Is Head and Shoulders Safe? Good or Bad For Your Hair?

Head & Shoulders shampoo safety

Debating which shampoo to buy? First, think about what your hair needs. Do you have dandruff and poor hair growth because of a flaky, greasy scalp? Then Head and Shoulders is the way to go.

Head and Shoulders is completely safe to use. It is a good choice for both scalp and hair health. Just like any other product, Head and Shoulders has a primary purpose – to fight dandruff. It is very effective at doing this.

It does this by removing oiliness from the scalp and cleaning greasy hair. But if you don’t have dandruff or your hair is already dry with a lot of breakages, this shampoo could do more harm than good.

ALSO READ: Does Revlon One Step hair dryer damage your hair?

So choose the shampoo according to your specific needs. If you select Head and Shoulders for the purpose it best serves i.e. fighting dandruff, then it is safe, effective and a route to healthy hair!

Head and Shoulders shampoo ingredients

These are the primary ingredients that are found across all Head and Shoulders shampoos. 

  • Water
  • Sodium Sulfates 
  • Sodium Xylenesulfonate
  • Sodium Polynaphthalene Sulfonate
  • Magnesium Nitrate
  • Glycol Stearate
  • Cocamidopropyl Betaine
  • Sodium Benzoate
  • Dimethicone
  • Methylchloroisothiazolinone/ Methylisothiazolinone
  • Fragrances

Water is the solvent for these shampoos, as it can dissolve a number of substances. In addition, it is neutral and benign which helps the shampoo remain chemically stable. 

This shampoo also uses what is called a ‘hydrotrope’. It is simply a compound that enhances the ability of water to dissolve chemicals and substances. In this case, Sodium Xylenesulfonate is used.  

There are also other ingredients that prevent chemicals from separating. They function as both hydrotropes and surfactants. These include Sodium Polynaphthalene Sulfonate and Magnesium Nitrate. Other ingredients like Cocamidopropyl Betaine and sodium sulfates are surfactants. 

Head and Shoulders shampoo contains preservatives like MCI/MI. Another common ingredient across the shampoos is glycol distearate. This is not an active ingredient. It is used to give the shampoo a ‘pearly’ sheen that makes your hair shine. 

The shampoos have added fragrances such as Linalool and Hydroxycitronellal. They also have artificial dyes such as Tartrazine. Details about the rest of the ingredients will be explained in the sections below.

Does Head and Shoulders have sulfates? 

Yes, Head and Shoulders does contain a few forms of sulfates such as Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. Alternatively, ammonium sulfate and ammonium lauryl sulfate are used as primary surfactants. 

Surfactants are chemical compounds that help the shampoo to lather and foam. This allows the shampoo to be applied easily to your hair. It enables easy blending with the oils, dirt, and grease. Through this action, the shampoo provides a deep cleaning effect. 

Head and Shoulders offers sulfate-free shampoos too. You can opt for these in case you have dry hair. It is a good choice if you want to get rid of dandruff, without the sulfates removing essential oils from your scalp.

Does Head and Shoulders have silicone?

Yes, Head and Shoulders does contain silicone in the form of Dimethicone. This compound is an anti-static and a conditioner. It coats the hair cuticles, providing protection against breakage. It also smoothens the hair, providing a sleek, lustrous texture and look.

Compared to other forms of silicone, it is much lighter and non-comedogenic. So it doesn’t clog hair follicles or trigger oiliness. It also acts as a moisture barrier, by locking hydration into the hair and scalp. 

Does Head and Shoulders have DMDM Hydantoin? 

No, Head and Shoulders does not use DMDM Hydantoin in their shampoos. DMDM Hydantoin is used as a preservative to prolong the shelf-life of the shampoo. It keeps bacteria and spoilage at bay. But it also releases small amounts of formaldehyde into the hair. 

The concentration used is minimal and according to health regulations. But it could still cause some side effects like itchiness, rashes, allergies, etc. Head and Shoulders uses other preservatives like MCI/MI instead of DMDM Hydantoin in their shampoos. 

