Nits Vs Dandruff — How to Tell the Difference — Nits in Hair — Removal and Info

Nits in Hair – Removal and Info

Nits are easy to recognize because they are tiny, sticky, and do not look like flakes. People often mistake dry scalp and dandruff for nits. If you have never identified nits before, it can be difficult to decide whether a white spot is a nit or not. Nits look like tiny little white sand and can often be mistaken for dandruff. Nits are lice eggs stuck to the hair shaft, and white, flaky dandruff is mostly on the scalp.

Yellow, oily flakes can also occur, but are usually related to another skin condition called seborrheic dermatitis, also known as cradle cap when it affects babies.

As dandruff and nits different?

Knowing the difference between lice and dandruff can help heal your scalp condition properly. Lice are infectious parasites and dandruff is a self-contained scalp condition. Dandruff comes from the head, and flakes off. Dandruff is due to the excessive shedding of dead skin cells from the scalp, and lice are wingless insects (small bugs) that infest the hair and scalp.

The methods of prevention and treatment also vary between lice and dandruff. Although both can usually be cured or controlled with at-home treatment, consider seeking medical attention if your condition remains untreated, if it gets worse, or if you can not determine which condition you have.

A few ways to tell the difference between nits and dandruff flakes:В

1.) Dandruff flakes appear throughout the В hair, while most louse eggs appear close to the scalp. Most of the time eggs will not be directly on the scalp, but on strands of hair about 1/2 inch down from the scalp.

The louse will lay her egg on the hair shaft close to the scalp, to ensure the egg will get the proper amount of heat from the head. Nits move farther away from the scalp as the hair grows. While it is common for eggs to be laid down 1/4 to 1/2 inch from the head, in the warmer weather eggs are often laid anywhere on the hair shaft. Head lice infestations, however, are not associated with specific weather conditions or seasons.

2.) Another key difference is the dandruff flakes off, and nits stick to the hair and it will not move if you blow on them. Nits normally stick to your hair. The eggs will be white and very hard to get out of hair, almost like it was glued on. The eggs are tiny tiny and white and round and are very attached to your hair, almost “cemented” onto the hair. Louse eggs are literally glued to the hair by the female louse. Things like hair products and foods can also stick to the hair shaft and do not move.

3.) Flakes can also be easily removed from the hair with any hair implement. So if the white stuff in your hair brushes off quickly, it’s probably dandruff. Nits tend to not come off as easy as dandruff does, and will not easily brush off the hair. With dandruff, this does not happen, and the white bits are just flakes as opposed to eggs. Lice are glued (for lack of better words) to hair, therefore, white and flaky is dandruff.

4.) Pluck out a few hairs from different parts of your scalp and examine them. If you see a little white or clear spot attached to the hair strand, it means you have nits (lice eggs). To distinguish them from dandruff or hair spray, pick up a strand of hair near the scalp and pull your fingernail over the area where the whitish substance appears. See if you can move the white spot on the hair with your thumb and forefinger.

If you can, then it’s “hair cast” and just a few of the normal cells in the scalp skin that got trapped in the hair as it grew from the scalp. If, however, you can not push the white spot off of the hair, then you might have nits (louse egg case) on the shaft.

5.) Nits are also much more symmetrical than dandruff flakes, which are usually asymmetrical. A nit is a truly oval object, with live lice in it (it will be brown) or hatched (it will be white, and have already popped its top off.) If there is a live louse in the nit, then it will be reddish in color and if it turns white, then it will be empty, and the young louse is “at large.” Empty egg cases (left after the baby louse has hatched) are shiny white and easier to spot. Upon hatching, the remaining shell looks white or clear.

6.) Itchy scalp is a symptom that can be caused by both problems. As for the symptoms that both conditions share, such as itching, lice symptoms are usually more severe. When a louse bites your skin, the saliva causes you have an allergic reaction, which results in intense itching. Lice can also cause your scalp to tingle. Dandruff produces mild symptoms and does not cause a tingling sensation.

