium sulfide, or coal tar; regular washing and good scalp hygiene
ComplicationsSecondary bacterial infections due to scratchingNone, but may lead to embarrassment or discomfort due to visible flakes
VisibilityLice and nits may be visible to the naked eyeDandruff flakes are visible, especially on dark clothing or hair
FrequencyLess common but can occur in outbreaks, often among childrenVery common, affecting people of all ages, genders, and races
PreventionAvoid sharing personal items, regular head checks, maintaining good hygieneRegular shampooing, avoiding excessive use of hair products, managing stress

Dandruff vs. Lice- Treatment 

The treatment of both conditions is different, but maintaining proper hair hygiene is the core step to prevent them on the first hand. At the same time, if it’s the case of lice, check if any of the family members have it because it transfers easily from one person to another living closely. 

Here are a few ways to treat lice-

  • Use prescription shampoo that contains permethrin and pyrethrin. These two chemicals are effective in killing lice but recommended only for children above 2 years. 
  • Use over-the-counter medications. Apply them as instructed and later comb hair with a fine-tooth comb to remove them.  

Besides these treatments, changing lifestyle to ensure that all the eggs, nymphs, and adult lice are removed from the home is essential. To achieve this, you can do the following-

  • Regularly wash all the clothes, bedding, and towels and dry them in a high-heat setting.
  • Vacuum carpets and upholstered furniture.
  • Remove stuffed toys from the home for a few weeks. In the absence of food, they’ll eventually die. 

While treating lice requires more work around the house and personal hygiene, dandruff can be managed by using prescription shampoo. 

Shampoos for dandruff are designed to treat causal causes, such as fungus or yeast, and slow down the skin-shedding process. Often, these shampoos contain ingredients like salicylic acid, ketoconazole, or selenium sulfide.


Now that we have clearly mentioned the difference between lice and dandruff it will be easy for you to identify what is causing itching on the scalp. If white flakes are visible after scratching the scalp, it is nothing but dandruff. On the other hand, a close inspection of scalp and hair shafts will help discover lice. 

Feature Image Source – Canva

Was this article helpful?