Does Head and Shoulders have ketoconazole? 

No, Head and Shoulders shampoo does not contain ketoconazole. Ketoconazole is an active ingredient that is used to remove dandruff flakes and scaly scalp. It prevents the recurrence of itchiness and dryness that causes dandruff. 

This is because it is a medicinal antifungal agent. Instead of ketoconazole, Head and Shoulders shampoos use other active ingredients which perform the same function. These include zinc pyrithione and selenium sulfide.

Does Head and Shoulders have phthalates and/or parabens? 

It depends on the specific shampoo. Many shampoos offered by Head and Shoulders do not list phthalates and parabens as part of their compositions. Quite a few are clearly labeled paraben-free. Parabens are anti-bacterial and anti-mold preservatives. 

Some shampoos use a paraben substitute i.e. Phenoxyethanol.

But in the case of phthalates, only the Head & Shoulders Supreme products are clearly labeled ‘phthalate free’.

For the other shampoos, it can be assumed that phthalates are present unless clearly labeled otherwise. 

The other shampoos might also be free of parabens if labeled so, but the presence of phthalates remains unknown. Phthalates are used either as plasticizers or gelling agents i.e. to make the shampoo spread better. 

Just to be 100% sure, you can re-check the label to make sure there is a paraben-free label on your preferred H&S product. 

Does Head and Shoulders have selenium sulfide?

Yes. The Clinical Strength range of anti-dandruff shampoos uses 1% selenium sulfide as the active ingredient. This concentration of selenium sulfide is the chemical that gets rid of dandruff. It also stops its re-occurrence. 

Selenium sulfide specifically targets the causes and effects of dandruff. It tackles itchiness, dryness, scaly scalp, etc. It also functions as an antifungal agent, which fights the main source of dandruff. The compound protects the scalp against infections that could aggravate dandruff. 

Does Head and Shoulders have zinc pyrithione? 

Yes. Most of the Head & Shoulders shampoos (except for the Clinical Strength line) use zinc pyrithione as the active ingredient in fighting dandruff.

They use a 1% concentration of zinc pyrithione (ZPT). ZPT fights bacteria, fungus, and any other microbes that contribute to dandruff or similar conditions, like scalp psoriasis. By way of fighting the causes of dandruff, it also helps in hair growth. 

It is also slightly gentler than selenium sulfide. So it may be a better choice for people who have a sensitive scalp. 

Does Head and Shoulders have anti-fungal agents? 

Yes. Selenium sulfide and Zinc pyrithione in Head & Shoulders are both antifungal agents used to treat dandruff primarily. They kill fungi that cause scalp and hair diseases. Essentially, ZPT and selenium sulfide fight Malassezia globosa. 

This fungus breaks down the oil in your scalp to make oleic acid, which further irritates the skin. This makes it itchy, red, and flaky. So these compounds nip this process in the bud. 

They also tackle other fungal/yeast infections on the scalp such as tinea versicolor. This is an infection that causes discoloration and blotches on the scalp. It also helps to reduce Seborrhea (another name for chronic dandruff and redness).

Does Head and Shoulders have alcohol in it? 

Yes. Head and Shoulders contains alcohol in the form of Cetyl, Stearyl, Benzyl, and Menthol. Both Cetyl and Stearyl Alcohols are fatty alcohols i.e. they are derived from fatty acids. They can be either synthetic or naturally derived from vegetable or animal fats. 

They are emulsifiers. They allow the oil, water, and other chemicals to combine without separating into different layers/particles. It is also used to increase the viscosity of the shampoo i.e. make it more velvety and luscious. 

They can be combined together as well to make Cetearyl Alcohol. But be careful; too much use can dry your hair and make it brittle. 

Benzyl alcohol is a multi-functional chemical compound. It regulates the thickness of the shampoo. It also adds a pleasant scent. The compound works as an additional solvent. It dissolves those chemicals which are insoluble in water. 