How to check for nits and liceВ

Lice make their home in human hair, feeding on blood from the head, holding the hair with hook-like claws found at the end of their six legs. Your best best is to have someone check your scalp for bugs. Let your friends or parents check your hair about 1/4 inch from the scalp in thin areas behind the ears and neck. You can also go to a dermatologist and have them look at your hair and scalp line.

Lice are visible and can be easily identified. With a magnifying glass will easily be able to see their legs and heads. Lice move fast, but are more easy to spot on light hair, like dishwater blonde hair, versus brunette, black, or brown hair.

Also, look for small, inflamed bites on the scalp, or skin rash on the back of the neck and behind the ears. Dandruff can cause irritation of the scalp, but no bumps, and flakes of dandruff can be easily removed. If symptoms such as itchy red bumps are present, you do have lice.

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Finally look for dark spots on your pillow or collar. These black dots are louse feces.

Dandruff / Dry Scalp TreatmentВ

Dandruff is due to dry skin on the scalp, so use a shampoo and conditioner that have moisturizers in them. The best cure for dandruff is Nizoral. If you can not find nits, consider getting a shampoo for dry scalp, or a concentrated dandruff shampoo instead and make sure to rinse all the soap out of your hair completely.

Shampooing with regular dandruff shampoo also distinguishes the two conditions, as using dandruff shampoos can not control or kill the lice and nits.

Treating head lice and nitsВ

Treatment requires special over-the-counter or prescription medications to kill the eggs or nits and adult lice. It is better to treat lice right away, because lice can multiply easily making them harder to remove.

You can go to Walgreen, CVS, Navarro etc and buy a shampoo called Relieve or nixx – just follow the directions on the box. After shampooing to kill adult lice, wash your hair and scalp with vinegar, which weakens the glue that holds the nits to the hair shaft.

There are also sprays to spray furniture, seats and beds, to eliminate all lice.

Other reasons for itchy scalp besides nits, lice, or dandruffВ

Itchy scalp can be a symptom of dry skin (like your hands during dry winter weather conditions.) Itchy scalp does not necessarily mean that you have parasites.

Residual shampoo, conditioner, and other hair products can irritate the scalp a lot, causing itching. Other conditions that can cause your scalp to itch and flake are cradle cap, dandruff, and eczema. Have your doctor check you out to make sure, because it might be something like scabies or bed bugs. If you have dry skin, and not really dandruff, itchy scalp would be В present as well.

Take a trip to the dermatologist to have things looked at, because there are many other things that can make your head itch besides dandruff and lice. You may need a prescription medication or perhaps suffer from different condition altogether.

Louse eggs are brown when they are laid, but will have a whitish or translucent appearance when empty, so are easily spotted. After seven or eight days the baby louse hatches from an egg, leaving a shiny white empty eggshell (nit), which can be found anywhere along the strand of hair. An actual louse (lice) is very small. You can tell because the eggs hatch every 3 days, and your head will itch. Itching is caused by an allergy to the saliva of the louse, and it may be several weeks before itching occurs.

The lice themselves are not white, just like louse eggs (nits) are not always white, but will turn white after lice hatch. Nymphs are smaller and become adult lice about 7 days after hatching. Adult lice live for 30 days after finishing the nymph stage.

Different skin conditions require a different treatment. While they share some similarities, lice and dandruff are two different conditions that require different treatments. The right treatment can make a big difference to your head and hair health. Before seeking treatment, remember that the biggest difference between nits vs dandruff: A nit is a little bug glued to the hair, not white flakes. Dandruff will just blow away or simply move with your scalp hair, when you touch it or blow on it. If white spots are moving, you’ve got nits, vs dandruff or another scalp condition.

Lice vs. Dandruff, Nits & Dry Scalp

Last modified: September 5, 2017. Information verified by President/CEO Maria Botham.

