Up until recently, I thought the occasional (albeit massive) zit that popped up on my jawline once a month was the most frustrating thing about my skin. Then, pretty much out of nowhere, my hormonal breakouts got a little competition: I started getting tiny, painful zits on my mother-effing scalp (I’m talking hairline, temples, nape of the neck—the works).
So, like any self-proclaimed skincare obsessive, I immediately went to Reddit’s famous subReddits /rSkinCareAddiction (basically the internet skin bible) and /rHaircareScience (the go-to for research-based hair tips) to decide if I was incredibly unlucky or actually dealing with something fairly common. To my sweet, sweet relief, I found that I was by no means alone in my scalp acne discovery (exhibits A, a user with breakouts and dry patches, and B, another user with painful bumps). Once I found my broken-out brethren and realized I wasn’t alone, I chatted with trichologist Dominic Burg, chief scientist at Evolis Professional, to figure out why exactly I was breaking out and how to get rid of the zits ASAP.
What is scalp acne?
First, let’s remember that your skin is actually quite similar, regardless of where it is on your body. “You really have to think about the skin on your scalp as an extension of the skin on your face,” says Burg. “Acne production on the head is very similar to that on the face in that it can be driven by hormones, genetics, and clogged pores.”
If your scalp acne is hormonal or genetic, you’ll need to work with a dermatologist to figure out the best treatment plan for your skin (which can involve medicated shampoos, isotretinoin, or a dozen other prescription or over-the-counter products). But if your breakouts are stemming from clogged pores, you’re kinda in luck, ’cause that means they’re relatively easy to treat.
Think about it this way: If you go to sleep without washing off your makeup, you’re letting dead skin cells, oil, and excess product sit on your face, which is why you’ll likely wake up with a zit (or three). Similarly, if you coat your hair in heavy products like dry shampoo or hairspray and you don’t rinse your scalp, you’re basically opening the front door for acne. Sensing a theme here? The skin on your scalp = the skin on your face, and you gotta treat it (somewhat) the same.
Wait—so my hair products are causing acne?
They definitely could be. As Burg explains, there are lots of factors that can cause acne (including hormones, genetics, and diet), but it’s a good idea to rule out product buildup first. “If you’re keeping products on your scalp without giving it a good rinse, it can certainly drive acne to some extent,” says Burg.
Don’t worry: That doesn’t mean you need to skip out on dry shampoo altogether—but if you’ve noticed zits and breakouts on your scalp, try rinsing out your product every other day with a good-quality cleanser (more on that later) and a shampoo brush (using your nails can irritate your scalp and lead to oils and breakouts, so keep it gentle—yet effective—with a nubby shampoo brush). And while you’re at it, make sure you scoop up a gentle, scalp-friendly dry shampoo to keep on hand between washes:
Does scalp acne cause hair loss?
According to Burg, there isn’t a definitive relationship between scalp acne and hair loss, but you aren’t wrong to be concerned. The main culprits in early onset hair loss are stress, extreme dieting, hormonal changes, and genetics (read: not scalp acne), but inflammation of the scalp isn’t great for the health of your hair.
“If you have a lot of acne around the temple area, excess inflammation will certainly change the way your hair follicles grow and may contribute to premature thinning,” Burg says. And on a similar note, the way you treat your scalp acne can definitely affect hair growth, which brings me to…
So, uh, can I pop zits on my scalp?
Nope—and plz, plz don’t. Even though popping and picking your scalp zits feels so right in the moment (it’s pretty much the definition of #OddlySatisfying), you’ll actually do way more harm than good. “Picking acne on your scalp can cause infections and scarring, which can lead to even bigger problems, like hair loss,” says Burg. “Always go to a dermatologist before you attempt anything yourself.”
What is the best shampoo for scalp acne?
The great news about scalp acne is that it’s relatively easy to treat (unless you’ve got a severe case, which might require medication from a dermatologist, but still, not a huge deal). Unlike the mysterious beast that is hormonal cystic acne on your face, the bumps, zits, and redness on your scalp can significantly decrease by—wait for it—washing your hair. “The main way to clear scalp acne is just to make sure that you’re cleansing really well,” says Burg. “You’ll want to use a good-quality, sulfate-free shampoo that’s formulated with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory ingredients, like rosemary, lavender, or salicylic acid.”
How often you wash your hair is totally up to you, but if you’re dealing with zits and excess oil, cleansing your hair every two to three days (and, like, especially after the gym) is a solid idea. As for the scrubbing, Burg recommends gently (but thoroughly!) exfoliating your scalp with your fingertips. “Don’t scrub so hard that you pull out any hair, but use enough pressure that you can get rid of excess oil and product buildup,” he adds. Again, that’s where a trusty shampoo brush comes in hand.
Not sure your shampoo is up to the task? Shop one of my personal favorites—all of which are spiked with anti-inflammatory ingredients—and show your acne who’s boss:
The Final Word
If you’re breaking out on your scalp, there’s no need to panic: First, take a quick inventory and figure out what’s causing it. Step one? Try regularly cleansing and scrubbing your scalp with a gentle, sulfate-free shampoo to minimize product buildup and excess oil. If you don’t notice any change in your scalp acne after three weeks, book an appointment with your dermatologist, who can prescribe you a tailored treatment plan or medication.