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We've seen plenty of unconventional beauty treatments and solutions in our day—applying potato slices under your eyes to eliminate dark circles, using starch in place of dry shampoo… you get the picture. There are also a ton of these DIY solutions out there for acne, like the ol' toothpaste on a pimple trick (which is terrible for your skin, by the way), including one that has the internet really buzzing—washing your face with dandruff shampoo. Here's the thing, though: Unlike so many of these other DIY solutions, it turns out there's actually some validity to this one. Credit pyrithione zinc and selenium sulfide, two of the active ingredients most commonly found in dandruff shampoo. So, are you simply supposed to swap out your face wash for a bottle of Head & Shoulders? Not quite. Here, Joshua Zeichner, MD, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, and New York City dermatologist Nava Greenfield, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group, explain how dandruff shampoo can help combat acne, and how to best use it for this purpose.
Type of Ingredient: Anti-fungal
Main benefits: Targets the overgrowth of fungus in the hair follicles of the skin that can lead to fungal acne.
Who should use it: Those dealing with fungal acne may want to consider trying this.
How often can you use it: You don't need to wash your face with a dandruff shampoo daily—two to three times per week is sufficient, says Greenfield.
Works well with: This largely depends on the individual, but a topical anti-fungal cream can sometimes be helpful as well, according to Greenfield.
Don't use with: Again, this varies on a case-by-case basis, but if your skin is dry or sensitive to begin with, you may want to consider avoiding ingredients known to be irritating (think retinoids or intense exfoliating acids).
What are Pyrithione Zinc and Selenium Sulfide?
Both pyrithione zinc (sometimes known as zinc pyrithione) and selenium sulfide are anti-fungal ingredients found in many over-the-counter dandruff shampoos. While the mechanism of action is similar for both, the latter tends to be a bit stronger. In dandruff shampoos, they work by lowering levels of fungus on the scalp, which promote inflammation and scale (or what we call dandruff) explains Zeichner.
Benefits of Pyrithione Zinc and Selenium Sulfide for Acne
First and foremost, it's important to keep in mind that not all acne is created equal. Given the anti-fungal nature of pyrithione zine and selenium sulfide, these ingredients will only be effective in killing fungal acne, rather than bacterial acne, or p. acnes.
"There are many etiologies for acne, one type being more of a fungal infiltration in the sweat glands, which causes inflammation around the hair follicles and these glands," says Greenfield. The technical term for this condition is pityrosporum folliculitis; according to Zeichner, "It typically occurs in warm and humid weather, where more sweat and oil get trapped on your skin. This creates an environment that allows fungi to grow to higher than usual levels, which drives inflammation in the skin." It's thought that the same type of fungus (a yeast known as malassezia) that causes dandruff is what is present here, he adds, hence why these anti-fungal ingredients can be helpful for your skin. But again—and we can't stress this enough—sudsing up with a dandruff shampoo is only going to work if you're dealing with fungal acne specifically. This isn't something to try if you're simply dealing with a few blackheads or a one-off zit. Zeichner says fungal acne usually manifests as pus-filled pimples and red bumps, which, confusingly, are the same symptoms as typical bacteria-induced acne, meaning it can be difficult to self-diagnose. "It's considered a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning that you make the decision based on traditional medications not helping, and anti-fungal medications working," he says. In other words, if you suspect you have fungal acne, try dandruff shampoo as a treatment; if it works, then you'll know it was likely a fungal breakout.
The biggest potential drawback with either of these ingredients is dryness and irritation (and FYI, these side effects can also occur on your scalp if you're using a dandruff shampoo as intended). As such, Zeichner advises that those with dry or sensitive skin proceed with caution and start slowly.
How to Use Dandruff Shampoo for Acne
First, make sure that the shampoo you choose does in fact contain the targeted ingredients: Pyrithione zinc can be found in the Head and Shoulders Classic Clean Daily Shampoo ($6). Selenium sulfide is the active ingredient in Selsun Blue Medicated Maximum Strength Dandruff Shampoo ($7).
There's no need to replace your current cleanser with a dandruff shampoo everyday; using it two to three times per week should do the trick. There's also no need to dilute the shampoo or use it any differently than you would on your hair. Massage a little bit onto wet skin and work it into a lather. The key is making sure you give those anti-fungal ingredients enough time to do their job. "Sing the alphabet while you're washing," suggests Zeichner. "This ensures it will have enough contact time with the skin." Greenfield says you can even let the lather sit on your skin for up to five minutes. Rinse as usual, then follow with a moisturizer, an especially important step if your skin is dry or sensitive. (Also worth noting: Fungal acne also commonly pops up on the chest and back, so you could use dandruff shampoo in lieu of body wash on these areas as well.) Depending on the exact state of your skin and whether or not the shampoo seems to be helping, Greenfield points out that you might still want to use topical acne products along with your new "face wash." The bottom line? If you suspect you have fungal acne, you can try cleansing your complexion with a dandruff shampoo—but it's probably a good idea to check in with your dermatologist, too.