Can Head & Shoulders Really Clear Up Acne? Derms Dig Into The TikTok Trend

Dandruff shampoo is meant to clear up flakes on your scalp, but not everyone is using it for that purpose.

Intended for those who value affordable hair care and want to fight dandruff flakes, Head & Shoulders sells products that claim up to seven potential benefits in one bottle ― but improving skin is not listed among them.

So when comedian and podcaster Elyse Myers told her 5.7 million TikTok followers that she had been using the shampoo brand as an acne-clearing face wash ever since a doctor recommended it to her in high school, the platform’s community of dermatological enthusiasts (affectionately known as SkinTok for reasons of convenience and portmanteau) took it as a call to action.

@elysemyers

you ever look at a word so long it starts to look like a made up word? my brain started convincing me ‘zinc’ wasn’t the right spelling by the end of editing this. 😂

♬ original sound - Elyse Myers

Dermatologists and estheticians weighed in. Users across all different skin types experimented with the product and showcased their results. One swore that after struggling with blemishes her whole life, Head & Shoulders cleared up her skin. Others testified that the product did nothing ― or worse, aggravated their existing issues.

In her initial TikTok, Myers explained that she washed her face with Head & Shoulders for years and never had a problem with her skin ― until she switched to the expensive products that brands were sending her. After experimenting with these fancier options, Myers said she “never had worse skin in her entire life,” so she got rid of them and returned to using Head & Shoulders.

Neither Myers nor Head & Shoulders makes any sweeping promises about the efficacy of shampoo as face wash, but Myers did urge her followers to give it a try before investing money into luxury skin products. (Worth noting: Myers is not a dermatologist.)

And contrary to what TikTok’s reaction would have you believe, Myers isn’t the first person to recommend dandruff shampoo as an agent of acne resistance. A quick search on the app shows that both users and skin experts have been touting the benefits of washing skin with dandruff shampoo brands like Nizoral and Selsun Blue since 2020.

Not one to shy away from an opportunity to apply weird stuff to my face in the name of improved performance, I took it upon myself to investigate. First I called Myers, and then I consulted several dermatologists.

Myers told me that although she had run-ins with hormonal acne growing up, when she visited her dermatologist in high school, her primary concern was dry, red skin. Dr. Andrea Suarez, a board-certified dermatologist better known as Dr. Dray to her 1.7 million YouTube followers, told me these are exactly the types of skin issues Head & Shoulders is best suited to counteract. The shampoo contains zinc pyrithione, which targets the yeast Malassezia, a key culprit in conditions like dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis (which, Suarez explained to me over email, is “a type of eczema characterized by oily, flaky, red patches, most commonly around the nose and in the brows”).

Email consultations with multiple dermatologists assured me the product is safe for most people to use on their face, but after a week of washing my face with Head & Shoulders 2-in-1, I was forced to concede that I am not most people. My skin skews sensitive, and the shampoo aggravated the already dry texture. After taking one look at my face, my dermatologist advised me to stop using it.

Some ingredients in dandruff shampoo can combat acne.

Zinc pyrithione — the active ingredient found in all of Head & Shoulders’ core products, and which targets moderate flaking and scalp infections — isn’t the only element in dandruff shampoo that can help clear up skin.

Head & Shoulders also makes a line of clinical-strength shampoos intended to fight severe dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis. The active ingredient in these products is selenium sulfide, a chemical compound used to relieve itching and dryness and minimize fungal overgrowth.

Dr. Lindsey Zubritsky, a board-certified dermatologist I reached out to after stumbling across her TikTok response to Myers’ video, told me that people who suffer from pityrosporum folliculitis (also known as fungal acne) are likely to respond well to the shampoo since their condition, like seborrheic dermatitis, is triggered by yeast.

Who should avoid using dandruff shampoo on their face?

My experience with Head & Shoulders mostly involved some light peeling, but for other people with sensitive skin, using the shampoo can create new breakouts or inflame blemishes and prevent them from healing, experts said.

“The surfactants in the shampoo may be too harsh for certain skin types, triggering disruption of the skin barrier and making someone more prone to dryness and irritation,” Suarez explained.

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Zubritsky also cautioned people with severe nodulocystic acne against using Head & Shoulders. “This should be addressed by a dermatologist,” she said. “The longer you wait to get this type of acne treated, the more likely you are to develop scarring.”

For people struggling with less severe skin issues but who have reservations about using a $5 dandruff shampoo as a face wash, Zubritsky advised that acne treatment doesn’t have to be expensive to be effective. She recommended prioritizing ingredients over branding and searching for “tried and true” fighting methods like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide.

Or, for people like me who enjoy experimenting with unconventional options, she suggested buying a bar of sulfur soap. (It can help to treat “not just acne, but rosacea, seborrheic dermatitis, and fungal acne,” she said.)

Ultimately, skin care products can only do so much, Suarez said: “For those with skin conditions like acne or eczema, prescription treatments may be needed, and lifestyle factors like avoiding triggers are what can make all the difference.”

Shampoo as face wash might not be for everyone, but the one skin care routine secret that’s universal, Suarez said, is “staying consistent with the basics and protecting your skin from the sun.” Now that’s a tip that’s head and shoulders above the rest.

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