Yes, Scalp Acne Is a Thing — Here’s How to Deal With It

Scalp Acne – What Is It And How Should You Treat It?

Yes, Scalp Acne Is a Thing — Here’s How to Deal With It


We hate to break it to you but, yes, scalp acne is a thing. You might not have heard of it, but those little spots you've noticed when running your fingers through your hair? That could be a sign of scalp acne.

Read on to find out exactly what it is, what causes it, and how to deal with it.

What is scalp acne?

In simple terms, scalp acne is spots around the edge or through the thick of your scalp and hair.

Anabel Kingsley, Consultant Trichologist & Brand President at Philip Kingsley tells us 'you have a lot of oil glands on your scalp – there is one at the base of every hair follicle, so it is not unusual for a few spots to form.' However if they are painful or inflamed, it could be something only a doctor or trichologist can help with.

How does scalp acne differ from normal acne?

Lorraine Turvey, a Member of the Institute of Trichologists tells us that, actually, we sometimes forget the scalp is the same skin as the rest of the body.

'We're covered in follicles producing hair' says Turvey, 'which contain sebaceous glands producing sebum and sweat glands.

' You might not notice scalp acne as quickly as often as other spots, due to them hiding under your hair.

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What can cause scalp acne?

A whole host of things, sadly, can be behind the pesky spots on your scalp. One of the main culprits is hormones.

'During hormonal changes, the androgens increase the size of the sebaceous glands' says Lorraine, 'which produces more sebum.' Hormonal changes can be caused by a number of things…

Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, contraception, just simply ageing. The surge in sebum increases the lihood of the pores blocking, and spots forming.

Other factors that can contribute to scalp acne include:

  • Dandruff or seborrhoeic dermatitis (pimples can accompany the skin flaking and oiliness of these issues).
  • A dirty scalp! 'Most people have over 100,000 oil glands present on their scalp' she says, 'so it can become overly greasy if you do not shampoo enough – and this can make your scalp more prone to breaking out.'
  • Stress can raise your cortisol levels, which can in turn promote sebum production. It can also affect your immune system which might have a knock-on effect on your skin.
  • A dairy-heavy diet, for some people, can lead to flaking and itching of the scalp and increase the lihood of pimples forming.
  • Lastly – our personal favourite – you are picking your nose too much. Yes really! The bacteria that lives in there (specifically staphylococcus aureus) is harmless, BUT if transferred to your scalp can cause inflammation and pimples. So keep your fingers your nose and clean people!

Alessandro ZenoImaxtree

Are there any long-term side effects of scalp acne?

Not anything scary, no. However, if you pick the spots it can leave scarring, which will prevent hair growth in that area.

Is there anything you should avoid if you have scalp acne?

If your scalp acne is very severe, consult your doctor who may advise a course of antibiotics. But otherwise, says Lorraine, there's adjustments you can easily make to help. 'Avoid using heavy conditioners and hair products' she tells us, 'and make sure all residue from shampoo and conditioner is properly rinsed out.' Basically, keep everything squeaky clean.

Changes to your diet, eating less fatty foods and drinking plenty of water can help too advises Lorraine, as can making sure anything you're wearing on your head (hats, scarves, etc) are kept clean.

Gregory ScaffidiImaxtree

Anabel Kingsley adds that if your scalp is irritated you should 'avoid scented styling products close to your roots. Also be careful when brushing, as the bristles can scratch and further irritate pimples.' And never, ever pick the spots. 'You can cause an infection, which can lead to scarring' says Kingsley.

What is the best way to treat scalp acne?

Lorraine advises that 'following a good cleansing routine is paramount'. Stick to gentle shampoo (don't be tempted to go for anti-dandruff formulas, which can be strong and chemical filled).

Further to this, Kingsley adds that you can try adding a daily astringent or scalp toner into your regime. 'Look for witch hazel (an astringent), Piroctone Olamime (which is anti-bacterial) and camphor (to soothe).