Nobody enjoys an itchy scalp. Unless it is a chronic condition, lice are often the first concern when the scalp suddenly begins to itch — particularly if you or your children have been exposed to a recent outbreak at school, in day care, or during some sort of group activity (e.g. summer camp).

Because lice are extremely common and contagious, it is important to be able to distinguish between lice, nits, dandruff, and a dry scalp to prevent the unnecessary spreading of lice.

Lice vs. Dandruff & Dry Scalp

Dandruff (also known as seborrhea dermatitis) affects up to 50% of the general population. It is caused by the excessive production of dead skin cells that itch and become flaky. It is self-contained and cannot be spread to others, though some evidence does suggest dandruff can run in families. Dandruff affects those who have either overly dry or oily scalps, often resulting in scaly skin and white flaky particles visible in the hair.

Lice, on the other hand, are highly contagious parasites that look like tiny white bugs. Left untreated, they infest the scalp and cause an irritating itching sensation as they crawl around and lay eggs. Lice often spread quickly and easily because they can crawl from one infected scalp to another through head-to-head contact. In fact, 6-12 million U.S. kids between the ages of 3 and 11 become infected with lice each year.

How to Tell the Difference Between Lice & Dandruff

The quickest way to distinguish between lice and dandruff is that lice don’t just brush out; they adhere to the hair with a cement-like bonding agent and are very difficult to remove without special tools, such as a lice comb. If it brushes out or you can flick it out, it’s likely dandruff.

Note that lice are unable to jump, fly, or swim, and cannot survive in your surrounding environment (furniture, sheets, etc.).

There are three forms of lice:

  1. Also known as nits, lice eggs are hard to see and often confused for dandruff or droplets of hair spray. They are small white specks and can be found at the base of the hair shaft.
  2. When lice eggs hatch, they release nymphs. The shells of hatched lice eggs remain attached to the hair and present as a dull yellow color. The nymphs themselves are tiny and tan-colored, and grow into adults over the course of about a week.
  3. Adult lice have six legs, each with a claw, and are tan to grayish-white in color. They are no bigger than a sesame seed. Adults multiply quickly, laying up to five eggs per day and living for up to 30 days.

Lice vs. Nits

Covered above, nits (i.e. lice eggs) are typically white, tan, or brown in color and usually attach to individual strands of hair.

While adult lice only grow to about the size of a sesame seed, nits are even smaller, resembling microscopic specs in the hair. It is much easier to contain nits prior to them hatching into a full-blown lice infestation.

If you or your children have been exposed to a recent lice outbreak, it is highly advisable that you invest in a lice prevention kit. (Even if not, it is beneficial to have one on hand; you never know when an outbreak may happen.)

What Causes Lice? What Causes Dandruff?

Contrary to popular belief, lice are not associated with cleanliness. Many wrongly assume that only those who fail to wash their hair regularly intercept lice, when in reality lice can affect anyone who comes into contact with an infected individual. Several studies show that lice are most prevalent in closed environments with young children – like schools and day cares – where kids can easily experience head-to-head contact.

Unlike lice, which are highly contagious, dandruff is not infectious. The Journal of Investigative Dermatology has reported that dandruff is the result of three factors: excessive skin oil secretion, the over-production of yeast, and allergic reactions. Some studies also suggest that dandruff could be partly hereditary.

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The Difference Between Lice & Dandruff Symptoms

While both conditions cause an itchy scalp, there are some key difference in lice vs. dandruff symptoms.

What lice look like:

  • Moving white bugs (the size of sesame seeds or smaller)
  • Tiny white, clear, tan, or brown eggs (nits) stuck to hair strands about one inch from the root
  • Small white specs stuck to the scalp

What lice feel like:

  • Lice create an itching sensation as a result of their movement. When you have a lice infestation, you can often feel the tiny bugs crawling around your scalp.

