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.
Pityriasis rosea is a fairly common skin condition that shares a symptom or two with dandruff. But it’s not hard to tell the difference.
Dandruff and pityriasis rosea don’t have much in common, except that both conditions may itch.
To understand why, let’s discuss each condition separately, starting with dandruff.
What is dandruff?
A yeast-like fungus called malassezia lives on all our scalps. Typically it’s harmless, but some people have a sensitivity to its by-product, oleic acid. In these cases, you can expect symptoms that include:
- Dry flakes in the hair and on the scalp
- A red, irritated scalp
Dandruff is, luckily, quite easy to treat. Use an anti-dandruff shampoo for two weeks –ideally every time you wash- to take care of the problem. Since dandruff is a chronic condition which will return if not treated, continue a maintenance routine of regularly using dandruff shampoo even after flakes disappear.
Pityriasis rosea, by contrast, is another kettle of fish.
What is pityriasis rosea?
The big problem with pityriasis rosea is that scientists haven’t pinpointed the cause. It starts with a single large patch on the body, known as the herald patch.
This is followed by:
- Small pink spots on the body, sometimes in a ‘Christmas tree’ pattern
- It may be accompanied by mild flu-like symptoms, bolstering the claim that it is viral in nature
- Patches appear on the front and back of the body, arms and legs
- Sometimes patches spread to the neck, but rarely to the face
- About half of those who have the condition will experience mild itching
Obviously, the big difference between dandruff and pityriasis rosea – aside from their cause – is placement. Where dandruff affects the scalp, pityriasis rosea affects the entire body except for the scalp.
Treating pityriasis rosea is also tricky.
Treating pityriasis rosea
Well, we say tricky, but the reality is that pityriasis rosea needs no treatment at all: it disappears by itself in six to eight weeks. Those who have suffered from it typically won’t have another episode in their lifetime.
So treating this particular skin condition comes down to controlling the symptoms. This can be done with over-the-counter anti-histamines and anti-inflammatories. Sunlight on the rash has also been shown to reduce the rash in some cases.
While these strategies can work, we’d recommend speaking to your doctor first. Not only will they be able to confirm whether you do actually have pityriasis rosea, they’ll be able to provide useful treatment advice, or prescription treatments to help manage symptoms.