How to Treat Scalp Breakouts (Because They Happen)
While scalp acne may be out of sight, it’s still very much top of mind if you’re experiencing painful bumps, pimples and irritation on your head. The scalp is a surprisingly common area for breakouts to occur, but figuring out how to address them is not so straightforward. To find out more, we consulted with board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rachel Nazarian of Schweiger Dermatology.
What Is Scalp Acne?
Your scalp, just like your face and body, is prone to getting acne due to the presence of oil or sebaceous glands. The scalp actually has a higher density of oil glands, and, as a result, creates more sebum. “These oil glands are sensitive to the same hormonal fluctuations as the skin on the rest of the body,” says Dr. Nazarian. “Depending on what your hormones are saying, they may instruct oil glands to rev up activity, which could lead to acne.” Once the sebum mixes with dead skin cells and bacteria, a pimple can form on your scalp, just like it does on other areas of the skin.
One notable difference between acne on your face and acne on your scalp, however, is that your scalp has thicker skin. This can cause acne to be more painful than the blemishes on your face. “The scalp has skin that’s much tighter, so when you have buildup of pus or keratin, inflammation doesn’t have much room to stretch the tissue,” says Dr. Nazarian. She explains that this pressure from underneath the skin can lead to discomfort.
How to Prevent and Treat Scalp Acne
If you’re suffering from scalp acne, the good news is that it’s treatable. From prescriptions to changes you can make to your everyday hair-care routine, getting your scalp breakouts under control is possible.
Tip #1: Consult With Your Dermatologist
If you’ve noticed what looks like pimples creeping up on your scalp, the first thing you should do is consult with a board-certified dermatologist. Not only can they provide a diagnosis, but they can also prescribe shampoos, oral antibiotics or topical ointments to help combat scalp acne. While an OTC benzoyl peroxide spot treatment may help in some cases, a more concentrated prescription might be needed in order to penetrate the scalp’s thick skin. What’s more, if you have a particularly painful pimple or cyst on your scalp, your dermatologist may recommend alternatives, such as getting a cortisone shot or draining the fluid.
Tip #2: Try Washing Your Hair Daily
Breakouts on the scalp are caused primarily by hormones, not hygiene. Even if your hairstylist has told you to wash your hair a couple times a week, Dr. Nazarian explains that cleansing your hair every day can help manage acne. “There’s something to be said about not washing your scalp enough and having acne because when you leave oil on the scalp, you’re leaving sebum on the scalp and occluding a lot of those glands, which can lead to acne.” If you’re concerned about drying out your scalp, Dr. Nazarian says not to worry. “The scalp is one of the oiliest places on the body; it's not going to dry out.” That said, your hair follicles can. It’s important to focus your shampoo on the scalp and then follow up with a conditioner to keep your hair hydrated.
Tip #3: Pick Shampoos That Treat Scalp Acne
If you suffer from scalp acne, try to steer clear of occlusive hair gels or pomades that can block oil glands and lead to breakouts. Instead, look for shampoos and conditioners formulated with either salicylic or glycolic acid to help slough away dead surface skin cells and exfoliate the scalp area. We recommend the Redken Extreme Hair Strengthening Shampoo, which contains salicylic acid and is great for targeting acne on the scalp. Other ingredients to look for? Selenium and zinc, which calm and soothe the scalp. We suggest the Vichy Dercos Anti-Dandruff Shampoo. Both products are made by our parent company, L’Oréal.
Tip #4: Be Mindful of Hair Accessories
While you may like to throw on a headband or a baseball cap before heading to the gym, you might want to reconsider. “There’s a type of acne called acne mechanica that happens a lot when people wear hats, headbands or hair ties when they’re working out,” says Dr. Nazarian. “These things can put pressure on or rub on the scalp and trigger acne.”