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Scalp Acne

What It Is and How to Treat It

By: Dan Kern, Acne.org Founder & CSO
Last updated: January 28, 2020

The Essential Information

Acne can occur on the scalp, but is of course less noticeable because hair covers it up. Hair, however, can make it harder to treat as well.

If you only get an occasional pimple on your scalp, don't worry about it. Leave it be and it should clear on its own.

However, if you experience more than an occasional pimple on your scalp, here are a couple of ways to help prevent scalp acne:

  1. Avoid greasy hairstyling products, especially pomades and brilliantine
  2. Stop using conditioner for a while and only use shampoo and see if this helps

Treatment options for scalp acne are similar for acne anywhere on the face or body, with the addition of dandruff shampoo:

  • Benzoyl peroxide - Benzoyl peroxide is powerful at reducing acne, but since it is a peroxide, it may lighten some people's hair. It doesn't usually dramatically bleach the hair, but it can noticeably lighten it. 
  • Salicylic acid - Salicylic acid is not as strong or effective as benzoyl peroxide, but will not lighten the hair. 
  • Dandruff shampoo - Some people claim dandruff shampoo, with its antifungal ingredients ketoconazole or ciclopirox, helps, but there are no studies on this to date.

The Science

Introduction to Scalp Acne

Acne can occur on the scalp much like it can on the face and on the rest of the body. However, the scalp can be harder to treat topically because the hair gets in the way. The good news is that scalp acne is often much less noticeable because the hair covers its appearance. Many people get occasional pimples on the scalp and simply let them be. While lesions on the scalp can tend to be tender and sore, they usually clear on their own within a week or so.

Scalp Acne

What to Avoid

Avoiding oily or greasy products is a good preventative measure against scalp acne. Styling products sometimes contain oils or other irritating ingredients that can aggravate acne. If you're battling with some scalp acne, try forgoing your usual styling products for a few weeks and see if that helps clear you up. Some hair conditioners also contain heavy humectants which can irritate acne-prone skin. If you're struggling with scalp acne, try using only a gentle shampoo for your hair and not using conditioner for a few weeks and see if that helps. Lastly, some hair products marketed to black people can contain greasy emollients which can lead to acne.

Styling Products and Scalp Acne

What to Avoid - Scalp Acne

Treatment Options

You can treat acne on the scalp with many of the medications used to treat acne on the rest of the face and body. One exception is benzoyl peroxide, which tends to bleach hair in some people. Unfortunately, proper use of benzoyl peroxide is the best way to get rid of acne. Other medications like salicylic acid can easily be applied to the scalp with the fingers or with a cotton ball, but unfortunately do not tend to work very well. People on the acne.org forums have also been experimenting with dandruff shampoo to treat their body acne, so shampooing with a dandruff shampoo may be an interesting option for the scalp as well.1 Ingredients in dandruff shampoo such as zinc have been shown to be beneficial to acne prone skin, and antifungal ingredients in dandruff shampoo like ketoconazole or ciclopirox may be able to help with scalp folliculitis (see below).

Scalp Folliculitis

Scalp folliculitis is a hair follicle disorder which can result in widespread, itchy breakouts, often along the hairline. It is thought to be caused by bacteria and yeasts.1If you think you have folliculitis, see your doctor for prescription therapy. Therapy for scalp folliculitis may include antibiotic, antifungal, antihistamine, and/or steroidal agents.

Scalp Folliculitis

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  1. Oakley, Amanda. Scalp folliculitis. https://www.dermnetnz.org/acne/scalp-folliculitis.html

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