This is article is written with Ilyse Lefkowicz, M.D. - Head & Shoulders dermatologist.Being a sufferer of scalp issues, she understands the importance of a scalp care system that delivers in technology and beauty benefits. Dr. Lefkowicz is a Board-Certified dermatologist specializing in general and cosmetic dermatology.
Feeling the itch? Use our symptoms guide learn about the differences between pityriasis versicolor and dandruff. Pityriasis versicolor (also called Tinea versicolor) and dandruff are two prevalent skin conditions which share a common cause- an ordinary fungus.
Let’s look at what makes them similar, and then we’ll discuss their differences.
Malassezia: a common culprit
The fungus malassezia is the shared root of both pityriasis versicolor (also called tinea versicolor) and dandruff. However, while malassezia is responsible for both conditions, it causes them in different ways.
But first, some background: malassezia is one of a family yeast-like fungi that live on our bodies. As one of many, many microbial life-forms that call human bodies home, they don’t generally cause any harm. In fact, they live quite happily by feeding off the natural oils our skins produce.
For some people, however, things aren’t quite so smooth. One variety of malassezia – called Malassezia globosa – makes its home on your scalp. As part of their life-cycle they produce oleic acid. Unfortunately, a significant portion of the population is sensitive to oleic acid. This is the trigger that causes dandruff.
Malassezia’s involvement in pityriasis versicolor, by contrast, is somewhat different.
In the case of pityriasis versicolor, malassezia simply grows out of control, and invades inside the top layers of skin. The mechanism behind this is still unclear, but there are factors that increase the possibility that malassezia will over propagate:
- Hot, humid weather
- Excessive sweating
- Oily skin
- A weakened immune system
- Hormonal changes
Pityriasis and dandruff: the symptoms
Now, while knowing the cause of these two conditions is useful, how do we tell the difference between them?
For starters, the symptoms of dandruff are a direct result of irritation on the scalp. All symptoms are localized on the scalp, and include:
- White flakes in the hair
- Red, irritated skin
Pityriasis versicolor affects a far broader area – the chest, back, arms and neck. Small oval patches become discolored as the fungus interferes with normal pigment production in the skin. The symptoms can include:
- Skin pigment changes: oval patches or spots that are either lighter or darker than usual
- Itchiness on these spots
- Patches which become dry and scaly
So, simply from location and color, it’s fairly easy to tell the difference between the two problems. But what do you do about them?
Treating pityriasis versicolor and dandruff
Because both these conditions share a similar cause, tackling them follows similar patterns.
In the case of dandruff, use a good dandruff shampoo for two weeks –ideally every time you wash- to take care of the problem. Even after dandruff is under control, you should still use dandruff shampoo regularly, because it is a chronic condition which will return if untreated.
The reason these shampoos work is because they are specifically designed to protect the scalp from Malasezzia irritants.
In the case of pityriasis versicolor, antifungal creams, lotions or shampoos are used. If you find the problem doesn’t go away, you can speak to your doctor, who may prescribe oral medication for treatment.