What dandruff looks like:

  • White specs and flakes that fall easily from the hair
  • Excessively oily or dry scalp
  • Scaly skin on the scalp

What dandruff feels like:

  • Dandruff feels like the skin of the scalp has become overly dry and flaky, resulting in an itchy feeling. You can often feel clumps of dry skin in your hair.

How to Identify Lice & Dandruff

Performing regular head checks, especially on children, can help identify any dandruff or lice before the condition spreads. Dandruff is often easily spotted as dead skin cells begin to flake away from the scalp, while lice can be a bit trickier to identify and may require a professional lice screening.

When searching for lice, it is important to examine the hair under a bright light and work in sections. Professionals will often use a lice comb to sort through the hair and remove any dandruff or debris that could be mistaken for lice. You should be looking for any nits stuck to strands of hair, or lice (small six-legged, wingless bugs) crawling through the hair or scalp. Make sure to check around the ears, nape, and hairline as these are the places lice tend to congregate most.

How to Treat Dandruff

Dandruff can often be treated at home using specially formulated shampoos and topical creams. Washing your hair regularly with products for sensitive skin and ensuring that you adequately scrub your scalp can minimize itchiness.

Several effective home remedies for dandruff include tea tree oil, eucalyptus oil, and neem oil.

Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil is a very popular dandruff treatment. Simply mix it with your regular shampoo (approximately 10 drops per eight ounces) and wash as usual. Alternatively, purchase a shampoo that already contains tea tree oil as an active ingredient.

Another option is to mix it with a carrier oil (such as jojoba oil) and massage it into your scalp for 10-15 minutes before washing.

Eucalyptus Oil
Eucalyptus oil has strong antimicrobial and antifungal properties effective at combatting dandruff. It can be used in the same manner as tea tree oil.

Neem Oil
Extracted from the fruit and seeds of the neem tree, neem oil relieves dandruff and dry scalp by maintaining the scalp’s pH level.

How to Treat Lice

Unfortunately, most home remedies for lice don’t work. Should you spot lice, it is best to consult a lice professional as it is highly contagious and may need an intensive treatment plan to eliminate the infestation.

If you are more of a do-it-yourselfer, we have a page dedicated to getting rid of lice at home.

Questions About Lice?
Hair Fairies is always here to help! Give us a call at 877-285-0069 or contact us by e-mail.

Head Lice Treatment Series Part 6
Head Lice Nits Pictures And How To Get Rid Of Head Louse Nits

Head lice nits can be hard to see and also to distinguish from dandruff. See pictures here and learn how to get rid of head louse nits.

The picture to the right shows a louse nympth about ready to hatch from its egg, so the egg cap has dissolved. Once the louse leaves the empty egg case will remain on the hair shaft.

General Information About Head Louse Nits

In a previous part of this series, when learning about head lice information, we learned that lice lay eggs on the hair shaft.

These eggs have a hard coating around them which acts like glue to keep them attached to the shaft of the hair. Head lice will lay these eggs generally close to the top of the hair shaft, but the exact location varies depending on temperature.

In this photo the louse is not as close to hatching, and is still in the egg phase of its life cycle.

What Do Head Lice Nits Look Like In Human Hair?

Therefore, I believe this picture to the right is also quite helpful to let you see what the head lice nits look like to the human eye, while they are in human hair.

As you can see, you can barely see them, unless you look carefully. They can easily be mistaken for dandruff because while on the hair shaft they look kind of white, but do not fall out of the hair like dandruff does.

Using either a lice comb, or your finger, you can run down the shaft of hair and remove the nit. When you examine it though it will not look white then, but will be brown in color, not white like dandruff.

Heat Can Kill Viable Head Lice Nits

Do you recall what I said above about lice choosing a certain position on the hair shaft to lay their eggs depending on what temperature works best for development and hatching?

This is important information, because one of the ways to kill head lice nits that are still viable is through heat. Now, you can’t just start blasting your child’s scalp with heat, because it can hurt them.

