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Though not as common as face acne, scalp acne — and the pain, itching, and inflammation that can come along with it — can be just as frustrating to deal with. "Scalp acne will appear very similar to acne on other areas of the body with red bumps and pustules," dermatologist Elyse Love tells Elite Daily. When it comes to treating the condition, the first course of action should be switching out your shampoo. According to Dr. Love, the best shampoos for scalp acne contain pyrithione zinc or salicylic acid. "Pyrithione zinc is antibacterial and antifungal to help decrease breakouts," she explains, adding, "salicylic acid helps to exfoliate the scalp and decrease oiliness to prevent clogged pores."
Dr. Elyse Love, M.D., is a New York City-based dermatologist practicing at GlamDerm. She completed her residency training at The Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology, serving as chief of aesthetics during her final year. Dr. Love has a clinical and research interest in the quality-of-life impact of dermatologic conditions and methods to modernize dermatology visits.
What Causes Scalp Acne?
"Scalp acne tends to occur in those who are prone to acne on other areas of the body, such as the face, back, and buttock," Dr. Love explains. "These individuals are often prone to acne due to oily skin and/or skin that does not exfoliate quickly enough." Additionally, Dr. Love says that excess sweat can lead to scalp acne, particularly if you're someone who tries to stretch out your hair-washing days with dry shampoo.
But much like acne on the face, scalp acne can be caused by many different things, which is why it's important to visit your dermatologist if the condition persists. "You should see a board-certified dermatologist if symptoms are not improving with over-the-counter options," Dr. Love says. "We have prescription-strength topicals, lasers, and oral medications that can also help."
Taking Care Of Your Scalp
If you have scalp acne, you'll need to be more diligent about your hair-washing routine, and more selective when it comes to styling products. "Since scalp acne is often caused by excess oil or the effects of sweat on the scalp, washing the hair more frequently will likely result in improvement," Dr. Love says, noting that it's important to strike a balance between washing too often and not often enough. "How often the hair is washed will require balancing the needs of the scalp with the needs of the hair, as overwashing can dry out the hair," she explains.
"Similar to acne on the face, those with scalp acne should avoid applying oils to the scalp," Dr. Love adds of the styling products that are most likely to exacerbate acne. "It's okay to apply oils to the hair shaft if needed, but they should be avoided on the scalp as they can further clog pores. It's important to fully rinse conditioner from the scalp, and to avoid styling products on the scalp," advises Dr. Love.
Shop The Best Shampoos For Scalp Acne
In a hurry? Here are the best shampoos for scalp acne:
1. Best Pyrithione Zinc Shampoo: Dove DermaCare Anti-Dandruff Shampoo
2. Best Salicylic Acid Shampoo: Nizoral Scalp Psoriasis Shampoo & Conditioner
3. Best Tea Tree Oil Shampoo: Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Special Shampoo
4. Best For Sensitive Skin: Vanicream Dandruff Shampoo
5. Best Pre-Shampoo Treatment: Yes To Tea Tree Soothing Scalp Treatment
1. The Derm's Pick: Best Pyrithione Zinc Shampoo
This might be marketed as a dandruff shampoo, but don't let that concern you. The same active ingredient in Dove's DermaCare Anti-Dandruff Shampoo, which works by killing the bacteria and fungus that can contribute to an itchy, flaky scalp, can also help with acne. "[It] contains pyrithione zinc in a hydrating formula," says Dr. Love, who adds that its accessible price is another selling point. You can find the matching conditioner here.
Active Ingredient: Pyrithione Zinc Size: 10 oz. Cruelty-Free: Yes
Relevant review: “Was having scalp sores from winter weather. Thought I would give this a try versus more expensive products. Big improvement after first shampoo!”
2. Best Salicylic Acid Shampoo For Scalp Acne
If you've already had success treating acne on your face with salicylic acid, you may want to consider Nizoral’s Scalp Psoriasis Shampoo & Conditioner. The formula combines 3% salicylic acid with vitamin B5, vitamin E, and green tea extract to help moisturize and support healthy hair. Plus, it's safe for color-treated hair because it’s sulfate-free, and it's free from common irritants like dyes and artificial fragrances.
Active Ingredient: Salicylic Acid Size: 11 oz. Cruelty-Free: No
Relevant review: “Was getting REALLY bad breakouts on my scalp [...] I was driven nearly mad for 2 months and then got this and haven't looked back. Not only does it keep my random scalp acne under control BUT my husband and I used it on our [psoriasis] patches on our bodies and it was gone within a few days. [...]”
3. Best Tea Tree Oil Shampoo For Scalp Acne
Tea tree oil can also be effective when it comes to treating mild acne, and Paul Mitchell's Tea Tree Special Shampoo is an Amazon favorite with more than 30,000 five-star ratings (many reviewers credit the shampoo with helping to clear up their scalp acne). The shampoo uses a blend of essential oils like lavender and peppermint to give the scalp a refreshing, cooling sensation, and it includes moisturizing, soothing, and antioxidant-rich ingredients like vitamin B5, algae extract, and jojoba leaf extract, as well.
Active Ingredient: Tea Tree Oil Size: 10.14 oz. Cruelty-Free: Yes
Relevant review: “Absolutely LOVE this shampoo. I was struggling with dry scalp and breakouts of scalp acne. Since using this product for several months I no longer have those issues! Love the smell as well.”
4. Best Shampoo For Sensitive Skin
For those who have both scalp acne and sensitive skin, try this dandruff shampoo from Vanicream, the brand that specializes in making products for people with allergies and conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis. It uses pyrithione zinc to help relieve the itching and redness that’s commonly associated with scalp acne, but the pH-balanced formula is entirely free from harsh cleansing agents and common chemical irritants like dyes, fragrances, sulfates, parabens, lanolin, and cocamidopropyl betaine.
Active Ingredient: Pyrithione Zinc Size: 8 oz. Cruelty-Free: No
Relevant review: “My daughter breaks out in what we call “shower bumps” due to shampoos and conditioners that are too harsh. We have tried so many shampoos and conditioners—natural, unscented, organic— none helped until this brand!”
5. Best Pre-Shampoo Treatment
If your scalp acne is most likely due to product buildup, this Yes To Tea Tree Soothing Scalp Treatment will help purify and balance your scalp. Designed to be used one to three times a week before you shampoo your hair, the treatment should be concentrated at the roots and left to sit for five to 10 minutes before rinsing it out. Antimicrobial and antifungal tea tree oil helps to fight acne-causing bacteria, while apple cider vinegar removes product buildup without messing with your scalp's pH balance. The treatment also includes witch hazel to relieve itchiness, as well as soothing ingredients like sage oil and aloe leaf juice. The full line includes a shampoo and conditioner, too, if you find this ingredient combo to be the most effective for your scalp acne.
Active Ingredients: Tea Tree Oil, Apple Cider Vinegar Size: 3 oz. Cruelty-Free: Yes
Relevant review: “I've had bouts of scalp acne and eczema for years. This is the ONLY thing that has cleared it up. Even prescription stuff didn't work forme. This did. Only took 2 uses.”
Dr. Elyse Love, M.D. New York City-based dermatologist with GlamDerm