Whether you spend a lot of time in the cosmetics aisle each month or not, you probably know that Head & Shoulders® is one of the most immediately recognizable brands in hair care.
For 60 years, their range of shampoos (and later, their conditioners, oils, pomades, styling gels and other products), have treated hair and scalp issues.
At first, they mostly treated dandruff, but today, you can find H&S products that treat hair breakage, dry scalp, psoriasis or an itchy scalp.
But it’s not all glowing reviews for H&S. Over the years, claims have emerged that Head & Shoulders products may lead to hair loss.
So is there a link between hair loss and Head & Shoulders? We'll answer that question and more, including:
What do you need to know about the key ingredients that make up its products?
Does Head and Shoulders cause hair loss?
Is Head and Shoulders good for your hair?
Head & Shoulders helps to reduce and manage the appearance of dandruff flakes on shoulders and clothing, but has it also been a silent follicle assassin this whole time?
Can this shampoo brand cause the several types of hair loss we worry about? It’s not as simple a question as you might think — especially when you consider the relationship between dandruff and hair loss.
Let’s look at the ingredients to dig in.
FYI, an active ingredient is an ingredient that does something to address the skin/hair problem the product is made for, while an inactive ingredient has no therapeutic benefits and is necessary only for tasks like stabilizing the active ingredients or making them easier to use (oh, and sometimes they’re just there to make products look or smell pretty).
The active ingredients in Head and Shoulders are zinc pyrithione and selenium sulfide, and the inactive ingredients are:
Sodium lauryl sulfate
Sodium laureth sulfate
We know what you’re thinking — some of these things just have to be gum ingredients, right? And isn’t one of those related to asbestos? Let’s break this down and look at how these active and inactive ingredients affect the hair on your head:
Because of its antifungal and antimicrobial properties, zinc is one of the most common ingredients you'll find in anti-dandruff treatments.
It's also known for its ability to manage seborrhoea — an inflammatory condition that causes red and scaly skin on the scalp.
While its exact mechanism of action isn’t very clear to scientists, ZPT helps to manage dandruff by reducing the amount of fungus on the scalp, which can prevent dandruff flakes.
There are a few theories about how this works. Because ZPT helps to increase zinc levels in the body, it is suspected that it enables zinc to bind to proteins that are necessary for fungal or bacterial activities. This may prevent fungal growth.
Another theory is the most interesting — and the most brutal. ZPT could basically just be a form of chemical warfare on these fungi and bacterial cells.
It may also be able to starve microorganisms (like fungi and bacteria) of vital minerals like iron, and at least one study has found that it can increase copper levels in scalp fungus, which prevents further growth.
FYI: while ZPT is mostly safe to use, it has been known to cause contact dermatitis, which causes skin irritation and dryness, for a few users.
This condition doesn’t exactly damage hair, but it’s something a dermatologist will want to get rid of ASAP.
To help control dandruff, the H&S ingredient selenium sulfide may prevent the growth of Malassezia — a type of yeast. Like zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide also has anti-seborrheic properties, making it a choice addition for the treatment of dandruff.
However, this compound has been known to cause excessive oiliness and, in some instances, it can cause yellow discoloration in the hair shaft following use. Again, not terribly dangerous side effects, but not exactly something you’d volunteer for.
Let’s touch on the inactive ingredients quickly. For the most part, these are all considered safe, but we still think some things should be brought to your attention:
The inactive agent methylisothiazolinone is used as a preservative. It is found in household products such as paint and adhesives and has been strongly linked to contact dermatitis.
Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are used as hair detergents, which clean your hair. While the former has often been linked to hair loss, there is no real evidence to support the claim. But it is considered more damaging/irritating to your scalp than sodium laureth sulfate.
Sodium chloride is merely used to thicken the appearance of the shampoo.
“I tried several different options before but Hims combined approach of all four methods by far created the best results.”
“Hims has been the greatest confidence boost, no more bald jokes! I look and feel so much younger!”
“When I show my barber my progress, he is always in disbelief. I have to recommend Hims to any guy who’s experiencing thinning.”
“Cost effective and affordable. My hair keeps growing thicker, fuller, and at a fast rate.”
“I noticed a huge change in the overall health and fullness of my hairline.”
“Now after 5 months I’m able to style waves first time in 10 years!”
“I decided to jump right in and I'm so glad I did. I definitely feel ten years younger!”
“In just as little over two and half months, I can really see the difference in thickness and in color.”
“4-months strong and my confidence boosted back up to 100% using Hims, future me really does thank me.”
“I’m a 34-year-old father of two and have been using Hims for over a year now. My hair is back to what it was in my mid-twenties.”
Will your hair fall out if you lather up with this branded anti-dandruff shampoo? Honestly, probably not. If it did, we’d have heard a lot of reports over the last six decades.
For one thing, we happen to know that H&S and its active ingredients zinc pyrithione and selenium sulfide are effective in treating dandruff. And when it comes to hair loss, there’s a fair amount of data to show that many of these compounds are good for your hair.
Consider zinc pyritione’s role in hair loss treatment — a six-month, 200-patient study assessed the benefits of a 1% pyrithione zinc shampoo used daily, compared with the effects of a 5% minoxidil solution used twice daily, a placebo, and a combination of 1% pyrithione zinc shampoo and 5% minoxidil fluid.
Participants in the 1% ZPT group recorded a sustained improvement in hair growth and hair count after 26 weeks of treatment. However, it was less than half as effective as the minoxidil solution, and the combination treatment of minoxidil and ZPT showed relative sustained improvement in hair growth.
In other words, ZPT may have hair growth benefits, although you might not want it to be your main treatment method.
However, things are a little different when it comes to the hair loss question and selenium sulfide. Despite proving effective in managing dandruff, high concentrations of this agent have been linked to hair loss.
If you’re concerned about hair loss, selenium sulfide is something you should ask your doctor about.
Generic for Rogaine®, this FDA-approved over-the-counter version of topical minoxidil is used for regrowth on the crown of the head.
This is the FDA-approved dynamic duo. When used together, men saw better results in clinical trials compared to using either alone.
If you’re looking for something effective but don’t want too many steps in your routine, this once-a-day pill could be right for you.
Clinically proven to regrow hair in 3-6 months, no pills required.
You don’t need a specialized degree to see how Head and Shoulders shampoo is a bit of a mixed bag for your hair’s health.
Head & Shoulders products stave off dandruff and promote hair health through shampoos, conditioners and other hair care products.
H&S achieves this using the proven active ingredients zinc pyrithione and selenium sulfide.
Some of these ingredients have been connected to improved hair growth, while others have been associated with hair loss. However, hair loss is not a widespread phenomenon with use of these ingredients.
What’s best for you is ultimately your decision. If you’re struggling with dandruff, you may want to stick with the OG. If you’re losing hair, you may want to pivot.
If you’re in the market for zinc pyrithione shampoo to get rid of dandruff, we can help with that too. We can also help you with hair loss treatments if you’re starting to see more of your scalp than you’d prefer after washing your hair.
To learn more, check out our article on shampoos that don't cause hair loss.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.