However, I have heard several suggestions (including from our school’s nurse) to use a hair dryer on your child’s hair on the hottest setting they can stand without burning them, and blow dry the hair, especially where you see any nits. This will help dry out the eggs and keep them from hatching.

Nitpicking — If Your Child Has Head Lice You Will Understand The True Meaning Of This Phrase Much More Clearly!

Although I suggest using a hair dryer on your child’s hair to help dry out and kill viable head lice nits (see above) I defintely wouldn’t just count on that treatment alone being 100% effective, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving any nits in my child’s hair.

After all, if just one or two eggs survive and hatch, you could have the beginnings of another head lice infestation on your hands, and then you have to start all your head lice treatment activities over again.

All the stuff you need to do is exhausting to get rid of head lice, so you need to become an expert nitpicker and get all those head lice nits out of your child’s hair.

The definition of the verb «nitpick» is «to be excessively concerned with or critical of inconsequential details.» Well, the origin of the term comes from, you guessed it, head lice.

Now the term is used to talk about things that are inconsequential, but when looking for head lice nits you have to be meticulous, and to really rid yourself of head lice each nit found and removed is quite consequential, and its own little victory.

I find it hard to visually see the difference between an empty egg case and one that is viable and just hasn’t hatched, at least with the naked eye, even after removing it from the hair shaft. Therefore, I suggest assuming that all head lice nits you see in your child’s hair can still grow up to be little lice, and making sure you remove them all.

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This is easier said than done, however. I know, I’ve been there, and been overwhelmed by the amount of hair to go through little section by little section.

The introduction portions of this series about how to treat head lice is about over, and now the the upcoming parts of the series will discuss in more detail exactly how to remove head lice nits from hair, and also get down to the nitty gritty of ridding your hair and home of these bugs.

Previous part of the series: Part 5: What Does Lice Look Like? — Head Lice Pictures So You Can Know What You Are Even Looking For

How to Treat, Control, and Prevent Dandruff

Tiny White Flakes

As consumers, we have all seen plenty of advertisements dramatizing the repulsive appearance of these small white flakes on dark hair, a dark blouse, or shirt. Dandruff flakes represent scales from the scalp. The word dandruff probably originates from the combination of dander, which refers to skin scales on animal fur or bird feathers and the word hurf, which originates from a 500-year-old English word for crust. A few particles of dandruff go unnoticed. Too much produces angst. It has been estimated that as much as 50% of the population is troubled by this nuisance.

Is Your Hair Care at Fault?

White specks can arise from dried hair mousses, sprays, or nourishers that flake off the hair and then fall on the shoulders. Some people avoid shampooing regularly in the belief that washing leads to a dry scalp, that such washing damages the hair, or that washing will destroy their hairdo. Scale from an unwashed scalp can accumulate and then appear as excessive dandruff. The scalp skin is full of follicles with active sebaceous glands producing large quantities of grease. Actually, having a dry scalp is very rare.

Dandruff Can Be Found in Other Areas

Probably the most common cause of dandruff, however, is a skin disease called seborrheic dermatitis. This condition can produce an itchy, scaling red rash on the scalp, in the ears, on the upper eyelids, brows, forehead, in the folds that extend from the nose to the corners of the mouth, and occasionally on the mid-chest and mid-back.

Washing Away Dandruff

Medicated shampoos available without a prescription can effectively control seborrheic dermatitis in many people. These anti-seborrhea shampoos contain a variety of chemicals that are beneficial in diminishing the inflammation and scaling of seborrhea. They include ketoconazole (Nizoral), salicylic acid, selenium sulfide (Dandrex, Exsel, Selsun Blue), tar extract (T/Gel), and zinc pyrithione (Head and Shoulders, Clear). Exactly how they work is speculative.

Natural Remedies to Treat Dandruff

The conviction that there is a superiority of botanical organics over so-called synthetic substances is a creation of popular culture and the Internet. There is minimal evidence to support any efficacy. The idea that a plant recently harvested from a personal garden might cure a real ailment and is perfectly safe does have a romantic appeal. Many plants contain pharmacologically potent chemicals that when purified and standardized become FDA-approved medications. Beware of backyard amateur pharmacy.

