Dandruff vs head lice and nits: What’s the difference?

When it comes to distinguishing dandruff vs head lice or dandruff vs nits, it’s very common for people to be confused between them. Empty eggs are white in colour and therefore can easily be confused with dandruff.

Likewise, someone thinks they see dandruff, but in fact, it is eggs. This confusion can either make you treat the hair like crazy if you think it’s nits or ignore an infestation of head lice believing it to be just dandruff. Dangerous stuff. So how can you tell the difference?

Nits vs dandruff on a comb

It is important to know how to identify dandruff and how to identify nits to stop any confusion. The key test is to use a finger to touch the white thing you find and see if it moves easily – if I push at it does it shift? If it is dandruff, it will move easily.

If it is a nit or head lice egg it will be stuck firmly to the hair shaft and so will not budge as you touch it. A head lice egg or nit will need to be pulled off the hair shaft with your fingernails. Once the nit is off, put it on some white toilet paper and you will see that it is teardrop-shaped.

Does dandruff cause nits?

It is impossible for dandruff to cause nits. What you are likely to find however is that head lice treatments or products can cause dandruff as they dry out or dehydrate the scalp. If you use it frequently then long term, recurring dandruff is very likely.

Head lice vs dandruff

The first sign of having head lice for many is having an itchy scalp which is caused by an allergic reaction to the saliva the head lice inject when it feeds. However, 53% of people are not allergic to it and therefore don’t itch at all.

If you don’t itch, then the first signs you are looking for are the presence of teardrop-shaped eggs firmly glued onto the hair near the roots, and for any sesame seed-sized bugs crawling in the hair and on the scalp. Another useful sign is to see if there are any raised red lumps on the neck or behind the ears which are a sign of irritation from the head lice feeding.

What causes dandruff?

There are a range of causes of dandruff:

  • A propensity to dry skin
  • A sensitivity to hair products like shampoo creating a condition called contact dermatitis. If you have changed the shampoo recently and are now finding dandruff, then return to your old shampoo for a while and examine the ingredients in the new one – you may need to avoid harsh ingredients and some essential oils
  • An irritated, oily skin
  • Skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis
  • Using head lice treatments which dry out the scalp
  • An overuse of dimethicone in head lice and shampoo products

What causes head lice?

Head lice are a common parasite that lives on humans in their hair and they have been around since the beginning of time. They are transferred between humans, most commonly by close contact. Because children congregate in schools and are highly sociable that transference is frequent and common.

Children also have higher blood sugar levels which head lice thrive on. Feeding on our blood and hiding in our hair motivates them to seek us out when we are at our most sociable!

It’s not only lice and dandruff that you can find in hair

There are other things you can find in the hair that can also trick you into thinking you or your child might have head lice. There are a couple of excretions that come out of the hair follicle that can be confusing as well.

Hair casts are tubular shaped, white, and are wrapped around the hair. This distinct tubular shape versus the teardrop shape of the nit egg is an important distinction and should help you tell the difference. Additionally, the hair cast slides off the hair shaft easily with the pads of your fingers as it is not glued on. This also helps you tell the difference from a nit egg.

DEC plugs are perfectly spherical, round creamy balls of keratin. Again, they are another natural excretion that comes out of the hair follicle and sit on the scalp. They are not attached to the hair. Like the hair casts, they can be easily moved by touching them and are nothing to do with head lice or nits.

Unsure if it is lice or dandruff?

If you need a professional opinion about what you are finding then you can find your nearest Hairforce clinic, the UK’s nit and head lice clearing service, or call us on 020 7485 7351.

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