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Ask an expert: Dandruff shampoo for acne?

It may help treat some kinds of pimples.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 5 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
dandruff shampoo skincare
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 5 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Social media is teeming with medical and beauty advice, but it’s no newsflash that not all of it’s trustworthy. One particular TikTok acne hack has piqued our interest though: using dandruff shampoo to help clear up breakouts. But is it actually legit? Curology's skincare experts are here to weigh in on the efficacy of dandruff shampoo for acne.

In particular, this home remedy may be effective against “fungal acne” (not an official medical term!). Although it's not the same as dandruff, “fungal acne” may respond to certain antifungal ingredients in dandruff shampoos. Here’s the inside scoop on how these ingredients work and the proper way to try this out.

What is “fungal acne?” 

Unlike hormonal acne, “fungal acne” isn’t actually what you might think of as acne—it’s actually a type of folliculitis. Folliculitis is a common skin condition that develops inside hair follicles, often appearing as small, uniform bumps along the hairline but may also be found on the chest, neck, or back. These bumps can be itchy and may cause discomfort.

Folliculitis can appear anywhere on the skin or scalp besides the palms of the hands and soles of the feet as these areas do not have hair follicles. It often looks like a sudden breakout, and a red ring around each spot indicates infection.¹  

If you've noticed pesky bumps popping up on your skin, you may have “fungal acne.” According to our experts, there’s no need to worry. These breakouts can be annoying, but they’re generally easy to treat with the proper skincare routine and the guidance of a dermatology provider.

Dandruff shampoo for “fungal acne”: Does it work?

Using dandruff shampoo to fight “fungal acne” may have started as a social media trend, but it's gaining traction in the skincare space. So, does this beauty hack actually work?

Dandruff shampoo targets an overgrowth of fungus on the scalp—a potential contributor to dandruff and other skin conditions. If your acne is fungal, a dandruff shampoo that contains antifungal ingredients may help reduce the appearance of breakouts.

However, if you’re unsure whether your acne is fungal, be sure to consider other treatments. For example, cleansers with salicylic acid can help unclog pores, while benzoyl peroxide can help kill acne-causing bacteria. As always, we recommend consulting your dermatology provider if you're unsure about the cause of your acne or your best treatment options.

Common antifungal ingredients that may help fight acne

Pyrithione zinc, ketoconazole, and selenium sulfide are powerful active ingredients in many dandruff shampoos. They work to fight fungus on the scalp that contributes to dandruff.

If you're struggling with an itchy, flaky scalp, a shampoo containing one of these ingredients may help you say goodbye to those flakes! Here’s a bit more information about each one and how they may benefit the skin, too:

Ketoconazole

Ketoconazole is a common dandruff treatment² that’s sometimes used to treat “fungal acne.” According to a recent study, 75% of participants who received both oral and topical ketoconazole saw an improvement in symptoms of folliculitis.³ In another study, a treatment containing 2% ketoconazole significantly improved acne lesions.⁴

Zinc pyrithione

If you’re wondering how to get rid of dandruff, zinc pyrithione is one of the most common ingredients in medicated shampoos.⁵ In addition to fighting dandruff, this ingredient is also used to help treat symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis.⁶ Zinc pyrithione may help fight acne on the forehead or along the hairline, as well.

Selenium sulfide 

Selenium sulfide is another popular dandruff shampoo ingredient.⁷ Because it’s antifungal, it may help fight “fungal acne” when used on the skin. Twice weekly applications of selenium sulfide may also help improve symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis.⁸

How to use dandruff shampoo for “fungal acne”

Dandruff shampoo is a generally safe and effective “fungal acne treatment,” but it doesn’t need to be used as a daily facial cleanser. Instead, start by using it up to three times per week, increasing the frequency as tolerated. Here are a few simple steps to follow during application:

  1. Apply a small amount of dandruff shampoo directly to wet skin.

  2. Gently massage it onto your face and leave on for about one minute.

  3. Rinse it off thoroughly. 

  4. Apply your favorite moisturizer.

The above is a general guide, but be sure to ask your dermatology provider for specific instructions if you choose to try this. Some dandruff shampoos contain pore-clogging ingredients, so it's wise to review the ingredient list before using any new product. You wouldn’t want to encourage extra breakouts!

Regarding side effects, dandruff shampoo may cause some dryness and irritation. If this occurs, consider reducing the frequency of use or switching to a different shampoo to see if the side effects subside.

FAQs

How do you get rid of dandruff?

For dandruff, our experts recommend specially formulated shampoos. These often contain antifungal ingredients, such as ketoconazole, zinc pyrithione, and selenium sulfide. Research suggests dandruff may also respond to daily shampooing and extended lathering. Salicylic acid may also effectively fight dandruff.⁹

Should I wash my face with dandruff shampoo?

As noted above, many medicated dandruff shampoos contain antifungal ingredients that may help fight folliculitis or “fungal acne.” If you’re interested in adding dandruff shampoo to your skincare lineup, our experts recommend discussing it with your dermatology provider.

Products designed with your skin in mind

Although Curology doesn’t treat dandruff specifically, we can help take the guesswork out of your skincare routine, helping tackle breakouts and other skin concerns. Founded by a board-certified dermatologist in 2014, Curology aims to provide accessible dermatology services when it comes to treating acne, rosacea, hyperpigmentation, and the signs of aging.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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If Curology is right for you, we’ll pair you with one of our in-house licensed dermatology providers. They will work with you to examine your skin, assess your skincare goals, and provide custom treatment options.* They prescribe clinically backed ingredients that fight the bacteria that can contribute to acne. Zinc pyrithione can also be added to your personalized prescription formula, if appropriate.

Signing up is easy. Just answer a few questions and snap some selfies to help us get to know your skin better. In addition to your personalized prescription formula, you’ll have access to any of our recommended skincare products. Our experts are happy to guide you on your skincare journey and answer any skin-related questions you may have along the way.

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Acne-like breakouts could be folliculitis. American Academy of Dermatology Association. (n.d.).

  2. Borda LJ, Wikramanayake TC. Seborrheic Dermatitis and Dandruff: A Comprehensive Review. J Clin Investig Dermatol. (2015).

  3. Rubenstein, R.M., Malerich, S.A. Malassezia (pityrosporum) folliculitis. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (2014).

  4. Anwar A, Kamran Ul Hassan S. Two Percentage of Ketoconazole Cream for the Treatment of Adult Female Acne: A Placebo-Controlled Trial. Cureus. (2020).

  5. Borda LJ, Wikramanayake TC. Seborrheic Dermatitis and Dandruff: A Comprehensive Review. J Clin Investig Dermatol. Ibid.

  6. Mangion, S.E., et al. Targeted Delivery of Zinc Pyrithione to Skin Epithelia. Int J Mol Sci. (2021).

  7. Borda LJ, Wikramanayake TC. Seborrheic Dermatitis and Dandruff: A Comprehensive Review. J Clin Investig Dermatol. Ibid.

  8. Berk T, Scheinfeld N. Seborrheic dermatitis. P T. (2010).

  9. Nowicki, R. Współczesne leczenie łupiezu [Modern management of dandruff]. Pol Merkur Lekarski. (2006).

Donna McIntyre is a board-certified nurse practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

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