Here's Why You're Getting Acne on Your Scalp—and How To Treat It

We asked derms to explain everything you need to know about the irritating (and painful!) condition.

As if dealing with acne on your face and bumps on your body isn't annoying enough, finding pimples on your scalp can be stressful, too. Not only are they an unexpected issue to have to deal with, but scalp acne can be frustrating to treat, considering it's difficult to spot them and you can't use your favorite acne spot treatment in your hair. We asked the experts for their best tips and tricks for spotting, treating, and preventing scalp acne.

What Is Scalp Acne?

Acne on the scalp is similar to acne on the face. "Clogged pores can occur on the scalp and often do, as this area tends to be densely populated with sebaceous or oily glands," explains Blair Murphy-Rose, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "Pimples form on the scalp when a pore is clogged and bacteria is trapped, leading to inflammation."

Scalp acne is usually located on the scalp and back of the head, and manifests as small pimples that are very similar to those that we can find on our face. "Scalp acne is mainly caused by a buildup of product, dead skin cells, and oil that clogs hair follicles," says Dendy Engelman, MD, FACSM, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.


Luckily, there are multiple ways you can treat scalp acne when it surfaces. To treat it, Engelman recommends using a clarifying shampoo at least once a week (she loves Moroccanoil Clarifying Shampoo, $26; to eliminate acne-causing bacterial growth. "I also recommend looking for products with tea tree oil; it can help moisturize your scalp, regulate bacteria, and break down buildup," says Engelman. She recommends Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Tingle & Treat Scalp Indulgence Set ($32;, which features the Regeniplex™ botanical blend. It contains clover flower extract, pea peptides, turmeric, Kakadu plum, and ginseng to stimulate the scalp and protect against breakage.

Both Engelman and Murphy-Rose are fans of using salicylic acid to treat and prevent scalp acne. "Washing hair and scalp frequently will help to prevent acne, and using salicylic acid and antimicrobial can target underlying causes of acne of the scalp," says Murphy-Rose. "Salicylic acid helps to exfoliate the scalp and keep pores clean, while antibacterial ingredients reduce the bacteria load on the scalp."

Other ingredients Murphy-Rose recommends her patients look for when finding products to target scalp acne include activated charcoal to help "detox" the scalp by absorbing excess oils and sebum, as well as products with apple cider vinegar. She loves Better Not Younger New Dawn Activated Charcoal Scalp Cleanser ($35;, which provides a deep cleanse for the scalp with activated charcoal that absorbs oils and helps clear pores, as well as Ouai Detox Shampoo ($30; to help clarify the scalp and remove pore-clogging debris with apple cider vinegar.

If you have severe scalp acne, Engelman recommends using products that contain benzoyl peroxide or going to your dermatologist for an injection of cortisone.

What Shouldn't You Do if You Develop Scalp Acne?

You never want to pick at your scalp acne—it may be tempting, but it will only make the problem worse. "Avoid any products that add too much oil to your scalp/hair (including oily conditioners or sprays) and ingredients that are hard to wash out," says Engleman. "Dimethicone, for example, creates a barrier that can trap bacteria and dead skin cells in pores when not washed out properly."

You also want to let your scalp breathe if you're dealing with scalp acne frequently. "Stay away from tight hats like beanies and baseball caps that trap in heat. When the scalp is constricted, it causes sweat and bacteria to arise, causing acne to worsen and breakouts to occur," explains Engleman.


The best way to prevent scalp acne is to be conscious of your hair care routine. "I recommend keeping it simple—avoid using too many hair products, like gels or hairsprays, that can create buildup on your scalp," suggests Engelman. "Also, remember to wash your hair soon after you exercise to get rid of unwanted dirt or bacteria."

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