To treat the cause not the symptom, she advises to manage stress levels (yoga, pilates, mindful or meditation can help), and 'keep a food diary to see if certain foods contribute to your scalp flare-ups.'

And never pick. (Your nose, or your scalp, or definitely both at once).


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Here’s How to Know Whether Your Itchy Scalp Is Actually Eczema

Yes, Scalp Acne Is a Thing — Here’s How to Deal With It

If you have a scalp, it’s going to itch at some point. But if the top of your head is severely itchy, you might actually have eczema on your scalp. Yup, it happens.

Eczema is a condition that can cause flare-ups of a red, scaly, itchy rash to appear on different parts of your body, according to the Mayo Clinic. The most common form of eczema is atopic dermatitis, which generally shows up on areas of your body your hands, feet, ankles, wrists, neck, upper chest, eyelids, elbows, and knees, but it can be anywhere—including under your hair.

You might not think you can have eczema if you’re having issues only with your scalp, but it’s possible.

While it’s ly that having scalp eczema also means that you have it elsewhere, it’s not a requirement. “Sometimes eczema can be seen only on the scalp,” Gary Goldenberg, M.D.

, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, tells SELF.

Translation: If you’re dealing with intense scalp irritation, don’t assume you can combat it on your own—get to a dermatologist as soon as you can.

You would think you couldn’t miss having eczema on your scalp, but people with this condition often mistake it for something else. “Many times, patients just assume it is a consequence they have to live with from their hair products, or that they have a dry scalp,” Cynthia Bailey, M.D., a diplomate of the American Board of Dermatology and founder of Dr. Bailey Skin Care, tells SELF.

Here’s how to tell whether or not eczema is what’s really behind your irritated scalp.

What causes scalp eczema?

Eczema is a term that’s used to describe several different conditions, one of which is atopic dermatitis.

All of these conditions are caused by a disruption in the skin barrier that usually keeps irritants out and hydration in.

But if that barrier isn’t working properly, the skin can become dry, red, irritated, and sensitive to irritants and allergens. That barrier disruption may be driven by a gene variation, the Mayo Clinic says.

There are some triggers that your scalp is especially ly to come in contact with, ingredients in your shampoo, conditioner, and hair styling products. If you brush your hair aggressively, wash your hair too frequently, or heat-style your hair often, those could also aggravate dry skin on your scalp or trigger eczema symptoms.

What are the symptoms of eczema on your scalp?

When your skin’s barrier is unable to function properly, that makes it difficult for the skin to keep moisture in. It also makes the skin more sensitive to potential irritants. So, according to the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of eczema often include:

  • very dry skin
  • patches of reddish or brownish skin
  • intense itching that gets especially bad at night
  • sensitive or swollen skin after scratching
  • flakes on your clothes or shoulders after scratching
  • small bumps that might leak fluid
  • thickened or cracked skin

What’s the difference between scalp eczema and scalp psoriasis?

There are a surprising amount of conditions that can cause an itchy scalp, so it’s important to be sure you know what you’re really dealing with. Seborrheic dermatitis, for example, is a major cause of dandruff and has an entirely different treatment plan than eczema.


4 Bizarre Places You Always Get Zits—and How to Prevent Them

Yes, Scalp Acne Is a Thing — Here’s How to Deal With It


As if a raging red zit isn’t enough to deal with, having one crop up in an unusual place can really throw a curve ball into your routine. But you don’t have to hide away underneath a hat. Find out exactly what causes these annoying breakouts, and learn how to prevent and treat those weird pimples so you can put your best face forward.

Oily Ears Can Lead to Breakouts
“The ears have many sebaceous glands, which makes them a breeding ground for pimples—and when oil from the glands clogs the pores, acne occurs,” says Eric Schweiger, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City.

The best way to prevent bumps is to make sure you’re cleaning your ears out properly, especially after applying any sticky hairstyling products that can leave grime behind.

Use a medicated acne pad containing salicylic acid to wipe the outer and inner parts of the ear, taking care to not go too deep into the ear, says Schweiger.

