One of the most obvious signs of scalp health imbalance is flakes. Almost anyone can relate to the panic of discovering flaky white fallout—of course, on a day that you've decided to wear a dark-colored top. While flakes can be caused by a number of issues, one of the most common culprits is dandruff. Treatments for dandruff range from over-the-counter shampoos to dermatologist-prescribed creams, but almost all of these products have an ingredient in common: zinc pyrithione.
Scanning the ingredient list of almost any dandruff remedy you are sure to see zinc pyrithione (or pyrithione zinc, as it is also called) listed as one of the active ingredients. But is this popular ingredient deserving of its ubiquity in the haircare aisle? We turned to Dendy Engelman, MD, FACMS, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologic surgeon in New York and a member of the Byrdie Beauty & Wellness Review Board, and Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor at Cornell, to find out the truth.
Zinc Pyrithione for Hair
Type of ingredient: Antifungal, antimicrobial, and antibacterial properties
Main benefits: Treats dandruff, soothes scalp irritation, regulates oil production, and prevents itching.
Who should use it: Zinc pyrithione is best for those experiencing dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis, which may be associated with an oily scalp. It is best to consult a dermatologist to determine the cause of your scalp flakes or irritation before beginning the use of zinc pyrithione.
How often can you use it: Shampoos containing zinc pyrithione can be used daily and those individuals dealing with seborrheic dermatitis or dandruff are often advised to cleanse daily. If the scalp is dry, it is okay to use a zinc pyrithione shampoo two to three days per week and a non-medicated shampoo on the alternating days.
Works well with: Selenium sulfide, another ingredient commonly found in dandruff shampoos that is stronger than zinc pyrithione. Additionally, some individuals may alternate with other anti-dandruff ingredients such as ketoconazole, an antifungal ingredient.
Don’t use with: There are no known ingredients that negatively interfere with zinc pyrithione, however, it is advised that you speak to a medical professional before using if you are pregnant or nursing.
What Is Zinc Pyrithione?
Zinc pyrithione is a coordination complex of zinc and pyrithione that is commonly found in dandruff treatments due to its antifungal, antimicrobial, and antibacterial properties, which fight the source of dandruff flakes and itch. "Zinc pyrithione works as an antifungal, thereby reducing the amount of fungus which can trigger inflammation and scaling, which may be seen clinically as dandruff," Garshick explains. Zinc pyrithione may also provide benefits to your face, as it can also be used to treat pityrosporum folliculitis (fungal acne) and a condition due to yeast on the skin known as tinea versicolor, according to Garshick.
Benefits of Zinc Pyrithione for Hair
The benefits of zinc pyrithione extend beyond the skin of the scalp. By improving the health of the scalp, the health of the hair benefits as well. While not specifically formulated to help with hair, by helping to treat the scalp and improving overall scalp health, it is thought that zinc pyrithione may help promote hair regrowth. "One study showed that daily use of 1 percent pyrithione zinc shampoo over 26 weeks showed an improvement in hair growth," Garshick shares. Engelman agreed that zinc pyrithione can have the potential to impact growth. "Since a number of thinning hair and hair loss concerns are related to the scalp, zinc pyrithione can help clear dead skin cells or conditions that prevent hair growth (clogged hair follicles, psoriasis, etc.) and thus promote fuller, healthier hair," says Engelman.
- Fights dandruff-causing fungus: Zinc pyrithione has the power to treat a variety of issues, including dandruff, itchiness, acne, and scalp psoriasis by targeting the yeast/fungus that is causing the problem, Engelman explains. The antifungal, antimicrobial, and antibacterial properties stop dandruff at its source.
- Prevents itching: Dandruff is one of the leading causes of scalp itchiness. By preventing dandruff and eliminating the irritating yeast/fungus that causes it, zinc pyrithione provides itch relief quickly.
- Regulates oil production: Zinc pyrithione can control the oil production and dandruff often found in those with seborrheic dermatitis.
- Improves overall scalp health: Dandruff disrupts the health of the scalp by clogging follicles with flakes and by causing inflammation and irritation. Zinc pyrithione is able to improve the overall health of the scalp by preventing and treating dandruff.
- Promotes hair growth: Zinc Pyrithione can help clear dead skin cells and thus promote fuller, healthier hair, Engelman explains. Garshick agrees and adds that it is thought that zinc pyrithione may help promote hair regrowth, as seen in a study that showed that daily use of 1 percent pyrithione zinc shampoo over 26 weeks showed an improvement in hair growth.
- Improves overall appearance of hair: The overall appearance of the hair is heavily influenced by the oiliness of the scalp and the thickness of the hair. By regulating oil production and encouraging new growth, zinc pyrithione can boost the overall appearance of the hair.
Hair Type Considerations
Our experts agree that zinc pyrithione is safe for all hair types, but would be most beneficial for those who are experiencing dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, or other scalp conditions that are aggravated by fungus/yeast. There are now some formulations of shampoos and topical scalp products that include zinc pyrithione along with hydrating and moisturizing ingredients that would be better for those with dry or color-treated hair.
It is always best to speak with a medical professional to evaluate the scalp and determine the best course of treatment. For those with dry or sensitive skin, it is best to slowly incorporate zinc pyrithione into a routine and use caution as some dryness and irritation may occur, Garshick explains. Engelman cautions that it is best to speak to a medical professional if you are pregnant or nursing before using zinc pyrithione.
How to Use Zinc Pyrithione for Hair
Zinc pyrithione is easily found in many drugstore and supermarket shampoo products. There are also leave-in treatments available from retail haircare lines. Depending on the severity of your condition, your dermatologist may recommend a stronger treatment that may need a prescription.
According to Garshick, usage will depend on the sensitivity and state of your scalp. "While many shampoos containing zinc pyrithione can be used daily, I typically recommend using it at least two to three times per week. For some individuals dealing with seborrheic dermatitis or dandruff, I often recommend washing the scalp daily or every other day to help eliminate the build-up of oils or dead skin, which may contribute to scaling or flaking. If someone is concerned about dryness of the scalp, it is okay to use a zinc pyrithione shampoo a few days per week and a non-medicated shampoo on the alternating days."
Garshick recommends Head & Shoulders Clinical Moisturizing Scalp Cream. This no-rinse formula is a great choice for someone looking for a leave-in medicated option to help reduce dryness and flaking. It contains zinc pyrithione to help treat dry scalp, while the manuka honey in the formula hydrates. It can be used one to four times daily and is meant to be used in between washing.
This complete system includes a zinc pyrithione-containing shampoo, conditioner, and serum which work together to improve not just dryness on the scalp but also overall hair health, leaving hair looking thicker and fuller. Additionally, it has been shown to reduce hair breakage associated with itching and dandruff, Garshick explains.