Pimples can (obviously) pop up on your face, as well as areas such as the chest, back and booty. But did you know that you can also break out on your scalp? Yep, scalp acne is a very real thing. "While it's less common on the scalp than it is on the face, acne can form anywhere we have pores and sebaceous glands," says Craig Ziering, a dermatologist and hair transplantation surgeon and restoration expert based in Beverly Hills.
Scalp acne is very similar to the acne you would find on your face or body, and occurs when hair follicles (aka pores) become clogged with sebum, dead skin cells, and bacteria, explains Ziering. A whole litany of things, ranging from hormones to weather to stress to genetics can contribute to those clogged pores, notes Dennis Gross, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and founder of the eponymous skincare line. (Related: The Healthy Scalp Tips You Need for the Best Hair of Your Life)
But there's one unique contributing factor at play when it comes to the scalp: hair products. Styling products, particularly those rich in comedogenic oils such as coconut oil, certain waxes, and certain polymers that create hold can all build-up on the scalp, leaving behind a pore-clogging residue, says Iris Rubin, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Bethesda and the founder of SEEN hair care. Similarly, "not washing your hair regularly can cause excess oil to build-up, further contributing to scalp acne," she adds.
So, who's most likely to get scalp acne? "If your skin in general is more acne-prone, you're more likely to develop scalp acne," notes Dr. Gross. (And again, keep in mind that it can manifest just as it would anywhere else, via blackheads, whiteheads, red papules, or even cysts, he adds.) (Related: Why You Should Treat Your Scalp to a Detox)
While you can't control some of those aforementioned contributing factors (genetic, we're looking at you), and there's really not always a way to fully prevent any kind of acne, there are things you can do to make it less likely to occur and more manageable if it does, says Ziering. When and how you wash is paramount; while you want to rid your scalp of excess oil, you don't want to over-wash and over-dry the scalp, as this can actually end up triggering the production of more sebum and make things worse, he points out. Try to steer clear of heavy styling products whenever possible, and avoid wearing a hat when you work out, suggests Dr. Gross; this can trap sweat and bacteria on the scalp, further upping the likelihood of clogged pores.
If you are dealing with scalp acne, try using non-comedogenic (read: non pore-clogging) hair products whenever possible, says Dr. Rubin (though she notes that this can be tricky as not many are labeled as such). In general, avoid heavy, pore-clogging ingredients such as coconut oil and cocoa butter, and consider using a shampoo with salicylic acid, both to help treat a scalp acne flare-up and help prevent future breakouts, she adds. (Related: The Best Salicylic Acid Face Wash for Every Skin Type)
Ahead, eight of the best scalp acne-fighting products out there.
Best Salicylic Acid Shampoo: Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo Scalp Build-Up Control
This shampoo contains salicylic acid, the beta-hydroxy acid that experts recommend for acne-prone skin, in a super effective, 3-percent concentration. The ingredient is lipophilic, meaning it can help dissolve and clear oil deep within the pores to decongest them, explains Dr. Gross, who is a fan of this (affordable) sudser. (Related: The Best Sulfate-Free Shampoo, According to Experts)
Best Scalp Treatment: Inkey List Salicylic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Treatment
Both Dr. Gross and Ziering are fans of this formula, which combines salicylic acid, soothing panthenol, and a proprietary ingredient that helps calm redness. "The pre-cleansing treatment both helps exfoliate and absorbs excess serum, while also helping to moisturize and balance the scalp," says Ziering. Apply enough to cover your scalp and let it sit for 10 minutes before washing your hair as usual, once to twice per week.
Best Non-Salicylic Acid Scalp Treatment: Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal Tea Tree Scalp Treatment
For those who want something slightly more gentle - yet still effective - this 98-percent natural formula is a good option. It touts, among other things, charcoal and tea tree oil, the latter of which Ziering says is great for, "balancing and soothing the scalp, and helping to manage scalp acne." Bonus points for the addition of biotin, a B vitamin that helps strengthen your strands. (Related: Reviewers Say This $25 Hair Growth Shampoo and Conditioner Set Reduces Hair Loss in Just One Week)
Best Scrub: Philip B. Peppermint Avocado Scalp Scrub
While salicylic acid and glycolic acid offer chemical exfoliation, Ziering says physical exfoliation is also a good choice. He's a fan of this scrub, which gently removes dirt, oil, product, and environmental build-up. He lauds it for the addition of witch hazel, a natural astringent that also helps with excess sebum. It rinses out completely clean and as an added plus, peppermint and eucalyptus oils in the formula make it feel (and smell) nice and refreshing.
Best Styling Product: SEEN Skin-Caring Blow-Out Crème
This hair-care brand was specially formulated to be good for both your hair and your skin - and it's also one of the only lines that's clinically-proven to be non-comedogenic. Since you may not want to skip styling products entirely, just because you have scalp acne, this is the perfect alternative. It helps to fight frizz, add shine, and protect your hair from UV rays, without ever clogging the pores on your scalp. Happy reviewers point out not only how well it works on their hair, but that it also doesn't irritate sensitive skin.
Best Dry Shampoo Alternative: Carter Jane Scalpfix
Heavy gels and pomades and creams aren't the only scalp acne-causing culprits of the styling world. Dry shampoo can also create build-up on the scalp, says Dr. Gross. (Not to mention that if you're loading up on the stuff, you probably aren't washing your hair as frequently). Spritz this alternative along your roots and on your scalp and let the combo of naturally antimicrobial manuka oil and purifying witch hazel and peppermint oil quickly refresh your scalp and strands, all while imparting those other benefits that are good for scalp acne sufferers. (Related: I Buy This $5 Dry Shampoo by the Case)
Best Glycolic Acid Shampoo: Glycolix Shampoo
We've talked a lot about salicylic acid, but glycolic acid is also a great ingredient for anyone with scalp acne. "It loosens the 'glue' that holds the dead skin cells that lead to blockages together," says Dr. Gross. Ziering also advises seeking out the alpha-hydroxy acid. While it's super common in skin care, it's less-often found in hair care, but this shampoo contains a potent 10-percent concentration of the ingredient, yet can still be used daily. Top tip: Lather it up and let it sit on your hair and scalp for 3-5 minutes for best results. (Related: Your Guide to At-Home Chemical Peels)
Best Scalp Exfoliant: Sunday Riley Clean Rinse Clarifying Scalp Serum
To fully detox your scalp, try this pick, which combines both salicylic acid and glycolic acid in a top-notch formula. Still, there's no need to stress about it over-drying your scalp (or hair) because it also contains hydrating ingredients and soothing niacinamide, too. Users love how easy it is to use, and repeatedly note how well it helps clear bumps and breakouts on their scalp, without every causing any type of irritation. (Dealing with acne on your back or butt? Check out this spray reviewers call 'magic.')