Coal tar is a byproduct of coal processing that people use to treat psoriasis. It may reduce inflammation, itching, and scaling but can cause side effects in some people.

According to the National Psoriasis Foundation, psoriasis affects more than 3% of the adult population in the United States, which is more than 7.5 million people.

The foundation advises that even people with less than 3% appearing on the body may have significant inflammation and could experience other related conditions such as psoriatic arthritis. Because of this, people should treat any psoriasis symptoms they experience.

While doctors may prescribe topical medications such as steroids, some people may also wish to try coal tar to alleviate their symptoms.

Read on to find out about using coal tar for psoriasis, its safety and effectiveness, and other psoriasis treatments.

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Coal tar is a substance that manufacturers produce as a byproduct of processing coal.

People use coal tar for medicinal purposes, including treating psoriasis. It can help reduce inflammation and itching.

Manufacturers can also produce pine tar from pine tree resin, and some people use this for psoriasis, although doctors more commonly recommend coal tar.

People can purchase coal tar in different forms to treat psoriasis. These include:

  • shampoo to treat psoriasis on the scalp
  • bath solutions
  • ointments, creams, lotions, and emulsions
  • soap

A healthcare professional can help someone decide which form is best for their symptoms.

When using topical coal tar products, a person must massage it into the skin. This will ensure, for example, that shampoos reach the scalp.

However, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) warns that people should never apply coal tar to their genitals or rectum unless a dermatologist recommends doing so.

The National Psoriasis Foundation advises that coal tar can help slow the rapid growth of skin cells and restore the skin’s smooth appearance. Additionally, it may help reduce inflammation, itching, and scaling.

According to a 2021 review, around 80% of psoriasis cases involve the scalp, and coal tar is an effective treatment for psoriasis on this part of the body. However, it noted some people’s hair can become discolored, which can reduce their interest in using it.

The AAD notes that some studies have suggested that coal tar causes cancer, and people may see a cancer warning on some products.

However, they advise that the studies in question were animal studies or occupational studies involving people working with industrial coal tar, which is much more highly concentrated than the amount of coal tar found in products that treat psoriasis.

The AAD suggests that studies fail to show an increase in the risk of cancer in people who use coal tar to treat psoriasis.

Coal tar may irritate the skin and cause redness and dryness. Additionally, it may cause a rash or acne-like breakout. Therefore, people should test coal tar on a small area of skin before using it for psoriasis.

Coal tar can make the skin more sensitive to sunlight and remain active for 24 hours. Therefore, a person should wash it off thoroughly before going out in the sun and use sunscreen, as they may be at greater risk of sunburn.

Coal tar may also leave an unpleasant odor, stain skin or hair, and make hair brittle and dry if someone uses it on the scalp.

In addition, the AAD advises that coal tar may also worsen psoriasis in some instances.

The National Psoriasis Foundation advises about treatments for psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. These include:

  • Topical treatments: These include steroids, vitamin D3, vitamin A, aloe vera, jojoba, zinc pyrithione, and capsaicin to apply to the skin. Some topicals are available to purchase over the counter, and doctors can prescribe more potent steroids.
  • Phototherapy: This involves exposing the skin to ultraviolet light. A medical professional can administer this at a clinic or at someone’s home.
  • Systemics: These are prescription drugs that work throughout the body. They can include oral tablets or injections. Doctors may prescribe systemics for people who don’t respond to other treatments or those who cannot tolerate topical products or phototherapy.
  • Complementary and integrative approaches: These include dietary changes, physical activity, mindfulness, and hands-on therapies.

Psoriasis may cause intense itching or pain and can affect someone’s confidence. People should speak to their doctor or dermatologist about managing their symptoms and options for treatment.

If someone experiences any side effects as a result of using coal tar, they should make their doctor aware of this and speak to them for further advice.

The AAD advises that people should immediately stop using coal tar if they develop:

  • severe stinging or burning
  • worsening psoriasis
  • swelling

If symptoms don’t improve with any psoriasis treatment or new symptoms appear, such as joint pain, a person should see their doctor.

Coal tar may be an effective topical treatment for psoriasis to help reduce symptoms of itching, inflammation, and scaling.

People can purchase coal tar in several forms, including shampoos, lotions, and soaps. They should thoroughly massage the product into the skin but avoid applying it to sensitive areas such as the genitals and rectum unless a doctor advises this.

Coal tar may cause side effects, and people should stop using it if they have severe stinging or swelling or if their symptoms worsen. In addition, coal tar shampoos may cause hair to become discolored or brittle.

Experts suggest that coal tar for psoriasis does not cause cancer.

There are other treatments available for psoriasis, including phototherapy, steroids, and lifestyle changes. A person should speak to their doctor about what treatment is best for them.