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We Ask a Derm: What Can I Do About These Pimples On My Scalp?

If you, like many of us, are washing your hair a little less frequently than before, you may have noticed some breakouts have popped up along your scalp. Or perhaps it’s something you have always dealt with and haven’t found a way to treat. Fret not, we spoke with Dr. Shari Sperling, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Sperling Dermatology in New Jersey, to figure out what’s going on and what we can do to clear thing up.

First, What Are The Types Of Pimples On A Scalp?

There are a few different things it could be. The first, and most obvious, is a pimple, pustule or bigger cyst—like the ones that form on your face and body—which, if you think about it, makes total sense since your scalp is also made up of skin. (It sounds obvious, but for some reason we tend to forget this and neglect caring for it.)

“Natural oils from your scalp and bacteria can clog your hair follicles, which causes breakouts,” explains Sperling. “Other reasons for bumps on your scalp include fungal infections, ingrown hairs, or skin conditions like alopecia, which can also cause a bumpy scalp.”

What Causes A Pimple To Form On Your Scalp?

Typically, pimples on your scalp form when there's an excess of oils and bacteria that build up and clog your hair follicles, resulting in a bump.

In the case of ingrown hairs, “it’s usually common with short, dark, and curly hair types because the hair curls upon itself and goes back into the skin causing inflammation around the hair follicles,” says Sperling. (Don't worry, we'll get into some preventative measures ahead.)

How do you distinguish between a run-of-the-mill pimple or ingrown and something more serious like skin cancer?

“If something looks suspicious, or rather it feels different since it is hard to see your scalp, it is always best to get it checked out by a board-certified dermatologist for further evaluation to make sure it’s nothing else,” advises Sperling. (Note: Your dermatologist will examine your scalp and screen for skin cancer during your regular skin checkups.) “Usually, folliculitis or scalp acne occurs in several areas of your scalp so if it’s just one solitary lesion, I’d have it looked at to be extra careful,” says Sperling.

How long will pimples take to heal?

Generally, most pimples should clear up within a week or so. If the bump doesn’t flatten after a couple weeks, it may be time to have a dermatologist check on it.

Do you have any tips for prevention?

“The best ways to prevent future breakouts are to wash your hair more regularly and to avoid products that have excessive oils or may cause irritation to your scalp,” warns Sperling.

Certain products contain comedogenic ingredients, meaning they can clog your pores. Some common ingredients that are used in shampoos and conditioners to avoid are sulfates and laureth-4. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, you should also avoid any “hairstyling product that contains a lot of oil, such as a pomade” and instead look for the words “won’t clog pores, oil-free, non-comedogenic or non-acnegenic” on the label.

If you have an ingrown hair on your scalp, try gently washing your hair with a tea tree shampoo (making sure to really massage it in). Tea tree has salicylic acid and antibacterial properties that will gently exfoliate your scalp and prevent the ingrown from getting infected. And avoid brushing the area or wearing any hair accessories or hats that might further irritate it.

Other best practices include:

  • Washing your hair immediately after sweating or working out
  • Being gentler when you shampoo (always use the pads of your fingertips and not your fingernails, which can cause further irritation)
  • Taking extra care to remove makeup (especially along the hairline)
  • Changing your sheets and pillowcases more often

What Are The Best Products To Help Treat Scalp Acne?

As first options, Dr. Sperling recommends trying over-the-counter shampoos with salicylic acid in them. “Sometimes an antifungal shampoo can also help,” she says. “But if you try an OTC product for a few weeks without much relief, that’s when you should see a board-certified dermatologist for a closer look and stronger treatment options.”

Shop some of our go-to clarifying shampoos and treatments below.

1. Neutrogena T/sal Scalp Build-up Control Therapeutic Shampoo

Dr. Sperling (and many other derms we’ve consulted over the years) recommend this shampoo because it contains salicylic acid to help clear pores and break down any build up without the use of any added preservatives or fragrances that could potentially irritate the scalp further. It also helps to quell any itching or clear up any flaking caused by other skin conditions like psoriasis or seborrheic dermatitis.

2. Nizoral Ketoconazole Anti-dandruff Shampoo 1%

Ketoconazole, which is the main ingredient in this shampoo, is an antifungal medication that is most commonly used to treat seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff. It works by reducing any overgrowth of yeast that lives on our scalp and skin. Swap it in place of your regular shampoo twice a week to help clear things up.

3. Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Special Shampoo

Another derm fav? Tea tree oil—and this shampoo is loaded with it. The naturally antiseptic ingredient helps to clear pores and has the added bonus of giving you that nice cooling or tingling sensation on your scalp. Just make sure to take your time massaging it in (and take a few deep inhales of the peppermint and lavender scent while you’re at it).

4. Drunk Elephant T.l.c. Happi Scalp Scrub

ICYMI: The cult favorite skincare brand expanded into haircare earlier this year. A standout in the line? This gentle scalp scrub which features an AHA/BHA acid blend, biodegradable exfoliating beads and marula oil to dissolve dead skin cells and product buildup, while hydrating your scalp. We appreciate that the pointed tip makes for an easier and more even application throughout your hair and that the scrub can be used on your body as well.

5. Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Coconut Oil Micro-exfoliating Scalp Scrub Shampoo

Detoxifying charcoal and hydrating coconut oil work together to remove buildup without drying out the scalp. Add to that a trifecta of peppermint, spearmint and tea tree oils to help soothe any itchiness and irritation, while imparting the most satisfying zing.

6. Cln Healthy Scalp Shampoo

This physician-formulated shampoo features both salicylic acid and sodium hypochlorite to swiftly whisk away any excess oils, dead skin cells and residue from your follicles. (Tip: After lathering up, let the shampoo sit on your scalp for up to five minutes before rinsing for best results.)