RELATED: The Right Way to Get Rid of Earwax


Yes, Nostril Acne Is a Thing
Known as intranasal acne, this kind of pimple forms inside the nose when a hair follicle becomes irritated or inflamed, says Schweiger. You can accidentally invite infection into the area by plucking or clipping nose hairs that in turn irritate the follicle and cause an entry point for infection.

Breathing in dirt and dust can also irritate the follicles, but wearing a protective mask over your nose in these kinds of environments can prevent inhalation of particles. Refrain from scratching or shaving inside the nostrils. “To treat nostril acne, use an antibiotic nasal spray or apply a topical antibiotic ointment with a Q-tip,” says Schweiger.

RELATED: Why You Keep Getting a Pimple in the SAME Exact Spot

Scalp Zits Are Actually Very Common
Acne on the scalp forms the same way as acne on your face—by pore blockage. Not only does the scalp produce sebum that can get trapped in pores and cause blockage, but heavy hair products you use, serum and spray, can also clog pores.

Washing hair frequently enough to prevent buildup is the best way to prevent scalp acne, as is staying away from product formulas that contain thick oils. “I recommend Nizoral Anti-Dandruff Shampoo ($14,, which is anti-inflammatory,” says Schweiger, who recommends alternating that with a shampoo containing salicylic acid.

Never use benzoyl peroxide on your scalp since it can bleach your hair color. Yikes!  

RELATED: How to Get Rid of Those Annoying Zits on Your Scalp


And Then There Are Eyebrow Pimples
Heavy eye shadows and brow gels can cause zits to crop up in and around the eyebrow, but that's not the only cause of brow blemishes.

Hair products in bangs that graze the eye area can also cause breakouts, and people who wax or pluck their brows may see pimples result from irritating the hair follicle in that region.

The easiest way to treat eyebrow pimples is with an acne-fighting ingredient that won’t sting or cause irritation around this sensitive area. “Dab on a spot treatment containing tea tree oil or sulfur, and let it sit overnight,” says Schweiger.

Again, avoid using benzoyl peroxide products that can accidently bleach brows. To prevent eyebrow acne, take the time to thoroughly cleanse the area every night as part of your skin-care routine, and keep skin-care products containing heavy oils or petroleums away from the area.

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How to Treat a Pimple on Your Scalp

Yes, Scalp Acne Is a Thing — Here’s How to Deal With It

Acne on the scalp, or scalp folliculitis, is most common along your hairline. This condition can cause small and itchy pimples. Sometimes these pimples also become sore and crusted.

A pimple on your scalp may be:

  • mild, includes blackheads and whiteheads
  • moderate, includes papules and pustules, which appear on the skin’s surface
  • severe, includes nodules and cysts, which are imbedded under the skin

Severe scalp acne (acne necrotica and dissecting cellulitis) can develop blackened crusts and leave permanent scars. Contact your doctor if you are experiencing persistent acne that’s causing hair loss, bald patches, or severe pain.

You can treat a pimple on your scalp with many over-the-counter (OTC) products. But visit your doctor if the pimple lingers or you suspect it might be something else.

Pimples occur when pores, or hair follicles, get clogged. This can occur when dead skin cells, naturally occurring oil that keeps the skin moisturized (sebum), and bacteria enter the pores. The cells cannot exit the pore, which results in acne in a variety of forms. More severe forms of acne contain more bacteria.

The types of organisms that cause this inflammation include:

  • Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes)
  • Staphylococcus epidermidis
  • fungus
  • mites

Reasons for clogged pores may include:

  • product buildup from shampoo or other hair products, such as gel or hairspray
  • not washing hair frequently enough to clean scalp
  • waiting too long to wash your hair after a workout
  • wearing a hat or other headgear or equipment that’s caused friction against your scalp

The key to treating scalp acne is to prevent your pores from clogging. It’s the oil blockage and buildup that causes acne. Keeping your scalp clean is important. But you’ll want to make sure your shampoo or conditioner isn’t causing your scalp acne.

