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8 best scalp acne shampoos and other treatments for head acne

What causes pimples on your scalp? Dermatologists and hair experts share their product recommendations for treating scalp acne at home.
Woman washing hair
We rounded up expert-recommended scalp acne shampoos from Dove, Neutrogena and others.Kara Birnbaum / NBC News

When it comes to acne, nowhere on your body is safe — breakouts can appear on your scalp or hairline, felt, but not seen. As its name suggests, scalp acne consists of whiteheads and blemishes directly on the scalp caused by excess sebum, explained board-certified dermatologist Dr. Steven Shapiro, founder of Shapiro MD hair care line. To help you heal scalp acne (or prevent it in the first place), Select interviewed dermatologists and hair experts about their go-to product recommendations.

SKIP AHEAD Best scalp acne treatments | Common causes of scalp acne and how to treat it

Best and worst ingredients for scalp acne

Clarifying shampoos help to remove buildup on your scalp, said board-certified dermatologist Dr. Jessie Cheung, MD, and look out for ingredients like salicylic acid. Dermatologist Dr. Hadley King agreed that salicylic acid is key: “It penetrates into pores to gently exfoliate and remove excess oils,” and is an “excellent comedolytic,” meaning it inhibits the formation of blemishes, said King.

Cheung is also a fan of hair care products that utilize tea tree oil, sulfur and benzoyl peroxide, all of which “decrease surface bacteria.” Shampoo made with coal tar “decreases inflammation while exfoliating the scalp” and dandruff shampoos will minimize oil production, added Cheung

As for the worst ingredients in acne shampoos, Cheung cautioned against:

  • Sulfates, which produce lather to clean the scalp but “can cause excessive drying which leads to irritation,” she said.
  • Dimethicone, which smoothes dry hair but can cause build up on the scalp.
  • Triclosan, a “controversial antimicrobial” because it can act as a hormone disruptor, said Cheung

Best products to treat scalp acne

The medical doctors and hair experts we consulted recommended eight products made with common pimple-fighting ingredients, including salicylic acid and glycolic acid. In addition to ordering directly through brands, you can find these scalp acne remedies wherever you like to shop for hair care products, including Walmart, Amazon, Target, Ulta and Sephora. Regardless of which product you use, Cheung noted that you may notice a drying effect “immediately,” but scalp acne can take a few days to heal.

Differin Acne Gel

Yes, you can use acne spot treatments formulated for your face on your scalp. Cheung noted these treatments might be “messy,” because they likely won’t blend into your hair, but said they are still functional against scalp acne “in a pinch.” Differin utilizes adapalene, a popular skin care ingredient known for treating blackheads, teen acne and adult acne. Differin notes that results are not immediate, but can take up to twelve weeks for acne to be significantly reduced. The gel boasts a 4.5-star average rating from nearly 68,705 reviews on Amazon.

CLn Shampoo

Cheung recommended CLn's shampoo because salicylic acid, a common hair and skincare ingredient, unclogs hair follicles, removing excess sebum. Though this shampoo is more expensive than the drugstore options on this list, Cheung feels its gentle lather that cleanses your scalp without over-drying makes it a worthy investment. It received a 4.3-star average rating from more than 1,510 reviews on Amazon.

Dove Dermacare Shampoo

When board-certified dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner wants his patients to treat scalp acne, he suggests Dove Dermacare shampoo. It contains zinc pyrithione, which lowers yeast on the scalp, reduces inflammation and decreases the number of scalp bumps, pimples and flakes, according to Zeichner. He advised to let it sit on the scalp for five minutes before rinsing to "allow it enough contact time for it to do its job." As one of the best shampoos of 2021, this drugstore option previously received a recommendation from board-certified dermatologist King, who lauded its "mild" formula that "can decrease yeast on the skin without causing irritation." It earned a 4.6-star average rating from 806 reviews on Amazon.

REfresh Anti-Dandruff Shampoo

“If your hair produces a lot of sebum,” or oil and has dandruff, said King, try this shampoo that is formulated with apple cider vinegar and salicylic acid “to exfoliate and offer anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties.” This paraben-free option (i.e., no preservatives that can disrupt hormones), which King previously recommended as a great overall shampoo for oily hair, has additional moisturizing ingredients to keep the scalp and hair from getting dried out. It has a 4.4-average star rating from 62 reviews on Amazon.

Ovante Folliculit Solution Shampoo

This shampoo is "great" for treating scalp acne because it is formulated with tea tree oil, which has antibacterial properties, according to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Debra Jaliman. It also has lactic acid, a popular type of alpha hydroxy acid, that helps unclog pores, she said. Ovante advises using 1 to 2 tablespoons of shampoo on your wet hair and scalp and let it soak for up to five minutes before rinsing. It has a 4.2-average star rating from 113 reviews on Amazon.

Neutrogena Therapeutic Shampoo

Jaliman recommended Neutrogena’s T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo “due to its salicylic acid. T/Sal was also dermatologist Dr. Rina Allawh’s favorite shampoo option for dandruff in our guide to the best shampoos for every scalp and hair type, because it’s “a powerful keratolytic, meaning it helps to remove the thick scale from the scalp,” she said. It has a 4.6-star average rating from more than 12,272 reviews on Amazon.

Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Special Shampoo

Certified trichologist (hair health expert) William Gaunitz called this highly rated shampoo a “go-to” for scalp acne. The paraben-free, color-safe shampoo relies on tea tree oil, which Cheung also noted decreases surface bacteria, to rid hair of impurities and soothe the scalp, according to the brand. It has a 4.7-star average rating from 46,207 reviews on Amazon.

Carter + Jane Scalp Fix

Zeichner recommended using Carter + Jane's Scalp Fix dry shampoo if you're unable to shampoo your hair frequently. Witch hazel and peppermint oil help soothe the scalp and remove excess oil, according to Zeichner, which can improve both flakes and scalp acne. It's also formulated with rosemary oil, which he said has astringent benefits.

Scalp acne: Common causes and how to treat it

Tucked under your hair, scalp acne might not be as glaring as a huge zit on your nose, but it’s still a nuisance. Sometimes, what looks like acne on your scalp could be folliculitis, said the American Academy of Dermatology (Folliculitis is the catch-all medical term for the number of ways a hair follicle can become inflamed). Or, it could just be regular acne. Scalps are “loaded with oil glands” and the buildup of dead skin, oil and hair products can “create a perfect environment for bacterial overgrowth” that leads to pimples, according to Cheung, who added sweat, friction and humidity can also cause scalp acne.

An easy way to prevent scalp acne is to switch up the products you use or modify how you use them. Oil-based hair care products“block oil from being released from pore or follicular openings,” noted board-certified dermatologist Dr. Lindsey Bordone of Columbia University Medical Center. She advised swapping out such oil-based items for lighter, water-based styling products. If you prefer using thicker hair styling products, apply them at least an inch away from your scalp to prevent acne, she said.

The bad news is that if your scalp acne is genetic or hormonal, it's a bit trickier to remedy. Pregnant women, for example, can produce progesterone, a hormone that can cause oil glands to secrete more sebum, which builds up on your scalp, congests your pores and leads to scalp acne, Shapiro said. In those instances, the safest and most effective solution is to book an appointment with a board-certified dermatologist who can help you figure out treatment options.

And one last thing: picking. “Don't do it!” said King. “It will only aggravate the problem, prolonging the time to heal and increasing the risk of infection, inflammation, discoloration and scarring,” she said.

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At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

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