It also functions as a preservative. Finally, menthol is an alcohol derived from mint/peppermint oils. It freshens and rejuvenates the scalp, cleans out itchy patches, and removes dandruff. It cools down the head and improves circulation. 

Does Head and Shoulders contain formaldehyde? 

It depends on the product range/shampoo type.

Some Head and Shoulders shampoos do not contain formaldehyde or chemicals which release it. They don’t contain DMDM Hydantoin, Quaternium 15, sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate, Diazolidinyl urea, etc. 

These are the chemicals with the highest formaldehyde content. The remaining ingredients do not have formaldehyde-releasing properties. The shampoos contain Quaternium-10. This compound does not have formaldehyde, unlike its chemical variations like Quat-15/16, etc.  

But some shampoos like the Head & Shoulders Clinical strength line contain a specific formaldehyde-releasing compound – Disodium EDTA. Some shampoos in other ranges also contain Tetrasodium EDTA. But not all shampoos contain these compounds. 

Some may – for these you will have to carefully read the label. 

Does Head and Shoulders contain salicylic acid? 

No. Most Head and Shoulders shampoos do not contain salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is another active ingredient like ZPT, Selenium, coal tar, etc. 

These are used to treat dandruff, dry patches, etc. Head and Shoulders shampoos use zinc pyrithione or selenium sulfide as an alternative to Salicylic acid. There are a few shampoos like Head & Shoulders Supreme that contain sodium salicylate. 

This is a salt of salicylic acid. Don’t be confused. This is used as a preservative. It doesn’t perform the functions of salicylic acid.

Is Head and Shoulders gluten-free?

Yes. Head and Shoulders shampoos are gluten-free. They do not contain ingredients that have gluten e.g. wheat, rice, rye, starch extracts, etc.

For people who suffer from gluten intolerance or, worse, celiac disease, even the slightest traces of gluten can set off allergic reactions. Their health can be severely affected due to digestive issues, respiratory problems, etc.

So for those who deal with this problem, rest assured – Head and Shoulders poses no hazard. Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, we recommend that you check the label of each shampoo. 

Ensure that it is labeled gluten-free, just in case! 

Is Head and Shoulders residue-free? 

No. While Head and Shoulders leaves no ‘visible’ residue, it may leave a residue that can be felt. Many people use shampoos on styled hair or have specific hairstyles such as dreadlocks. In such cases, shampoos can leave their traces behind. It can occur on unstyled hair too. 

Residues could be in the form of oiliness, itchiness, or flaky scalp. It can also be a very clear build-up of waxy deposits due to silicones. The other chemicals can also remain on your hair and keep accumulating. 

These residues cover up your hair follicles and prevent growth. This is because the scalp cannot absorb any moisture, nutrients, or necessary oils. The build-up may also cause fungal infections. If the residues are allowed to build up for too long, they can be difficult to remove. 

Not all of it has to be visible, but it can certainly cause discomfort and hassles, nevertheless. 

But with Head and Shoulders, the residues shouldn’t be that difficult to prevent or remove. You just need to make sure that you rinse your hair thoroughly with lots of water. Also, ensure that you dry your hair completely. 

This should remove much of the shampoo residue from your hair, if not all of it. 

Is Head and Shoulders safe for toddlers? 

Yes. It is perfectly safe to use Head & Shoulders shampoos on infants. The ingredients used in the shampoos are not harmful in the concentrations that they are used in. The sulfates, ZPT, zinc carbonate, and even the alcohols do not hurt children; they pose negligible hazards. 

If you use it in moderation, it is low-risk. The maximum that can happen is slight skin irritation or redness. If you notice some allergic reactions, you should consult a doctor. This is because some babies have more sensitive skin.

Some ingredients may affect your child differently. By and large, it is non-toxic and harmless. It is quite effective in removing dandruff from your little one’s hair. But always be cautious. Don’t let them ingest it.

