How to Get Rid of Scalp Acne

August 4, 2021

Scalp acne on man's head

Acne of any kind can be painful, irritating, and unsightly, and that includes scalp acne. If you want to determine how to get rid of scalp acne, Dr. Carla Gustovich of U.S. Dermatology Partners in Plano, Texas, is here to help. According to Dr. Gustovich, “Acne on the scalp isn’t as common as facial acne or acne that develops on other areas like bacne, but it can be really painful and more complicated to treat than the other common forms of acne. However, by partnering with a dermatologist for proper care and prevention steps, patients can keep their scalp healthy.”

What is Scalp Acne?

Scalp acne, like other forms of acne, occurs when pores or hair follicles in the scalp become clogged. While acne pimples can develop on any part of the scalp, these bumps most commonly occur along the hairline. Without proper care, scalp acne can develop very deep into the hair follicles, which can be painful and more difficult to treat. According to Dr. Gustovich, “If you notice scalp acne, you should take steps to treat this condition as soon as possible. In the early stages, scalp acne can be treated using simple, over-the-counter products, but in the more severe stages, you’ll need to work with a dermatologist to receive more advanced treatment.”

Diagnosing Scalp Acne & Recognizing Symptoms

If you have facial or body acne, you will probably recognize scalp acne right away. However, some other conditions look and feel very similar. Some of the other scalp conditions that may be misidentified as acne include:

  • Scalp psoriasis – Psoriasis causes red, thickened patches of skin to develop. When psoriasis develops on the scalp, the thickened, red, painful bumps of skin may be mistaken for acne, especially since the hair can make it difficult to see clearly.
  • Atopic dermatitis – Also called eczema, this condition causes the skin to redden, become irritated, dry out, be inflamed, or feel itchy. Because the hair conceals much of the skin, this condition may be mistaken for acne.
  • Seborrheic dermatitis – Occurring frequently in infants (cradle cap), this condition causes large, greasy skin flakes and redness that is commonly misdiagnosed as dandruff or a symptom of skin acne.

Like acne on other parts of the body, there are different kinds of scalp acne pimples that each look and feel a little different. If you’re dealing with a scalp acne breakout, you may have a variety of different types of pimples that develop around the hairline or under the hair, including:

  • Whiteheads – Also called closed comedones, whiteheads are what most people think of as pimples. This type of pimple is closed over, creating a white or skin-colored bump with clogged pores below.
  • Blackheads – Also called open comedones, blackheads are clogged pores that are open to the air which causes the melanin in the skin cells to oxidize, creating dark coloring.
  • Papules – This type of moderately severe acne develops when whiteheads and blackheads damage surrounding tissue, leading to swelling and inflammation. The papule doesn’t have a “head” or lead to an enlargement of the pores. A single large, inflamed papule or a cluster of small papules may develop.
  • Pustules – These usually look like larger and more inflamed whiteheads or like blisters with a pink or red-colored base.
  • Nodules – This type of acne develops deep within the skin’s layers, causing hard, inflamed lumps that can be extremely tender or painful to the touch. Like papules, nodules occur when the tissue surrounding the pimple is damaged. Unlike papules that damage tissue on the surface of the skin, nodules cause damage to tissues in the deeper layers of skin. Nodules also have an increased risk of causing scarring and dark spots on your scalp.
  • Cysts – These may also develop deep within the skin’s layers, but unlike nodules, cysts are soft and fluid-filled lumps. They can be very painful, and in most cases, cysts need to be treated professionally by a dermatologist.

What Causes Scalp Acne?

According to Dr. Gustovich, “The main cause of scalp acne, and all forms of acne, is clogged pores. The reasons pores become clogged are highly variable. By knowing the underlying causes of scalp acne, patients can change their behaviors to prevent or at least minimize further breakouts. As part of a dermatology visit for scalp acne, your dermatologist will want to discuss the possible underlying causes of scalp acne, so you can avoid these in the future.”

Acne occurs when dead skin cells, excess oil, and naturally occurring bacteria on the skin become trapped in the pores, causing an inflamed lump or pimple. In addition to dead skin cells, sebum (oil), and naturally-occurring bacteria on the skin, fungus, staphylococcus bacteria, and other bacteria, viruses, or yeasts can get trapped beneath the skin as well as hair care products, leading to more severe or painful breakouts.

Some risk factors that contribute to scalp acne breakouts include:

  • Not washing your hair frequently enough, especially after working out
  • Wearing hats, hair bands, or other headgear for an extended period causing friction and trapping sweat and oil against the skin
  • Untreated dandruff can make it more likely for pores to be clogged
  • Lifestyle factors like travel and stress are also linked to acne breakouts due to the increased levels of cortisol in the body, which causes increased production of oil

How Do You Get Rid of Scalp Acne?

Dr. Gustovich says, “Without proper care, scalp acne can lead to numerous concerns like infections, scarring, and even hair loss, so it’s important to work with your dermatologist to create a treatment plan during a scalp acne breakout. The best method for getting rid of scalp acne will depend on the severity. In the case of a mild breakout, using over-the-counter shampoos or topical treatments is typically effective. For more severe cases or acne breakouts that don’t clear up with over-the-counter treatments, it’s time to visit your dermatologist for professional treatment.”

For mild scalp acne breakouts, your dermatologist will likely recommend using a medicated scalp shampoo or treatment to start removing any excess oil and clearing up the scalp acne breakout. Shampoos and topical treatments for scalp acne typically include active ingredients like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, antifungals such as ketoconazole or ciclopirox, benzoyl peroxide, or tea tree oil. It’s usually recommended you utilize these medicated shampoos or treatments once a day during an active scalp acne breakout and periodically to prevent future breakouts.

In the case of more severe scalp acne breakouts, your dermatologist may recommend any number of more advanced, in-office procedures or prescription-strength treatments, including:

  • Topical antibiotics
  • Topical steroids
  • Oral antibiotics
  • Light therapy
  • Isotretinoin or other treatments for severe acne
  • Pimple extractions

It’s important to work with a dermatologist to develop your treatment plan to ensure you’re using effective solutions. Additionally, it’s essential to avoid using multiple treatments at the same time (unless expressly told to do so by your dermatologist). This allows us to determine exactly what products are effective. Most importantly, Dr. Gustovich says, “Remember not to pick pimples on your scalp! It increases the risk for infection and scarring, and it will definitely lead to more inflammation and discomfort.”

How Do You Prevent Scalp Acne?

Your first line of defense to treat scalp acne is visiting with a dermatologist to create an ongoing skincare plan. Your preventive scalp acne haircare routine may include:

  • Take steps to avoid any products or behaviors that may have triggered past breakouts.
  • Choose hair care products that are less likely to cause clogged pores by leaving behind residue. Look for products that are listed as noncomedogenic or talk to your dermatologist about the best products to use for scalp acne.
  • Wash your hair daily, and also make sure to wash your hair soon after working out or sweating.
  • Exfoliate the scalp once a week, using chemical exfoliants like salicylic or glycolic acid, to remove dry skin and minimize your risk for clogged pores.
  • Make sure you receive adequate levels of vitamin A, D, and E either through your diet or via supplements. These vitamins are essential for healthy skin and hair.
  • Avoid picking or popping any current acne spots on your scalp.

Visit U.S. Dermatology Partners

If you need help managing scalp acne or any other skin condition, the U.S. Dermatology Partners are here to help. To get started, you can complete our online scheduling request form. Once we receive your request, one of our knowledgeable team members will be in touch to finalize the details of your dermatology appointment.

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