Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/15/2021
Head & Shoulders® is one of the most immediately recognizable brands down the hair care aisle.
For 60 years, its range of shampoos, then conditioners and subsequently oils, pomades, styling gels, etc, have been applied for the treatment of numerous hair and scalp issues, with dandruff being its most common target.
However, despite being formulated specifically for hair improvement, over the years, claims have emerged that Head & Shoulders products may lead to the loss of hair.
To determine if there is a link between hair loss and Head & Shoulders, we'll be examining the key ingredients that make up its products. But first, we'll be taking a look at factors that may contribute to hair loss for a better understanding of the subject.
Whether it's thinning hair, bald patches, or a reduced hairline, hair loss can be a worrying condition to deal with.
To properly understand hair loss, it's important to know that the hair grows in four phases.
The anagen/growth phase: where the hair follicles actively begin to grow
The catagen/transition phase: this is a short transition phase that signals the end of the growth phase of the hair
The telogen phase: the resting stage of the hair growth cycle. In this phase, new hair follicles aren't formed. However, hairs start to form in the hair follicles released during the anagen phase.
The Exogen/shedding phase: here, hair is shed from the scalp. Everyday activities like brushing and washing the hair usually support this phase.
When the hair cycle is disrupted, this can affect the normal pattern of hair growth and may lead to hair loss. Factors that can contribute to the disruption of the hair growth cycle include:
This is an autoimmune disorder where your body's cells wrongly identify hair follicles as dangerous outsiders and attack them.
The hair follicles in the anagen phase are targeted, which then induces them into a premature catagen phase.
However, the stem cells that generate hair follicles aren't attacked, which permits hair follicles to be regenerated to enter the anagen/growth phase.
But the more the follicles are targeted and damaged, the less likely hair will be to grow from them, which can lead to hair loss.
This condition may cause hair loss not just on your scalp, but in your ears, on your skin, etc.
Also known as male pattern hair loss, this form of hair loss is the result of heightened sensitivity to androgens (male sex hormones). It is also known to affect women as female pattern hair loss.
DHT is a major sex hormone in the body and the primary cause of male pattern hair loss. It is produced from testosterone and is an important hormone for the formation of mature features like a deepened voice, genitalia, jaw shape, etc.
Some people may develop a sensitivity to this hormone that causes it to shorten the growth phase of the hair follicle.
This happens where DHT binds to hair follicles, weakening them and causing thinner and shorter hair follicles to grow. Eventually, these hairs grow so short and thin that they do not even penetrate the skin surface. This can lead to hair loss.
This is a form of hair loss caused by stressful situations. If you're going through a stressful life situation and you notice more hair on your bedding, clothes or around your home, you may be experiencing telogen effluvium.
With this condition, a stressful event may trigger a significant amount of anagen hairs to stop growing. The hairs then enter the catagen phase prematurely, before progressing to the telogen phase. This can cause excessive shedding.
Luckily, this is hair loss is typically temporary, with hair growth resuming within a few months following the traumatic or stressful event.
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This form of hair loss is the end result of excessive tension or pulling on the hair follicles caused by tight hairstyles.
If you notice small bald spots on your scalp or a visible thinning of your hair following hairstyles like ponytails and dreadlocks, your hair may be going through traction alopecia.
Dandruff isn’t a form of hair loss — in fact, it’s not even a definitive symptom of it.
However, research indicates that dandruff may either precede or accompany hair loss in people experiencing telogen effluvium.
If you’re noticing dandruff that seems to have come out of the blue or while you're under a lot of stress, it’s worth checking in on your hair to see what’s going on.
For decades, Head & Shoulders has helped to reduce and manage the appearance of dandruff flakes on shoulders and clothing everywhere.
To achieve this, its shampoos and conditioners are formulated with two active ingredients: zinc pyrithione and selenium sulphide. Methylisothiazolinone, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, as well as zinc carbonate act as inactive ingredients.
Now, if you remember, an active ingredient addresses the skin/hair concern in question e.g dandruff. However, while an inactive ingredient has no therapeutic benefits, it’s necessary to deliver the active ingredient to the affected area, or perhaps to improve the appearance of the product.
