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Malassezia (Pityrosporum) Folliculitis

  • Author: Sarah Sweeney Pinney, MD; Chief Editor: William D James, MD  more...
Updated: Apr 12, 2016


Pityrosporum folliculitis (PF) is an inflammatory skin disorder that typically manifests as a pruritic, follicular papulopustular eruption distributed on the upper trunk of young to middle-aged adults. Weary et al first described Pityrosporum folliculitis in 1969, and, later in 1973, Potter et al[1] identified Pityrosporum folliculitis as a separate clinical and histologic diagnosis.

Yeasts, specifically Malassezia furfur, are the pathogenic agents in Pityrosporum folliculitis. M furfur has been linked to several skin diseases, including seborrheic dermatitis, folliculitis, confluent and reticulated papillomatosis, and pityriasis versicolor.[2, 3] In 1874, Malassez first described round and oval budding yeasts from scales of patients with seborrheic dermatitis. He coined the phrases "bottle bacillus of Unna" to describe the small oval cells in the scale and "spore of Malassez" to name the bud that is observed in association with the yeast. Saborouraud proposed the Pityrosporum genus in 1904 to describe the budding yeast cells without hyphal elements from normal skin. Later, in the 1900s, Pityrosporum ovale and Pityrosporum orbiculare were isolated by Castellani and Chalmers and Gordon, respectively.

These 2 yeast species, collectively with fungal forms, are classified as M furfur because of controversy and confusion of the grouping of various lipophilic yeasts and fungi of the skin. This grouping has simplified the classification to one name, which applies regardless of the morphology of the organism. With the advancement of technology, 7 species of Malassezia were recognized: M furfur,Malassezia pachydermatous,Malassezia sympodialis,Malassezia globosa,Malassezia obtusa,Malassezia restricta, and Malassezia slooffiae.[4]

Pityrosporum folliculitis is caused by Malassezia species that are part of the cutaneous microflora and not by exogenous species.[5] However, the focus of this article is M furfur, which is considered the pathologic agent of Pityrosporum folliculitis. Lesions are chronic, erythematous, pruritic papules and pustules, which occur in a follicular pattern. These lesions are usually present on the back and chest and, occasionally, on the neck, shoulders, upper arms, and face.

The diagnosis of Pityrosporum folliculitis is based on clinical suspicion of the classic presentation of pruritic papulopustules found in a follicular pattern on the back, chest, upper arms, and, occasionally the neck. They are rarely present on the face. An improvement in the lesions with empiric antimycotic therapy supports a clinical diagnosis of Pityrosporum folliculitis.



M furfur (ie, P ovale and P orbiculare) is a lipophilic, saprophytic, budding, unipolar, dimorphic, gram-positive, double-walled, oval-to-round yeast. M furfur is part of the normal skin flora. It is suggested that the similar yeasts P orbiculare and P ovale are actually identical and that they are morphologic variants of M furfur.

Malassezia yeasts are classified as superficial mycoses that by definition do not invade past the cornified epithelium. In Pityrosporum folliculitis, however, the organism is present in the ostium and central and deep segments of the hair follicle.

Plugging of the follicle followed by an overgrowth of yeast that thrives in the sebaceous environment is believed to be the etiology. Malassezia yeasts require free fatty acids for survival. Usually, they are found in the stratum corneum and in pilar folliculi in areas with increased sebaceous gland activity such as the chest and back. The yeasts hydrolyze triglycerides into free fatty acids and create long-chain and medium-chain fatty acids from free fatty acids. The result is a cell-mediated response and activation of the alternative complement pathway, which leads to inflammation.




United States

Malassezia organisms can be found on the skin in 75-98% of healthy people. These organisms are part of the normal skin florae of many individuals who do not have signs or symptoms of folliculitis or other disease. Colonization by M furfur begins soon after birth, and the peak presence of the yeasts occurs in late adolescence and early adult life, coinciding with increasing activity of sebaceous glands and concentration of lipids in the skin.


P ovale is present on 90-100% of the surface of healthy skin; higher numbers of the yeast are present on the chest and back. Certain climates influence the percentage of people with P ovale and the number of people with Pityrosporum folliculitis. People living in warm and humid climates have a higher incidence of Pityrosporum folliculitis. One clinic in the Philippines documented that 16% of all patient visits were a result of Pityrosporum folliculitis.[6] A 2008 report from China cites that 1.5% off all dermatology patients were diagnosed with Pityrosporum folliculitis, most of them healthy, middle-aged males.[7]


No known racial differences in the frequency of Pityrosporum folliculitis exist.


