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Many hair products may treat, control, or prevent acne, though the effects can depend on a person’s skin type and genetics.

This article describes the types of scalp acne and how to choose hair products that may help. It then gives an overview of some options on the market. Next, it explores possible side effects of hair products, other treatments, and some frequently asked questions.

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Scalp acne can cause pimples or pustules on the scalp. It can be irritating, itchy, and painful.

The pimples form when a pore or hair follicle is blocked with sebum or dead skin cells. Bacteria, yeast, or microscopic mites entering the pores may also cause a reaction.

Other factors that may cause scalp acne include:

  • not washing the hair thoroughly
  • sweating while wearing a hat, hood, or helmet, for example
  • a buildup of hair products
  • waiting too long to wash the hair after exercising

Some hair products can also cause scalp acne.

Conditions that are similar to scalp acne include:

It is important to receive a diagnosis from a dermatologist or another doctor, who can also recommend appropriate treatment.

Before choosing a scalp acne shampoo, a person may want to consider:

  • Active ingredients: Some people find that salicylic acid improves their acne, although it may not be suitable for everyone. A dermatologist can provide guidance.
  • Allergens and irritants: Various ingredients in hair products can irritate the skin and hair follicles, such as natural rubber, fragrances, preservatives, dyes, and metals.
  • Third-party testing: Products tested by third parties may be more effective. This testing can ensure that products contain what their labels advertise.

People react differently to different formulas and ingredients, so it may be necessary to experiment. Some people may prefer to use a medicated shampoo that a doctor prescribes.

How we choose products

Medical News Today chooses products that meet the following criteria:

  • Price: The products are available for a range of budgets.
  • Ingredients:They have a variety of ingredients to suit different needs.
  • Suitability: The products below were designed to help with this scalp condition.

Learn more about our vetting process here.

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Please note that the writer of this article has not tried these products. All information presented is purely research-based and was correct at the time of publication.

Vanicream Shampoo for Sensitive Skin

Best shampoo for sensitive skin

Main ingredientslauryl glucoside, panthenol, glycerin
Size12 fluid ounces (fl oz)
Pricearound $11.05 on Amazon

Vanicream is a skin and hair care company that makes products formulated for sensitive skin.

This shampoo removes buildup, flakes, and scales that can irritate and dry the scalp. It does so with gentler ingredients, such as lauryl glucoside, that should not irritate the skin.

The product is dermatologist-tested and free from gluten and parabens, its makers say.

A person might use it with Vanicream conditioner, which is also formulated for sensitive skin.

Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo

Best shampoo with salicylic acid

Main ingredients3% salicylic acid
Size4.5 fl oz
Pricearound $43.89 on Amazon for a pack of six

This medicated shampoo for an itchy, flaky scalp and is recognized by the National Psoriasis Foundation.

It contains 3% salicylic acid to target dandruff, psoriasis, and seborrheic dermatitis.

It is free from fragrances, preservatives, and added colors.

However, anyone with a history of side effects from salicylic acid and cocamidopropyl betaine may wish to avoid it.

Neutrogena T/Gel Therapeutic Shampoo Extra Strength

Best shampoo with coal tar

Main ingredients1% coal tar (4% Neutar)
Size6 fl oz
Pricearound $59.49 on Amazon for a pack of two

This formula contains coal tar instead of salicylic acid to control flakiness and itchiness. If salicylic acid irritates the skin, a person may find this product more suitable.

However, it does contain fragrance, sulfates, and cocamidopropyl betaine, which may cause dryness and irritation.

A person may wish to try the regular-strength version instead.

Nizoral Anti-Dandruff Shampoo

Best shampoo for dandruff

Main ingredients1% ketoconazole
Size4 fl oz
Pricearound $11.94 on Amazon

This medically reviewed shampoo contains the key antifungal ingredient ketoconazole, which targets many fungal species, and dermatologists often recommend it to treat dandruff.

However, it may not be the right choice for everyone, especially people with a history of liver problems.

People should also note that it contains sulfates and fragrance.

DHS Zinc Shampoo

Best shampoo with zinc

Main ingredients2% zinc pyrithione
Size8 fl oz
Pricearound $12.56 on Amazon

This product targets dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis with 2% zinc pyrithione. This may be a good alternative for people who find salicylic acid irritating.

However, it contains fragrance, additive colors, and sulfates.

The company suggests using it 3–4 times a week or as directed by a doctor.

ATTITUDE Hair Conditioner for Sensitive Skin

Best conditioner for sensitive skin

Main ingredientsoat kernel extract
Size32 fl oz
Pricearound $19.99 on Amazon

This conditioner is made from natural ingredients such as oat kernel extract and grapeseed oil. It is free from fragrance, parabens, sodium laureth sulfate, silicone, and formaldehyde.

The company says that all its products are dermatologically tested, vegan, and cruelty-free.

The addition of oat kernal extract may increase moisture in the hair and scalp.

CLn healthy scalp Shampoo

Best shampoo for multiple conditions

Main ingredientssalicylic acid, sodium hypochlorite
Size8 fl oz
Pricearound $36 on Amazon

This product combines salicylic acid with a gentle alpha hydroxy acid, citric acid, and glycerin to exfoliate and moisturize the scalp at the same time.

It is formulated without fragrance and parabens. It is also cruelty-free. However, it does contain sulfates.

The company says that this shampoo helps folliculitis, dandruff, and ingrown hairs. It recommends using the product 1–3 times a week on the scalp and beard area, if required.

Side effects of hair products largely depend on a person’s skin condition and hair requirements.

Some people may find certain ingredients irritating, such as salicylic acid. In this case, opting for products that contain coal, lactic acid, or zinc instead may help.

If a product aggravates scalp acne, stop using it and speak with a healthcare professional.

Alternative treatments for scalp acne include:

  • Fusidic acid: This is a commonly prescribed medicated cream. One 2016 review found that when used alone or with other treatments, it can reduce inflammation and one type of acne on the scalp.
  • Oral isotretinoin: This is available with a prescription, and brand names are Retin A or Accutane. It helps treat various forms of acne on the body, face, and scalp. However, people cannot use it if they are pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • Oral doxycycline: This is also a prescription acne medication. A 2020 study found substantial improvement in acne conglobata of the scalp within 2 months of treatment.

A person should speak with their doctor about treating scalp acne.

Below are answers to some common questions about hair products for scalp acne:

What should I look for in a shampoo or treatment for scalp acne?

Some non-drying shampoos and hair products contain salicylic acid, zinc pyrithione, and glycolic acid. These ingredients help get rid of bacteria and dead skin cells that may worsen scalp acne.

Can certain ingredients in shampoo cause scalp acne?

Some ingredients, such as sulfates, fragrances, essential oils, and alcohol may dry or irritate the skin. This can cause flaking and worsen scalp acne.

Other ingredients, such as petrolatum, silicones, and shea butter, may also cause a problem. One study found that these ingredients block the hair follicles, which can worsen some skin conditions.

Each person’s scalp is different, and a doctor can help describe which ingredients may be most suitable.

Can foods or lifestyle habits cause scalp acne?

Yes. Studies suggest that a high-glycemic diet may worsen acne, as may dairy. However, further research is necessary.

A healthcare professional can recommend any necessary changes to diet or exercise habits. A person may also consider keeping a food diary to see whether acne breakouts may be linked with certain foods.

Companies formulate various shampoos and other hair care products to treat or manage scalp acne. A person with mild-to-moderate scalp acne may opt for a product that contains salicylic acid and zinc pyrithione, for example.

However, some people experience side effects of topical products, such as irritation or dryness. They might consider using a prescription cream or oral medication instead.