Ask a Beauty Editor: Can Dandruff Shampoo Help Get Rid of Acne?

Let’s talk about the famous Reddit acne hack.

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Reader question: Can I use dandruff shampoo to help get rid of acne? —Alina Schubert

Much like acne itself, this doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. The annoying truth is that there are multiple types of acne, and different acne calls for different treatments. 

When you have a regular run-of-the-mill pimple, using Head & Shoulders as a spot treatment most likely isn’t going to reap any miracles. That being said, if your acne sprouts up around the hairline, a dandruff shampoo with salicylic acid as the main active ingredient can help over time. 


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“Salicylic acid can be helpful for comedonal acne, meaning clogged pores, i.e. whiteheads and blackheads,” says Hadley King, M.D., FAAD, board-certified dermatologist in New York City. Hairline pimples usually occur because of the natural buildup of oils in your hair and styling products, hence why dandruff shampoo with salicylic acid works. “Salicylic is a keratolytic agent, meaning it unglues dead cells from each other,” adds Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta skincare. “This can help penetrate pores to remove excess sebum, resolving existing acne and preventing new plugs of dead cells that clog your pores.” 

Dandruff shampoo is most beneficial if your breakout happens to fall under the category of fungal acne (which sounds gross, but really isn’t). Interestingly, fungal acne is a misnomer: It's not caused by a fungus, and it's not even considered acne. “Fungal acne is caused by a yeast that inflames the hair follicles in your skin and causes pimple-like bumps,” says Dr. King. “Most dandruff shampoos contain anti-fungal ingredients like ketoconazole or selenium sulfide or pyrithione zinc—these ingredients can help counteract the yeast that causes fungal acne.”

So, how do you identify fungal acne? While fungal acne can look like other types of acne, there are some notable giveaways. "Regular acne breakouts usually appear on the face and can vary in size and shape—there are both whiteheads and blackheads," says Dr. King. "Fungal acne breakouts, on the other hand, are more monomorphic and appear in clusters—they look like uniform red bumps and small pustules on the chest, upper arms, back, and rarely the face. And perhaps most noticeably, fungal outbreaks are usually very itchy."

Regardless of your acne type, that’s not to say that you should rub dandruff shampoo all over your face like a cleanser. “Leave it in your hair for two to three minutes, and then rinse it off so that the lather trickles down your face and affected areas,” says Dr. Ciraldo. Both she and Dr. King don’t recommend applying it directly to facial skin since it’s not formulated for that and may be irritating, but applying it directly onto thicker back skin (if you have pimples there) should be okay.

TL;DR: yes, dandruff shampoo can be helpful if you have comedonal acne (around your hairline) or fungal acne. If you aren’t sure which type of acne you have, it’s always best to see a board-certified dermatologist before self-diagnosing and diving into long-term treatments.

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