TikTok Fact Check: Can You Really Use Dandruff Shampoo to Clear Acne?

TikTok continues to find new (and eccentric) ways of changing up our skincare routine. (In the last few months alone we’ve learned about the benefits of skin cycling and done a deep dive into whether it’s safe to use glycolic acid as deodorant.) Most recently, creators on the clock app are using dandruff shampoo to clear acne, which begs the question: Is it actually legit? We asked a few dermatologists to weigh in on the skincare trend before you try it out yourself.

Meet the Experts:

  • Dr. Brendan Camp is a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in New York.
  • Dr. Lauren Penzi is a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in New York.
  • Dr. Tiffany Libby is a board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at Brown Dermatology.

TikTok Fact Check: Can You Really Use Glycolic Acid Instead of Deodorant?

Does Dandruff Shampoo Clear Acne?

Let’s cut to the chase: Dandruff shampoo may clear acne. But before you jump on the trend, it’s important to understand that it really boils down to the type of shampoo you use and the type of acne you have. TikTok creator Elyse Myers pointed out in this viral video that Head & Shoulders helped her reduce breakouts and clear up acne. Myers also claimed that she’s been using H&S for acne since middle school and has seen better results with shampoo than with other fancy skincare products.

However, it’s really the ingredients found in that specific shampoo that makes this skincare trend worth exploring. It’s also important to note that dandruff shampoo is not going to clear up just every acne type. The experts we spoke to explained that this hack works best on fungal acne (more on that below).

OK, What Is Fungal Acne?

Clinically known as pityrosporum folliculitis, this form of acne is caused by sweat and oil buildup in the hair follicles, which leads to overgrown yeast called Malassezia. Symptoms include inflammation, irritation and, you guessed it, dandruff. “Patients with this specific fungal type of acne can benefit from anti-dandruff shampoos,” explains Dr. Penzi. “This type of acne often presents as fine pustules, often pruritic (itchy skin), on the face. It tends to be unresponsive to traditional acne therapies and worsens with humidity and heat.”

What Ingredients in Dandruff Shampoo Help Clear Fungal Acne?

Ingredients like zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide and ketoconazole have been proven to fight fungal growth on the scalp. According to Dr. Libby, “Ketoconazole works as an anti-fungal agent by disrupting the cell membrane of the fungus. Meanwhile, zinc pyrithione is anti-inflammatory and inhibits yeast growth and selenium sulfide also lowers levels of yeast and reduces inflammation.”

So, How Do You Use Dandruff Shampoo for Acne?

If you deal with fungal acne and are interested in trying the trend, you’ll want to start by searching for a dandruff shampoo that has the core ingredients zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide and/or ketoconazole. Once you find the right shampoo for you, try a patch test on your face and wait 24 hours for any reaction after the rinse.

As soon as the coast is clear, slowly incorporate the shampoo into your skincare routine. Apply a dime-sized amount to your face, create a gentle lather and let it sit for two to three minutes. Then, rinse the shampoo off and follow up with a gentle moisturizer. If you have acne on your back, chest or neck, you can also apply it as body wash. Just let it sit for a few minutes on your skin before rinsing. Our panel of experts recommend using this method once to twice a week.

Are There Any Downsides to Using Dandruff Shampoo for Acne?

Not all dandruff shampoos are created equal. While you may find these key ingredients, some shampoos can also contain fragrances, chemicals (like sodium lauryl sulfate) and other active components that can cause irritation, dryness and/or an allergic reaction, so it’s important to be mindful of the type of shampoo and the type of acne you have before trying the trend.

a woman applying dandruff shampoo on her skin to clear her acne in the bathroom
Design Art by Paula Boudes

Can All Skin Types Try This Trend?

Though dandruff shampoo is great for fungal acne, don’t expect it to improve bacterial acne (also known as acne vulgaris). “Acne vulgaris is much more common than pityrosporum folliculitis, [which means] dandruff shampoo is unlikely to be an effective treatment for most patients,” says Dr. Camp. So, if you fall under the umbrella of dry, sensitive or eczema-prone skin, dandruff shampoo might lead to more breakouts and/or irritation in the long run.

On the flip side, Dr. Libby points out it can be difficult to distinguish between fungal and bacterial acne. Both forms can appear the same, which makes it hard to figure out which one you actually have. If you’re unsure what type of acne you have, consult with a dermatologist before slathering your face with this DIY cleanser.

What Are Some Alternatives to Clear Acne?

Whether you have bacterial acne or just super sensitive skin in general, don’t fret. There are plenty of facial cleansers and treatments out there that can help clear up your acne. Look for ingredients like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, benzoyl peroxide and retinoids, which have been known to be effective at fighting different types of acne.

Aside from products, there are other factors to consider in your quest to reducing breakouts. Acne can be caused (or worsened) by your diet, stress levels and hormonal imbalances. (Picking and prodding at blemishes don’t help clear acne either.) If you’re still unsure how to prevent breakouts, consult a dermatologist to find treatments and solutions that will work for you. “Seeing a board-certified dermatologist can determine what type of acne you have (i.e. comedonal, inflammatory, hormonal or fungal),” explains Dr. Penzi. “This will also help to better drive treatment choice. For example: retinoids for comedonal acne, benzoyl peroxide for inflammatory acne and antifungal shampoos/creams for fungal acne.”

The Bottom Line

Dandruff shampoo may clear acne but it’s not a 100 percent guarantee. It’s important to understand this skincare trend only works for fungal acne, and should not be looked at as the only solution to combatting blemishes. Plus, don’t expect it to magically clear your skin overnight. If you want to treat acne, a dermatologist will be able to point you into the right direction. So, does #SkinTok strike again with this blemish-clearing hack? You might want to tread lightly with this one.

about face matte fluid eye paint review chelsea candelario
Chelsea Candelario

Associate Editor, Ultimate Fangirl, Aspiring Beauty Guru

Chelsea Candelario is an Associate Editor at PureWow. She has been covering beauty, culture, fashion and entertainment for over a decade. You'll find her searching the internet...
read full bio