Smarter Shampooing

Shampooing the scalp is not exactly a technical procedure. Place a modest amount of shampoo in the palm of one hand and vigorous rub it into wet hair, carefully massaging the scalp with one’s fingertips. The shampoo should remain on the scalp for about five minutes and then get completely rinsed out. Since some of these shampoos may have a trace of distasteful odor, it would be a good idea to apply one’s favorite conditioner afterward. Tar shampoos can stain gray or bleached hair a brownish-yellow hue, which some may find undesirable.

Sunshine and Dandruff

There is very little evidence that sunlight affects dandruff one way or the other. Unless the scalp is mostly hairless, it would be unlikely that any ultraviolet light could reach the skin. There is at least one report of mountain guides having more seborrheic dermatitis than expected. It was presumed that there might be a causal relationship between ultraviolet exposure and the disease. Sun exposure, therefore, should not be recommended for controlling dandruff.

When to See Your Doctor

Scalp dermatitis uncontrolled by nonprescription medicated shampoos should be seen by a physician. Since seborrheic dermatitis is the most common cause of dandruff, it may be necessary to supplement shampooing with topical steroids lotions or antifungals. Both seem to work well to control seborrheic dermatitis, but yet, a permanent cure for this condition is unavailable. Treatment often continues indefinitely but at gradually decreasing frequency.

What Causes Dandruff?

The cause (or causes) of seborrheic dermatitis remains obscure. The role of Malassezia yeasts appears essential, but since they are normal components of the skin’s microbiome, the mechanism of disease is obscure.

Dandruff Triggers

There may be a seasonal relationship to the severity of seborrheic dermatitis. In one study in Japan, it was found that seborrhea was correlated with lower humidity.

Conditions that Lead to Flaky Scalp

Seborrheic dermatitis can be confused with contact dermatitis, atopic dermatitis, and psoriasis. In order to differentiate these conditions, the patient’s entire skin would need to be evaluated and rarely a piece of skin would need to be obtained surgically (skin biopsy) and submitted for a pathological evaluation. Seborrheic dermatitis seems more severe in those with significant central nervous system problems, including dementia, trauma, and stroke. Immunosuppressed patients often have severe seborrhea.

Dandruff Impostors

An itchy scalp can be due to many reasons. Patients with head lice characteristically itch. Visualization of the six-legged louse or its egg case attached to a hair shaft is sufficient to confirm the diagnosis. Contact dermatitis caused by allergies to hair coloring, permanent wave solutions, or shampoo preservative can occasionally cause confusion with seborrheic dermatitis because it often is associated with excess scaling on the scalp. Rarely, fungal infections can cause a non-inflammatory scaling dermatitis of the scalp most often seen in the third world that looks very similar to seborrheic dermatitis. A microscopic examination of the scale using potassium hydroxide will demonstrate the fungus.

Babies and Cradle Cap

Seborrheic dermatitis in infants is called cradle cap. It can affect other parts of the body as well, including the creases in the diaper area. It almost always spontaneously remits by 6 months of age. Treatment with mild shampoos usually is sufficient. Topical antifungals and weak topical steroids prescribed by a physician may rarely be required to treat it.

Is Dandruff Harmful?

The bottom line is that dandruff can be a sign of scalp inflammation, most often seborrheic dermatitis, which is not contagious, is easily treated and incurable.


  1. BSIP
  2. Don Hammond / Design Pics Inc
  3. thenakedsnail / Flickr
  5. Noel Hendrickson / Stockbyte
  6. Peter Frank / Fancy
  8. Le Studio / Brand X Pictures
  10. Janice Carr / BSIP
  11. Dr. Hercules Robinson / Phototake
  12. Don Hammond / Design Pics Inc
  13. Biophoto Associates / Photo Researchers
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