Find out why coal tar shampoos are a popular option for treating scalp itching and flakes.

By Renee Cherry
October 04, 2019
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Credit: Arsen Ametov/EyeEm/Getty Images

Coal tar is exactly what it sounds like: a thick, black substance that's a byproduct of making coal. That might not sound like the most promising (or appetizing) cosmetic ingredient, but it's actually super common in anti-dandruff products. If you're dealing with an itchy, flaky scalp, you might want to give coal tar shampoos a chance. (Related: Dandruff vs. Dry Scalp: Is There a Difference?)

What Is Coal Tar Shampoo?

Coal tar shampoos are medicated shampoos intended to prevent skin flakes and itchiness with the help of coal tar. They fall into a category of drugs called keratoplastics, says Gretchen Frieling, M.D., a dermatopathologist (a doctor who practices aesthetic medicine and pathology) in the Boston area. These shampoos help promote normal keratinization, a.k.a. the process of skin cells forming and shedding, she says. Dandruff occurs when this process speeds up, leading to a buildup of flakes and causing itchiness and irritation.

If you can return keratinization to normal, it'll reduce this itchiness, scalp irritation, and flakes. "Coal tar helps reduce itchiness, which is key in stopping continued irritation of the scalp," says Dr. Frieling. "The shampoo slows down the growth of skin cells and also helps shed the dead skin that's bothering the scalp." (Related: How to Combat the Effects of Winter On Your Scalp)

So, yes, it can be a life-saver, but coal tar shampoo isn't perfect. Though rare, some people have allergies to coal tar shampoo. It's also known to cause stains in light hair. Lastly, "long-term use of coal tar shampoo can cause a condition known as tar acne, where hair follicles become inflamed," says Dr. Frieling. (And, yes, it looks like a breakout on your scalp.)

Because of its potential downsides, coal tar shampoo isn't the best treatment for every single person with dandruff, says Dr. Frieling. "Coal tar is just one option," says Dr. Frieling. "The key is determining what causes your dandruff. Coal tar shampoo happens to work for both seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis, but if it's not sustainable because it's causing irritation, your doctor can give you an alternative treatment." Other treatment options include antifungal shampoos (e.g. Nizoral A-D Anti-Dandruff Shampoo) or salicylic acid shampoos (e.g. Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo), which can either require an Rx or be found OTC. The one you should go with largely depends on what's causing your dandruff. (Also worth noting: Some people experience irritation with these as well.)

If you aren't sure of the root of your dandruff (no pun intended), a dermatologist can help you confirm the cause and best treatment route. A doctor can also provide guidance on how often to use the shampoo. "It's generally recommended to use the product twice a week," says Dr. Frieling. "Your doctor may prescribe an additional day or decrease the number of applications based on your skin condition, skin sensitivity, and response to the treatment." (Related: 10 Scalp-Saving Products for Healthier Hair)

Where to Buy Coal Tar Shampoo

Left: Credit: Dermstore
Center: Credit: Amazon
Right: Credit: Amazon

Looking to give coal tar shampoo a try? Some are available by prescription only, but coal tar shampoos that fall between 0.5-5 percent coal tar are approved for over-the-counter use. Here are some of the best OTC options:

  • Neutrogena T/Gel Therapeutic Shampoo is a classic option you'll probably be able to track down on your next drugstore run. (Buy It, $8, walmart.com)
  • Online reviewers note that DHS Tar Gel Shampoo has a less harsh scent than other tar gel shampoos. (Buy It, $15, dermstore.com)
  • Denorex Therapeutic Maximum Itch Relief Dandruff Shampoo Plus Conditioner combines coal tar with menthol for added itch reduction (and a pleasant tingling sensation). It's a conditioning shampoo with moisturizing ingredients like avocado oil and provitamin B5, meaning it'll be less likely to dry out your scalp. (Buy It, $13, amazon.com)
  • If you want to go straight for the strong stuff, try MG217 Psoriasis Medicated Conditioning Shampoo, which has a 3-percent coal tar formula. (Buy It, $10, amazon.com)
  • Solimo Therapeutic Dandruff Shampoo, a coal tar shampoo from Amazon's in-house brand, is just four bucks. Commit to a 6-pack to get an even better deal. (Buy It, $4, amazon.com)