Acne is not isolated to the face or even the back — pesky breakouts can also pop up on the scalp, resulting in scalp acne. As its name suggests, scalp acne consists of whiteheads and blemishes directly on the scalp, explained board-certified dermatologist Steven Shapiro, MD, founder of Shapiro MD hair care line. Hairstylist Courtney Foster added scalp acne typically occurs along the hairline and can be found throughout the scalp. To help you heal scalp acne, we interviewed medical doctors and hair experts for their go-to product recommendations.
SKIP AHEAD Best scalp acne treatments
Scalp acne: Common causes and how to treat it
There are a few reasons why you might be dealing with scalp acne and the good news is that you're able to control some of these causes with over-the-counter products and some lifestyle changes. 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 board-certified dermatologist Jessie Cheung, MD, 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 at least modify how you use them. Oil-based hair care products like pomade “block oil from being released from pore or follicular openings,” noted board-certified dermatologist Lindsey Bordone, MD, of Columbia University Medical Center. She advised swapping out these oil-based items for lighter, water-based styling products instead. If you prefer using thicker hair styling products, she advised applying them at least one inch away from your scalp to prevent acne.
The bad news is that if your scalp acne is genetic or hormonal, it's going to get a bit trickier to remedy. For example, pregnant women 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, your safest and most effective solution is to book an appointment with a board-certified dermatologist who can help you figure out potential treatment options.
Best and worst ingredients for treating scalp acne
Cheung recommended clarifying shampoos to help to remove buildup on your scalp and to look out for ingredients like salicylic acid, which helps break up oil and dead skin cells. She’s also a fan of hair care products that utilize tea tree oil, sulfur and benzoyl peroxide, all of which “will decrease surface bacteria.” She added shampoo made with coal tar “decreases inflammation while exfoliating the scalp” and dandruff shampoos will minimize oil production.
And as for the worst ingredients, Cheung cautioned against the following:
- Sulfates will produce a lather to clean the scalp but “can cause excessive drying which leads to irritation.”
- Dimethicone smoothes dry hair but can cause build up on the scalp.
- Triclosan is a “controversial antimicrobial” because it can act as a hormone disruptor.
Best products to treat scalp acne
The medical doctors and hair experts we consulted recommended nine hair care 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.
Yes, you can use acne spot treatments formulated for your face on your scalp pimples. Cheung noted these treatments might be “messy” because they likely won’t blend into your hair but noted they are still functional against scalp acne when you’re “in a pinch.” Differin utilizes adapalene, a popular skin care ingredient known for treating blackheads, teen acne and adult acne. It was also the No.1 bestselling skin care product we covered in 2020 and a popular skin care product among Shopping readers during Amazon Prime Day. It boasts a 4.5-star average rating from nearly 39,230 reviews on Amazon.
When board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, 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 Hadley King, MD, who lauded its "mild" formula that "can decrease yeast on the skin without causing irritation." It earned a 4.5-star average rating from 250 reviews on Amazon.
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 Debra Jaliman, MD. She also noted it is made with lactic acid, a popular type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), that helps unclog pores. Ovante advises using one to two tablespoons of shampoo on your wet hair and scalp and let it soak for up to five minutes before rinsing.
Briogeo is a Black-owned business that earned the Clean at Sephora seal, plus a recommendation from Foster, who noted it helps remove dead skin cells and product buildup on the scalp. The combination of charcoal and peppermint helps to draw out impurities from the scalp and leaves behind a cooling effect that soothes scalp inflammation, according to Foster. Briogeo’s Scalp Revival earned a 4.4-star average rating from more than 1,710 reviews on Nordstrom.
Cheung recommended CLn's shampoo because salicylic acid unclogs hair follicles. She also noted this investment-worthy shampoo produces a gentle lather to cleanse your scalp without over-drying. It received a 4.3-star average rating from more than 1,510 reviews on Amazon.
Zeichner recommended using Carter + Jane's Scalp Fix dry shampoo if you're unable to shampoo your hair frequently. According to Zeichner, witch hazel and peppermint oil help soothe the scalp and remove excess oil, which can improve both flakes and scalp acne. It's also formulated with manuka honey and rosemary oil, the latter of which has astringent benefits, he added.
Hill is also a fan of this scalp acne serum because it is made with biotin, a popular hair care ingredient known for preventing breakage. It is also formulated with ginseng root, lilac stem cells and malabar kino bark, which together will prevent bacteria and yeast growth on the scalp, according to the brand.