Lice vs. dandruff: Differences and best treatments

Hair Products

If you have either lice or dandruff, your best bet is to find a treatment option as soon as possible to prevent it from getting worse. Fortunately, there are several treatment kits, specialty shampoos and other treatment options available.

BestReviews is reader-supported and may earn an affiliate commission. Details.

How to treat lice and dandruff

Although lice and severe dandruff may look similar, they are quite different, which also means there are different treatments for each. Dandruff is essentially dry, flaking skin on the scalp that appears as tiny white flecks in the hair. It’s often the result of a fungus, excessive shampooing or infrequent shampooing. Lice, meanwhile, are small parasites that live on their host’s head and feed on their blood to survive and multiply.

Several effective treatments exist for both lice and dandruff. However, before you can treat the problem, you need to confirm which one you have.

Lice

There are several ways to identify lice, but here are the easiest ones:

  • White flakes in the hair, around the ears or on the clothes
  • “Flakes” that can’t be brushed off
  • Extremely itchy scalp or the need to constantly scratch certain areas of the scalp
  • Tiny red sores within a pinkish ring of skin
  • Visibly moving white “flakes” – some adult lice are large enough to see with the naked eye

If you suspect you have lice but still aren’t sure, get a close-toothed lice comb and use it to try to remove any noticeable white specks you see. Once they’re on the comb, you may notice them moving. If they move, they’re lice. If they don’t move, they could still be nits (lice eggs). Use a magnifying glass to confirm.

How to treat lice

There are various lice treatment options available, including special shampoos and lice kits. These treatments are highly effective when used as directed. However, there are a few things to consider before using a lice treatment, such as its ingredients and method of application.

Ingredients in lice treatments

When it comes to lice treatments, there are two main options: pesticides and natural treatments. Both are generally considered safe for humans, but there are a few pros and cons to both.

Pesticide-based treatments:

  • Usually contain pesticides like pyrethrin or piperonyl butoxide
  • Readily available in the pharmacy section of most stores
  • Potentially more effective than treatments that rely on natural ingredients
  • Less expensive than all-natural treatments
  • Could result in reddened or irritated skin for children and others with sensitive skin
  • May have an overwhelming, unpleasant smell

Natural treatments:

  • Typically contain natural ingredients such as tea tree, peppermint or eucalyptus oil; may also contain other plant products or lactic acid
  • Free from harsh or potentially harmful chemicals
  • Safe for people with highly sensitive skin
  • Mild, potentially pleasant scent
  • May be more expensive than pesticide treatments

Both types of lice treatments have varying levels of effectiveness. If one type of treatment doesn’t work for you, try something from a different brand or that uses different ingredients.

Types of lice treatments

Lice treatments come in various forms, such as over-the-counter or prescription medication, shampoos, treatment kits and creams. Certain treatments should only be used on individuals above a certain age, while others are safe for all users.

Specialty shampoos: One of the most common types of treatments is a specialty lice shampoo. These shampoos may use either natural or pesticide-based ingredients and are safe for most people. Some lice-killing shampoos use pyrethrin or permethrin cream. This chemical kills lice at all stages of life, but may not completely kill the eggs. For best results, apply the shampoo several times or as directed.

Creams and lotions: Certain creams and lotions can also kill lice. Most creams and lotions are prescription-only since they are typically harsher and stronger than OTC options. They are highly effective, however, especially for those who have chronic lice.

Kits: Lice treatment kits usually come with a specialty shampoo, lice comb and disposable head cap. Some kits also include a spray for clothes, bedsheets and carpet that kills lice on contact. Lice treatment kits cost between $20-$40.

Best lice treatments

Nix Ultra Allin Super Lice Shampoo Kit

Nix Ultra Allin Super Lice Shampoo Kit

This lice-killing kit comes with an all-in-one shampoo and a lice comb that kills lice and removes eggs. It doesn’t include harmful parabens, dyes or phthalates, making it safe for young children and adults.

Sold by Amazon

 

Lice Treatment Kit by Lice Clinics

Lice Treatment Kit by Lice Clinics

This complete kit uses a nontoxic formula to kill and remove lice and nits from the hair. It comes with a small bottle of liquid gel, metal lice comb and an easy-to-use applicator. Plus, it’s clinically proven to work and is safe and effective for kids.

Sold by Amazon

 

Head Hunters Pro Lice Treatment (Family)

Head Hunters Pro Lice Treatment (Family)

Formulated with all-natural ingredients, this lice treatment involves a two-step process that effectively treats lice and prevents new infestations. The kit includes a lice comb and special serum.

Sold by Amazon

Dandruff

Dandruff is usually easier to identify than lice. It’s most commonly defined by small, white flakes that appear in the hair, eyebrows and clothes. Dandruff rarely causes major health problems and is usually treatable at home. Common signs of dandruff include:

  • Itchy scalp
  • Unsightly white flakes on the hair and clothes
  • Greasy or oily skin with white flakes
  • Minor or temporary hair loss due to excessive scratching

Anyone can get dandruff, but it’s most common in men, young adults, individuals with excessively oily hair and people who over-shampoo their hair.

How to treat dandruff

There are various ways to treat dandruff. Some people swear by at-home remedies such as apple cider vinegar, Omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics and baking soda. However, the most effective way to treat dandruff is with an anti-dandruff shampoo.

Types of anti-dandruff shampoos

Anti-dandruff shampoos use different types of active and inactive ingredients. Here are the most common types of anti-dandruff shampoos:

  • Tea tree oil shampoo
  • Coal tar shampoo
  • Salicylic acid shampoo
  • Selenium sulfide shampoo
  • Zinc pyrithione shampoo
  • Two-in-one anti-dandruff shampoo

These ingredients have varying antibacterial, antifungal and antimicrobial effects that help combat or prevent dandruff. If you have particularly dry skin, consider pairing your anti-dandruff shampoo with a conditioning product. 

Anti-dandruff shampoos cost between $5-$60, depending on the brand.

Best dandruff treatments

Nizoral Anti-Dandruff Shampoo

Nizoral Anti-Dandruff Shampoo

This anti-dandruff shampoo is clinically proven to prevent, reduce and get rid of dandruff caused by fungus. It has a nice, neutral scent and is safe for most individuals and hair types. It also helps reduce itchiness.

Sold by Amazon

 

Head and Shoulders Shampoo and Conditioner 2-in-1

Head and Shoulders Shampoo and Conditioner 2-in-1

This well-known anti-dandruff shampoo and conditioner is ideal for those who regularly experience mild cases of dandruff and have a dry scalp and hair. It’s free from such harmful ingredients as parabens and is safe for adults and children.

Sold by Amazon

 

Neutrogena T/Gel Therapeutic Anti-Dandruff Shampoo and Conditioner

Neutrogena T/Gel Therapeutic Anti-Dandruff Shampoo and Conditioner

Safe for treated or dyed hair, this two-in-one anti-dandruff shampoo and conditioner hydrates and cleans the hair and scalp. It also removes dandruff and prevents future outbreaks.

Sold by Amazon

Bottom line

Ultimately, lice and dandruff are both very different problems that require specific solutions. If you have lice, then you should get a specialty shampoo or lice kit to treat the condition. If that doesn’t work, consult a doctor about prescription medications or creams. For dandruff, regular usage of an over-the-counter anti-dandruff shampoo should work in most cases. You may need something prescription-based if the dandruff is chronic or severe though.

Sign up here to receive the BestReviews weekly newsletter for useful advice on new products and noteworthy deals.

Angela Watson writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

Copyright 2021 BestReviews, a Nexstar company. All rights reserved.

Trending Stories