Lice vs Dandruff: How to Tell the Difference

Woman standing in front of light grey background, shaking her hair in a way that it hides her face.

At a Glance

  • Lice and dandruff are both conditions that affect the scalp.
  • Dandruff is a skin condition characterized by flakes that fall from the affected area. Lice are parasites that live on the skin and can colonize areas of hair growth very quickly
  • At first glance they can look very similar but there are key differences to look out for to distinguish between the two.

If you happen to spot little foreign objects in the hair of a friend or a family member, what’s your first reaction? Do you immediately think dandruff, or lice? Upon casual inspection it’s actually quite difficult to tell the difference between the two conditions.

Speaking from personal experience and having worked with children in the past, having somebody close to you with lice is much more concerning to me than dandruff.

So how do you tell the difference between head lice and dandruff? When you know how, it’s actually not that difficult, but you need to know what to look for.

What Are Lice?

Lice are parasites that have been in existence at least as long as humans have. An adult louse is around the size of a sesame seed. They cannot jump or fly; they are passed from person to person by direct head-to-head contact.

Lice can be found anywhere where we have a covering of body hair, but are most commonly found on the head, followed by the pubic region. They have sharp mouth parts that can pierce the skin to feed on our blood.

Lice are often quite hard to see because they are so small, move quickly – especially away from light sources – and their color blends well with natural hair colors. On the head, lice tend to congregate on the nape of the neck, around the ears and on the crown of the head.

There’s a very informative video on how to identify lice and nits here:

After being fertilized once, the females lay approximately six eggs every day for the month’s lifetime of each louse. That’s nearly two hundred eggs per louse per month, so it’s easy to see how an infestation can quickly get out of control.

When an adult louse lays an egg, it cements the egg very securely to the hair strand, usually close to the scalp to use the warmth of the skin to incubate the egg. (source)

There are lots of videos online showing serious head lice infestations if you want to check them out – but I wouldn’t recommend watching them at mealtimes!

What Is Dandruff?

Dandruff can also affect various parts of the body where there is hair coverage, but is most usually seen on the head. Dandruff is a combination of old skin cells and the dust and debris which accumulates as part of everyday life.

The skin cells and debris mix with some of the oil that is naturally produced by the skin, forming flakes that are visible and characteristic of dandruff.

Dandruff is associated with either excessively dry or oily skin, so this is something to look out for when differentiating between dandruff and lice.

Flakes of dandruff are usually white, cream or yellowish in color, and can be as big as half to one centimeter. Much smaller flakes, however, can also be seen. In some cases, dandruff flakes can be seen very close to the scalp still attached to the head, with hairs protruding through it. (source)

Lice vs Dandruff: How to Tell the Difference

There are several key differences between lice and dandruff. Here is what to look out for on your detective hunt:

Itching

If the person affected is experiencing itching, consider the location of the symptoms. In a lice infestation, itching is often more common around the nape of the neck or behind the ears.

In dandruff, the itching can be more widespread and associated with areas of flaking skin. Upon scratching the affected area, falling flakes can be observed in some cases.

Observation

The first place to look for differences is around the affected area. If the head is affected, check the person’s shoulders and neck area for loose particles.

If small flakes or white flecks can be seen below the affected area, the problem is more likely to be dandruff than lice. Dandruff flakes naturally loosen from the scalp and fall.

In contrast, adult lice are quite happy burrowing around in the cover of the hair roots, and don’t generally show themselves. Their eggs do not tend to fall onto the neck and shoulder area because they’re glued to hair strands with the louse version of super glue.

Skin Condition

Check the general condition of the skin in the affected area. Dandruff is often associated with a scalp that is yellow or white and either dry and scaly or very oily, and is much easier to see than head lice or eggs.

Man observing the roots of his hair.

Moving Objects

When checking the hair, look out for live, moving adult lice. These are the most obvious sign that the problem is a lice infestation rather than dandruff. The problem is, however, that the adult lice are fast.

They will very quickly try to hide in surrounding hair when exposed, so make sure you watch very closely as soon as you part the hair to expose the scalp.

Color

Observe the color of the particles in the hair. Lice eggs tend to be dark brown in color, especially when newly laid. Dandruff flakes are usually white, cream or yellow in color.

Size

Consider the size of any particles you find. Dandruff is generally bigger – up to a centimeter – than lice and eggs, which are tiny. However, small flakes of dandruff can also be visible.

Shape

Observe the shape of the particle. Dandruff flakes are flat and usually have an irregular shape. Louse eggs are smooth and look like a small ovals with a tail at one end – a kind of teardrop shape – and they always take the same shape.

Location

The location of the particle in the hair can be important in identifying if the problem is lice or dandruff. Lice are generally found on the scalp, and the newly laid eggs are most frequently on the hair shafts within an inch of the scalp.

Egg Casings

These are left behind on hair strands after a baby louse, or nymph, hatches. Without the animal inside, the egg casing changes color from brown to a lighter color. They can appear as white or translucent, and be mistaken for dandruff.

Egg casings also remain attached to the hair strand after the louse nymph has hatched. This means that undisturbed, they move further away from the scalp as it grows.

As a result, egg casings can easily be mistaken for dandruff. This one major reason why people have difficulty diagnosing the correct condition.Professional inspecting man's hair with magnifier and hairbrush to tell lice vs dandruff.

How To Check Hair for Dandruff or Lice

When trying to tell the difference between dandruff and lice, it’s important to work in the best conditions possible. Here’s our guide to creating the best environment for being able to check thoroughly and identify the problem.

When checking the hair, make sure you are in an area where there is lots of natural light. Make sure the person being checked is comfortable so that they’ll be able to keep still.

Part the hair where the itching is using a comb, and use a magnifying glass to help if necessary. Check this area from all different angles, and keep parting the hair in slightly different places.

Work outwards from this area, continuing to check each section from different angles and parting the hair. If you spot a particle in the hair, examine the color closely. If it is brown, it is more likely to be a louse egg than dandruff.

When you see a particle on a hair strand, the best way to tell if it’s a louse egg or egg casing rather than a piece of dandruff or skin particles is to try to move it.

Because the egg or casing is tightly bound to the hair shaft if you try to slide it along the hair with your fingertips it will not move – even if it’s an egg casing. Dandruff particles can be easily removed with very little effort.

Lice vs Dandruff: Final Thoughts

While dandruff is irritating and can be embarrassing, an infestation of lice can quickly multiply out of control, not only affecting the sufferer, but also the people around them. It is incredibly important, then, to be able to distinguish dandruff from lice.

Dandruff and lice do share some common presentations. The empty lice egg casings, in particular can cause confusion and making it difficult to tell there two conditions apart.

There are some differences, however, which can help you to reach the correct diagnosis and begin the appropriate treatment. It is vital, therefore, to know what you’re looking for. If there is any doubt, the best course of action is to consult your doctor.

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