Here is how these active and inactive ingredients affect the hair:
This ingredient is one of the most common features of anti-dandruff treatments. This is owed to its antifungal and antimicrobial properties, as well as 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, this compound helps to manage dandruff by reducing the amount of fungus on the scalp and preventing dandruff flakes.
However, because ZPT helps to increase zinc levels in the body, it is suspected that this enables zinc to bind to proteins that are necessary for fungal or bacterial activities. This can prevent fungal growth.
Also, ZPT may be able to starve microorganisms like fungi and bacteria of iron, a mineral necessary for cell activities.
One study suggested that zinc pyrithione may increase copper levels in scalp fungus, preventing its growth.
However, while this compound is largely safe to use, it has been known to cause contact dermatitis in a few users.
To help with the control of dandruff, selenium sulphide may be able to prevent the growth of Malassezia — the dandruff-causing yeast. It may achieve this by reducing the growth of fungal cells.
Like zinc pyrithione, selenium sulphide also has anti-seborrheic properties, making it a choice addition for the treatment of dandruff. Head & Shoulders claims it is reserved for its strongest dandruff-fighting formulas.
However, this compound has been known to cause excessive oiliness following use. In some instances, selenium sulphide has been known to produce yellow discoloration to the hair shaft following use.
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 detergents in the hair. While the former has often been linked to hair loss, there is no real evidence to support the claim.
Sodium laureth sulphate is, however, considered the less damaging/irritating option to the scalp.
Another inactive ingredient, sodium chloride, is merely used to thicken the appearance of the shampoo.
We’ll have to go with probably not.
First off, the active ingredients zinc pyrithione and selenium sulphide are effective in treating dandruff.
In a study to determine the effects of zinc pyrithione and climbazone (an active ingredient) in an anti-dandruff shampoo, the mixture, which also included conditioning silicones, was found to produce superior results in reducing the appearance of dandruff. It was also shown to keep dandruff away from scalps for longer.
On its role in hair loss — a six-month, 200-patient study was carried out to assess the benefits of a 1% pyrithione zinc shampoo used daily when compared with a 5% minoxidil solution used twice daily. Also to be tested against both solutions was a placebo, as well as the combination of the 1% pyrithione zinc shampoo and 5% minoxidil fluid.
At the end of the study, the hair counts in the 1% ZPT group recorded a sustained improvement in hair growth after 26 weeks of treatment. However, the minoxidil solution group and the combination treatment of minoxidil and ZPT showed more improvement in hair growth.
However, when it comes to selenium, despite proving effective in managing dandruff, high concentrations of this agent have been linked to hair loss.
In an experiment to test the effects of selenium sulfide on hair roots, a preparation containing 2.5% of selenium sulfide in a solution that contained emulsifying, buttering and carrying agents was applied to a section of the hair of a 37-year-old man.
A total of 1.94 grams of the preparation was spread over the separated section and applied for over four minutes.
Nine hours after this process, the preparation was washed off. It was discovered that many hairs were weakened following the application, while some hairs were found to have broken in the shaft.
This may show that selenium sulphide can have toxic effects on hair.
However, with only 1% of selenium sulphate included in Head & Shoulders products, this may suggest a safe concentration of the compound.
Regardless of the factor responsible for hair loss, this condition can take a toll on self-esteem and may even lead to depression.
To manage hair loss, the FDA has recognized two treatments as effective options — finasteride and minoxidil.
Finasteride helps to manage hair loss by preventing the conversion of testosterone to DHT. Essentially, it manages hair loss by getting to the root of the problem. By preventing the conversion of DHT, it helps to reduce the amounts of this androgen in the body, reducing the chances of hair loss.
When you apply minoxidil to the affected portion of your hair, it can help to improve growth by acting as a vasodilator — it widens the blood vessels in that area.This helps to increase the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the area.
From there, it helps to cut the telogen phase of hair growth short. This is to allow the hair follicles to enter into a premature growth phase. It may even extend the anagen/growth phase to permit thicker and longer hair to emerge.
Through shampoos, conditioners and other hair care products, Head & Shoulders has staved off dandruff and promoted hair health.
It has achieved this using its active ingredients zinc pyrithione and selenium sulphide.
These products have been connected to improved hair growth and are very unlikely to lead to hair loss.