How to Treat Scalp Pimples
Scalp pimples are just as painful and itchy as a pimple on your face or back, but more difficult to treat because they are covered by your hair. The only advantage to scalp pimples is that they are largely hidden by your hair, but the natural oils from your hair or headwear can worsen your scalp pimples or cause new ones to form. Learning how to treat scalp acne and take preventative measures can help ensure that this pimple location is not a recurring problem.
Applying Topical Products
Use benzoyl peroxide.Benzoyl peroxide is a common ingredient in acne washes and lotions. It works by killing bacteria that may otherwise clog pores to form new pimples. It also helps clear away excess oil and dead skin cells from the affected area. Benzoyl peroxide is usually found in strengths varying between 2.5 percent to 10 percent in over-the-counter products.
- Possible side effects of benzoyl peroxide include bleached hair and clothing if using a product containing too much benzoyl peroxide. Caution should be used when applying this product to your hair or scalp.
- Other side effects include dry skin, redness, a burning sensation, and possible scaling of skin.
Apply salicylic acid.Salicylic acid is one of the most commonly used topical acne ingredients, found in most facial washes and medicated wipes. It helps prevent pores from clogging and can even unclog pores that have already become plugged, shrinking existing pimples on the scalp or elsewhere on the body.It is usually found between 0.5 percent and five percent strengths in most over-the-counter topicals.
- Possible side effects include skin irritation and a mild stinging sensation.
Use an alpha hydroxy acid.There are two types of alpha hydroxy acids: glycolic acid and lactic acid. Both forms of alpha hydroxy acids are often used in over-the-counter acne treatments, as they can help clear away dead skin cells and reduce inflammation. Some studies suggest that alpha hydroxy acids can also promote new, smoother skin growth.
Try sulfur.Some people with acne find that sulfur is a useful treatment option. It can help clear away dead skin cells and excess oil from the body, and is usually combined with other topical over-the-counter ingredients when found in a skin wash or medicated topical.
- Be aware that some products containing sulfur may have an unpleasant smell.
Using Prescription-Strength Products
Apply retinoids.Retinoids are a type of topical medication derived from vitamin A. Retinoids prevent the plugging of hair follicles to reduce the occurrence of acne.
- Use products containing retinoids in the evenings. Start with applying it three times each week, and work your way up to daily use as your skin becomes accustomed to the medication.
Try Dapsone.Dapsone (Aczone) is an antibiotic combined with anti-inflammatory medication. This gel helps treat acne by killing bacteria and keeping the pores in your skin clean and unclogged.It is often combined with a topical retinoid to maximize the effectiveness of both medications. Possible side effects include dry skin and redness/irritation.
Use topical antibiotics.For more severe acne cases, antibiotics may be necessary to help treat current outbreaks and prevent future ones. Antibiotics are often used with benzoyl peroxide to reduce the chances of developing antibiotic-resistant bacteria on your skin, and may be combined with retinoids for maximum effectiveness.
- Common antibiotics combinations prescribed to treat acne include clindamycin with benzoyl peroxide (Benzaclin, Duac) and erythromycin with benzoyl peroxide (Benzamycin).
Take oral antibiotics.Oral antibiotics may be prescribed for more moderate to severe acne to reduce the prevalence of bacteria in the body that may lead to acne. Antibiotics can also help reduce inflammation caused by acne. The most common oral antibiotics prescribed to treat acne are tetracyclines, including minocycline and doxycycline.
Try combined oral contraceptives.Some women and adolescent girls with frequent acne outbreaks find that a combined oral contraceptive helps treat acne. These medications combine estrogen and progestin to deliver both contraceptive medicine and acne protection.
- Three combined oral contraceptives are currently available in the United States: Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Estrostep, and Yaz.
- Common side effects include headaches, tender breasts, nausea, weight gain, and periodic breakthrough bleeding, though some people experience more serious side effects like an increased risk of blood clots.Talk to your doctor to determine if a combined oral contraceptive might be right for you.
Ask about anti-androgen agents.Anti-androgen agents like spironolactone (Aldactone) may be prescribed to women and adolescent girls who have not had success with oral antibiotics. This class of medications works by preventing androgen hormones from affecting the sebaceous glands in the skin.
- Common side effects include breast tenderness, painful periods, and the possible retention of potassium within the body.
