Dandruff vs. Residue

Even a good, thorough combing will not remove dandruff or residue.

Photo: George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Don't freak out if you spot some white flecks near your scalp, that white flaky stuff might not be dandruff -- it could be product buildup. Both look similar and leave embarrassing flakes on your shoulders, but they are quite different and they are treated differently. So you need to know what you're dealing with in order to get rid of the mess. Identify the flake, treat your hair accordingly, and say "hello" to black sweaters and jackets again.

Identifying Dandruff

You can't tell from the flakes whether your condition comes from your scalp or your styling goo -- the flakes all look pretty much the same. Both conditions even make your scalp itch. However, there is one clear difference that separates the two conditions. Dandruff causes flakes of skin to shed from the scalp. If you look closely, you'll be able to see some flakes still hanging onto the scalp, ready to fall off. You will also pick up flakes under your nails when you scratch your scalp. Gross, right? Your scalp probably looks red and irritated too.

Identifying Product Buildup

Many products leave a gooey residue on hair. Over time, the gunk gets thicker until it starts cracking and flakes off the hair. You can tell if you have buildup by inspecting your hair closely. If you see a whitish film coating your hair or flakes stuck to your hair shaft, you have product buildup. You can also scrape your hair with your fingernails. If the nais pick up a thick, whitish mess, it's buildup.

Removing Gunk

You can remove gunk and some dandruff flakes with a clarifying treatment. Before you grab the clarifying shampoo, you should know it's not going to work -- you need a treatment with some punch. Opt for a powder clarifying treatment. Mix it with 1/4 cup hot water. Cover your hair with it, put on a plastic cap and process with heat for 15 minutes before rinsing the treatment out. Tip: Wrap a moist towel that has been heated in the microwave around your head for heat.

Treating Scalp Conditions

If you've pinpointed the flakes, and they're coming from your scalp, see your doctor. Many skin conditions mimic dandruff, and you need to know which one you have in order to treat it. Most scalp conditions, including dandruff, are treated with medicated shampoos. You just switch shampoos -- that's it. Some -- the good ones -- require a prescription and can cost more than other types of shampoo. But they can get rid of the flakes in a few weeks.

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