The Ultimate Guide to Scalp Acne: How to Prevent, Wipe out and Treat
Dr. Angel Rivera
If you have scalp acne, then you know how frustrating the condition can be. You want to get rid of pimples because they are unsightly and sometimes painful, but often don't know where to start. The good news is there are a lot of treatments out there for scalp acne. We’ll go over everything you need to know about scalp acne from what it is and how it develops, prevention methods, treatment options, to products for getting rid of pesky pimples once and for all.
What causes scalp acne?
Scalp acne is not as common as acne on the face or elsewhere, but preteens, adolescents, and adults can still suffer from it. Scalp acne looks like pimples along your hairline, throughout your head underneath hair, or at the back of your head. It is not harmful but might be bothersome if you have sensitive skin or if you have severe acne where there may be an infection present.
One of the most common questions about scalp acne is what causes it. There are a number of factors that can cause you to develop this type of acne.
Scalp acne may be caused by:
- Clogged pores on the scalp from dead skin cells or sebum.
- Seborrheic dermatitis, a condition where dry skin or dandruff clog pores and make it difficult for oil glands to push through.
- Build up on the scalp from hair products such as hair sprays and gels.
- Hormones, due to puberty, pregnancy fluctuations, or your menstrual cycle, that create an overproduction of oil by sebaceous glands.
- Certain medications like birth control pills and antiepileptic drugs, among others.
- High stress levels.
- Poor diet.
Getting to the root (pun not intended) cause of scalp acne will help you understand what is afflicting your scalp. Scalp acne occurs when skin cells, oils, and sebum (an oil produced by the sebaceous gland next to your hair follicles) mix together in your hair follicles and clog them. Dirt mixed with oils may eventually clog up hair follicles, which can lead to scalp acne. Skin cells naturally shed off our bodies when they die and this shedding process can build up at the base of hair follicles while you sleep making it important to cleanse properly before bed. Follicular hyperkeratosis, which is the build-up of natural oil called sebum in hair follicles on your scalp, can also lead to acne.
When bacteria on your skin come in contact with oil from the sebum glands around hair follicles, it can lead to inflammation of the pore that leads to a pimple or even cysts (usually called nodules) under the surface of the skin on your scalp. This condition is called folliculitis. These types of breakouts happen when you don’t get enough fresh air during certain seasons like winter where indoor heat and lack of moisture create perfect conditions for bacterial growth. In some people, this condition may be hereditary because genetics play an important role in both oily scalps and clogged pores that can lead to acne.
If you have folliculitis you should see a doctor, dermatologist, or pharmacist as this condition can become serious by spreading to your scalp and causing a bacterial infection.
How do you prevent scalp acne?
Preventing scalp acne is a lot easier when you can identify what types of factors are affecting your skin. For example, avoid using any oils on the scalp like hair products or moisturizers with oil in them. However, the best way to prevent scalp acne is by washing your hair and scalp every day. Use a shampoo that doesn't contain irritants like sodium lauryl sulfate for people with hypersensitive skin and some other common allergens (like fragrance or preservatives) in them, and avoid any products containing silicone oils. Beware though: if your acne is caused by seborrhoeic dermatitis, shampoo won't work because it's not really acne but an overgrowth of yeast, so make sure to clear that out first. Washing your entire body with a mild soap without any fragrances such as Dove Body Wash Sensitive Skin (SLS-free) before going to bed is also a great preventative measure.
You should also try using the right products for your particular type of scalp acne in order to heal faster while avoiding irritation on the area that is affected by it, usually around the roots of your hairline where sebum glands are concentrated.
If you suffer from more severe scalp acne accompanied by pain and swelling like cysts, you may need medical help if symptoms don't subside after several days of treatment at home.
How do you treat scalp acne?
Although there are many different methods of treatment for scalp acne, we will recommend the top natural and over-the-counter treatments for your condition.
Exfoliate regularly with an exfoliant specifically marketed for use on the head which contains alpha hydroxy acid or lactic acid (both of which are gentle, but effective), sugar scrubs, or even dry brushes. You can also limit oil production by avoiding food that contributes to oily skin, such as salt, sugar, red meat, fried food, and refined carbs.
Washing your scalp with a solution of apple cider vinegar (ACV) or white wine vinegar with water can also help to reduce sebum production on the scalp. Apple cider vinegar has antibacterial properties that will kill any bacteria lingering on the surface, while regular shampooing alone won't do anything for this type of infection if it's there. Plus, you'll be getting some great vitamin C benefits from ACV too. Use an ACV rinse once or twice a week.
You can use heat to open up pores on your scalp before you get in the shower each time, then apply either tea tree oil or salicylic acid (both of which are available at most drugstores) mixed into shampoo for extra cleansing power.
What products should I use for scalp acne?
There are a range of products available for the treatment of scalp acne. Some are natural products available at grocery stores and retailers. Other products are available over-the-counter or through a prescription at a pharmacy. Consult a medical professional to see which of the following treatment(s) will work for you.
- Tea tree oil mixed with shampoo – This natural substance is a great disinfectant and also has anti-inflammatory properties. Look for it in the form of drops, liquids, or shampoos sold at health food stores or online. Apply to your scalp once or twice per week before washing hair as you would with regular shampoo. Make sure to mix tea tree oil with another carrier like coconut or olive oil before applying directly to your skin
- Salicylic acid – It can be applied directly onto the skin without mixing into other products. It’s available over-the-counter from most drugstores, often found near acne medication or in dandruff shampoos. You may need a prescription if purchased from a pharmacy. Wash scalp thoroughly after applying the product.
- Apple cider vinegar – Dilute with water at a four-to-one ratio (two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to one cup of water), then apply the mixture all over the scalp before washing hair.
- Baking soda – Baking soda should be applied only once per week by mixing it with shampoo and scrubbing gently into the scalp. Rinse well afterwards.
- White vinegar – Vinegar can also be effective, but should be applied once per week by mixing it with shampoo and scrubbing gently into the scalp. Rinse well afterwards.
Use weekly, as prescribed by a dermatologist:
- Benzoyl peroxide – A dermatologist may prescribe an antibiotic that kills bacteria and helps to alleviate symptoms for more severe acne.
- Sulfur powder – Sulfur dries out oily skin around the hair follicles on the scalp and makes it easier to shed dead cells.
General maintenance for Scalp Acne
After washing your hair and the scalp is dry, apply a moisturizer to condition your hair. Avoid using too much heat on your hair. Instead, opt for an air-drying method or gentle towel drying. Remember to have your scalp checked regularly by visiting a doctor or dermatologist every six months or so. If you have had acne in other parts of your body before, then a dermatologist should be able to diagnose acne more easily from looking at your skin elsewhere.
There are a variety of reasons for scalp acne and we covered the most common reasons in detail. The treatments range from prescriptions all the way down to household items that can be found in supermarkets and over-the-counter medicines that are widely available at most pharmacies. We hope that you are able to determine the best path forward for your treatment and always urge you to consult your dermatologist or pharmacist. If you are prescribed any medications, head over to our medication search tool at USARx.com to see if you are eligible for up to 75% off retail value at any of our over 60,000 participating pharmacies nationwide.