Preventing Scalp Pimples
Use shampoo daily.Some people only wash their hair every few days, but if you suffer from frequent outbreaks of scalp pimples, that may not be enough. Instead, try to shampoo your hair every day. This may help reduce the amount of oils in your hair, which can reduce the chances of having a pimple outbreak along the scalp.
- You may even want to use a clarifying shampoo or alternate a clarifying shampoo with your regular shampoo. Pimples on the scalp are often caused by a buildup of hair products, dead skin cells, and oils, and a clarifying shampoo will be more effective at removing these.
- Try avoiding conditioner to see if that improves your scalp as well. Conditioners help moisturize hair, which may cause too much oil/grease to be trapped against the scalp.
Avoid known irritants.If you find yourself experiencing frequent scalp pimples and you wash your hair on a daily basis, the problem may be stemming from something you put into your hair. Try to avoid using hairstyling products and see if that clears up your scalp. Once you've identified the cause, you can try experimenting with different types of hairstyling products to see if the ingredients in those products are compatible with your skin.
- Try using products that are water-based, or look for products labeled as noncomedogenic, meaning they're less likely to clog your pores and cause an acne outbreak.
- Avoid putting hair products too close to the hairline. It's okay to use hair gel or pomade, for example, but try to apply it only to the main strands of hair without letting it touch the scalp or hairline.
Let your scalp breathe.Some people prone to scalp pimples who wear baseball caps or sports gear (like a helmet) have an increased prevalence of heat/friction/pressure acne, sometimes called acne mechanica. If you believe that wearing a hat or helmet might be causing your scalp acne, try letting your scalp breathe more often. Or, if you must wear protective covering on your head, make sure you wear an absorbent headband or hair cover underneath your helmet.
- Showering immediately after removing your hat/helmet and using shampoo may also reduce the incidence of scalp pimples.
Brush/comb your hair daily.Brushing or combing your hair helps remove dead skin cells and breaks apart hair strands that have been joined by your scalp's natural oils. This can help prevent acne by both removing the skin cells that may have clogged your pores and separating the strands of hair that may have otherwise held oils trapped against your scalp.
Consider cutting your hair.If you're prone to scalp pimples, cutting your hair to a more manageable length and thickness may help reduce outbreaks. Having shorter and/or thinner hair can help decrease how much hair is holding oil, dirt, and bacteria against your pores.
QuestionWhat if it's not pimples on my head but bumps instead?
Family Nurse PractitionerFamily Nurse PractitionerExpert AnswerDandruff could be a reason you have bumps. Make sure to wash your hair properly and regularly.Thanks!
QuestionWhat causes scalp pimples on someone who is over 70?
Family Nurse PractitionerFamily Nurse PractitionerExpert AnswerDry skin, hormonal imbalance, and poor hygiene can contribute to scalp pimples in people in their 70s.Thanks!
QuestionIs benzoyl peroxide is applied to your face or head?
Family Nurse PractitionerFamily Nurse PractitionerExpert AnswerBenzoyl peroxide is used to treat both types of pimples on your face and head.Thanks!
QuestionIs it true that hair dyes aggravate these pimples and that only non-chemical henna should be used?
Family Nurse PractitionerFamily Nurse PractitionerExpert AnswerYes, hair dyes can aggravate scalp pimples in some people and henna can be better for hair coloring then regular hair dyes.Thanks!
QuestionCan I use hair oil when the acne is present on my scalp?
Family Nurse PractitionerFamily Nurse PractitionerExpert AnswerI would recommend against using hair oil while you have scalp pimples. The oil encourages the pimples to grow.Thanks!
QuestionCan it spread to someone else?
Family Nurse PractitionerFamily Nurse PractitionerExpert AnswerNo, they won't spread to anyone else. Scalp pimples are not contagious.Thanks!
QuestionIs fine hair more likely to be ingrown?
Family Nurse PractitionerFamily Nurse PractitionerExpert AnswerNo, not necessarily. Both fine hair and thick hair follicles can become ingrown.Thanks!
- You must not ingest salicylic acid; it is meant for topical application only. It is also very important to keep this medicine away from children. Salicylic acid it is strictly forbidden to use on a child with flu symptoms, due to the fact that it can lead to Reye's syndrome, which may be potentially fatal for the child.
Sources and Citations
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