Reports of Pityrosporum folliculitis vary from a male-to-female ratio of 1:1 to a predominance of one or the other sex. In the literature, the consensus is that the female-to-male ratio is 1.5:1.


Pityrosporum folliculitis is recognized as one that affects youths and young and middle-aged adults[8] ; Pityrosporum folliculitis is most common in those aged 13-45 years. However, 3 cases of Pityrosporum folliculitis occurred in an ICU setting in older individuals who were in consecutive beds, who received care from the same nursing staff, and who all received high-dose antibiotics.[9] . The very young can also be affected.[3]



The prognosis in Pityrosporum folliculitis is good. With treatment, Pityrosporum folliculitis can completely resolve. Without treatment, Pityrosporum folliculitis can be pruritic.

Pityrosporum folliculitis may be a bothersome condition (ie, severe pruritus), but the lesions are benign. Some underlying conditions that predispose the patient to Pityrosporum folliculitis include diabetes mellitus, immunodeficiency, and systemic candidiasis[10] ; these conditions may cause morbidity. Consider the presence of predisposing conditions when Pityrosporum folliculitis is diagnosed.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Sarah Sweeney Pinney, MD Assistant Professor, Department of Dermatology, University of Texas Medical School at Houston

Sarah Sweeney Pinney, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, Texas Dermatological Society, Texas Medical Association, Women's Dermatologic Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Ronald P Rapini, MD Professor and Chair, Department of Dermatology, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center; Distinguished Chernosky Professor and Chair of Dermatology, Professor of Pathology, University of Texas McGovern Medical School at Houston

Ronald P Rapini, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, American Medical Association, American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, American Society for MOHS Surgery, Society for Investigative Dermatology, Texas Medical Association

Disclosure: Received royalty from Elsevier publishers for independent contractor; May receive consulting fee from FDA panel for consulting in future, since I am on one of their committees, but at this time so far have received zero from FDA.

Rashid M Rashid, MD, PhD Director, Mosaic Clinic Hair Transplant Center of Houston

Rashid M Rashid, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, Texas Medical Association, Texas Dermatological Society, International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery, Council for Nail Disorders, Houston Dermatological Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Michael J Wells, MD, FAAD Associate Professor, Department of Dermatology, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Paul L Foster School of Medicine

Michael J Wells, MD, FAAD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Dermatology, American Medical Association, Texas Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Lester F Libow, MD Dermatopathologist, South Texas Dermatopathology Laboratory

Lester F Libow, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, American Society of Dermatopathology, Texas Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

William D James, MD Paul R Gross Professor of Dermatology, Vice-Chairman, Residency Program Director, Department of Dermatology, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

William D James, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, Society for Investigative Dermatology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Jaggi Rao, MD, FRCPC Clinical Professor of Medicine, Division of Dermatology and Cutaneous Sciences, Director of Dermatology Residency Program, University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry

Jaggi Rao, MD, FRCPC is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery, Canadian Medical Association, Pacific Dermatologic Association, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, Canadian Medical Protective Association, Canadian Dermatology Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Daniel J Hogan, MD Clinical Professor of Internal Medicine (Dermatology), Nova Southeastern University College of Osteopathic Medicine; Investigator, Hill Top Research, Florida Research Center

Daniel J Hogan, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Dermatology, American Contact Dermatitis Society, and Canadian Dermatology Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Siobahn M Hruby, MD Internal Medicine Physician, Boys Town National Research Hospital

Siobahn M Hruby, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians and American Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Stephen H Mason, MD

Stephen H Mason is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, American College of Mohs Micrographic Surgery and Cutaneous Oncology, American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, Skin Cancer Foundation, and Women's Dermatologic Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Brittany J Oswald, MD Resident Physician, Department of Internal Medicine, Ochsner Clinic Foundation Hospital

Brittany J Oswald is a member of the following medical societies: American Medical Association and American Medical Student Association/Foundation

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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This photo is high-power hematoxylin and eosin staining of a biopsy confirming Pityrosporum folliculitis. There is a hair shaft within a hair follicle with scattered amphophilic staining circular Pityrosporum yeast. Photo courtesy of Ronald Rapini, MD.
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