If you suspect your shampoo or conditioner is causing the issue, you may consider trying some new products. For mild and moderate acne try products with ingredients :

  • salicylic acid (Neutrogena T/Sal Shampoo): exfoliates dead skin cells so they do not enter pores and cause acne, but less effective than benzoyl peroxide
  • glycolic acid (Aqua Glycolic): helps with exfoliation and kills micro bacteria
  • ketoconazole or ciclopirox (Nizoral): antifungal agents in antidandruff shampoos
  • tea tree oil (Trader Joe’s Tea Tree Tingle): antibacterial properties may help fight acne
  • jojoba oil (Majestic Pure): may not get rid of acne, but adding to your shampoo may help reduce acne inflammation

Use oil-based products in moderation to avoid clogging your pores.

If you also use hair products waxes, pomades, hair sprays, and clays, you may want to invest in a sulfate-free clarifying shampoo (Ion).

Clarifying shampoos remove dirt, oil, and product buildup from your hair. Avoid using this type of shampoo too often as it can dry out your hair, especially if it’s been dyed or heat-damaged.

Shop for clarifying shampoos.

Medications for scalp

Talk to your doctor if OTC therapies don’t work or if you start experiencing hair loss. You may need a prescription treatment to reduce inflammation. For severe or persistent cases, your doctor may recommend:

  • topical antibiotics or steroid cream
  • oral medications, such as antibiotics or antihistamines
  • isotretinoin, for severe acne
  • light therapy
  • steroid injections
  • physical extractions to clear pores

Do not continue using a product if you suspect you are allergic to it.

If your pimple does not respond to acne treatment or seems it could be something else, contact your doctor.

The affected area may be another condition, such as:

  • skin cancer, such as a basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma
  • a deep infection or abscess
  • seborrheic dermatitis, a common condition that leaves scales, redness, and dandruff
  • a cyst

Read more: Acne treatment types, side effects, and more »

Acne treatments typically take up to four to eight weeks to begin to work. You may also have to keep treating the area to avoid recurrences. Dermatologists recommend using a mild, everyday shampoo if you need to wash your hair frequently. This can be used alongside an instant conditioner. Studies have shown that mild shampoos do not interfere with normal hair growth.

Pimple scars can take up to six months to fade. It’s important not to pick at acne as this could create deeper scarring. It may also spread the bacteria.

As you continue to treat your acne, be sure to be gentle when massaging your scalp. Avoid scrubbing with your fingernails as this can irritate the skin and open wounds.

Determining the cause (such as clogged pores) and making lifestyle changes can help with acne prevention. You’ll also want to look for products that won’t cause too much buildup on your scalp and won’t dry it out. This includes waxes, hair sprays, clays, and other hair products that are free of certain chemicals and additives.

For a list of comedogenic ingredients, visit Comedogenic ingredients are known to clog pores, especially for people with sensitive skin. Popular comedogenic ingredients that you may find in shampoos and conditioners include sulfates and laureth-4.

Reducing scalp irritation may help decrease cases of scalp acne.

Remember to wash your hair after working out, wearing headgear, or other possible activities that caused sweating. Keeping your sleeping area clean, including changing your pillowcases and taking off makeup (to prevent acne along the hairline) may help too.

Diet and scalp acne

One review of diet and acne suggests that what you eat can affect oil production, inflammation, and acne. The American Academy of Dermatology doesn’t recommend focusing on diet as your only treatment.

For an anti-acne diet, try limiting carbohydrate-rich foods and increasing foods with:

  • vitamin A
  • vitamin D
  • omega-3 fatty acids
  • dietary fiber
  • antioxidants
  • zinc

If you note a flare-up after eating a particular food, you may want to consider eliminating it from your diet. Keep a food diary to keep track of what you’re eating and when flare-ups occur.

Read more: The best minerals and vitamins for acne »