Please note however that Head & Shoulders shampoos are not tear-free. While washing, be careful to not let it enter their eyes or nose.

Is Head and Shoulders safe for colored hair and/or bleached hair? 

Yes. Head & Shoulders is a good shampoo option for those who have color-treated hair. Although it fights dandruff, the chemicals in Head and Shoulders do not strip away the colors. It doesn’t make the hair dull and lifeless. 

Usually, the active ingredient can be abrasive and harsh. It ‘strips’ away dandruff or scaly patches, taking the color with it. H&S shampoo rubs off dandruff gently. It also has a specific color-safe formulation that moisturizes the hair and locks in the color. 

It forms a protective barrier around the hair cuticles. The active ingredient ZPT or selenium sulfide does not contribute to any fading either. So not to worry, Head and Shoulders will keep your hair looking vibrant and healthy. 

Is Head and Shoulders safe for bleached hair? 

Yes. Just as Head and Shoulders is color-safe, it is also safe for bleached hair. Most of the shampoos will preserve the bleached look because they are particularly made to avoid stripping color.

One particular shampoo – the Head and Shoulders Clarifying Shampoo – may actually aid the bleaching process.

It helps to slowly remove hair color over a period of time. It doesn’t strip the color. It helps the color to fade to a lighter shade, by gradually removing excess dye. This is because it is a clarifying shampoo that cleans more aggressively. 

This may remove more color, and help with bleached hair since the point of bleaching is to keep making your hair color lighter. But do keep in mind that this is an exception. The other Head and Shoulders shampoos are entirely color-safe and do not have this effect. 

Is Head and Shoulders safe for dogs? 

Not really. It might be okay to use Head and Shoulders on your dogs in moderation. But the composition of the shampoo does pose certain risks to dogs. For one, it is an anti-dandruff shampoo. The chemicals in it that make it effective for humans, but may be harmful to dogs. 

For example, ZPT may cause zinc poisonings in dogs, if used excessively or if the dog consumes it. The shampoo’s pH balance is made for the human body, not for animals. This can also create skin irritation, rashes, or aggravate itchiness on your furry friend. 

This could actually make your dog more vulnerable to infections from fungi, bacteria, etc. You can use it occasionally to get rid of dandruff and scaly skin. For regular use, though, we would suggest that you opt for a shampoo made specifically for dogs.

Is Head and Shoulders safe for septic tanks?

No. Head and Shoulders shampoos use a lot of synthetic chemicals which are bad for septic tanks. Chemicals such as sulfates, hydrochloric acid, etc. are quite harsh. These can damage your septic system.

The most damaging feature of shampoos is usually the pH balance. If the pH balance is too high, then it could kill the bacteria in the septic tank that help in the decomposition of waste. 

Even though Head and Shoulders is pH balanced, it does not use natural, biodegradable ingredients. So, this affects the functioning of the bacteria. It also puts a strain on the septic system because synthetic chemicals take more time to disintegrate. 

So they pose a greater risk to the environment. The formaldehyde-releasing components are worse. They stay in the system for a long time without breaking down. If you want a shampoo that is 100% septic-safe, you should look for one that clearly states so on the label. 

Is Head and Shoulders cruelty-free?

No. Head and Shoulders shampoo is not cruelty-free. They may be testing on animals during the manufacturing period or during processing. Even if they do not test on animals themselves, their suppliers or third-party vendors may be. 

So they are not cruelty-free, due to association. The parent company Proctor and Gamble has tried to eliminate animal testing as far as possible. Yet, it still continues in some countries and for some products. 

Head and Shoulders still uses ingredients derived from animals, including fatty acids, honey extract, hydrolyzed collagen, etc. So even if they have eliminated animal testing, they have not eliminated animal use. This means that Head & Shoulders is neither vegan nor cruelty-free.

Like most things in life, Head and Shoulders shampoo in moderation may be just the hair-care balance you were searching for. We hope this article has assisted you in making your choice by addressing the queries that matter to you.


Anand Srinivasan
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