Medically reviewed by Aimee Paik, MD
Written by Apostrophe Team
Last updated 7/5/2022
All forms of acne are annoying wherever they pop up, but there’s something particularly bothersome about scalp acne.
From whiteheads around your hairline to cystic acne on the top and sides of your head, you may not be able to clearly see scalp acne, but chances are, you can feel it - and it sucks.
Wondering what causes scalp acne? Want to know how to get rid of it as quickly as possible? We got you.
Acne, known formally as acne vulgaris, is a chronic inflammatory skin condition that occurs when dead skin cells have blocked your pores or hair follicles and sebum has been trapped beneath the surface of the skin. This, in turn, makes bacteria grow and causes inflammation.
If you’re dealing with any kind of acne, you should know you aren’t alone. In fact, it’s the most common skin disorder in the U.S.
Though it’s most common on your face, it can also show up on your neck, shoulders, back and chest. Some people even notice acne on their scalp. Basically, anywhere on your body where you have pores that can become clogged with sebum, dirt, and dead skin cells, you can get acne.
Super duper fun.
Sometimes, acne on the scalp can be confused for folliculitis, which is a skin condition that appears pretty similarly to acne. The two even share some of the same causes and treatments.
Folliculitis occurs when you damage your hair follicles. Things that can do that include:
✋ Touching or rubbing your skin frequently
🪒 Shaving (including your legs or head)
🧢 Wearing tight clothes and accessories (from jeans to a close-fitting hat)
But when it comes to scalp acne, hair care products are a common cause - especially ones that are oil-based. Acne caused by products tends to present as whiteheads and tiny flesh-colored bumps.
You’d probably be surprised by just how many products actually contain oil, too. And since the residue from these products can cling to things like your hats, pillowcases, and more, many of these products are perfect recipes for disaster.
Treating scalp acne is similar to treating acne anywhere else.
Oral antibiotics are a favorite among dermatology professionals because this type of prescription medication can work for both acne and folliculitis. Tetracycline and minocycline are two types of antibiotics often used, but there are plenty of others, too.
As mentioned above, you should also stay away from hair care products that have oil in them. So, be sure to scan the ingredient list while shopping and look for something labeled non-comedogenic or non-acnegenic.
While dealing with scalp acne, it’s also a good idea to keep your pillowcases clean and avoid wearing a hat (to let your scalp breathe).
A board-certified dermatologist will best be able to assess your scalp acne and determine the best course of treatment. It’s possible you may be prescribed topical treatments like tretinoin or other acne medications like spironolactone.
Scalp acne may be annoying, but it is something you can address. While dealing with the issue, you’ll want to treat your scalp gently. Avoid things that hug your scalp (like headbands and hats) and use hair care products that are oil-free.
But don't stop there - we recommend checking in with a dermatologist to get professional treatment. They’ll be able to check out your scalp acne and determine if it’s actually acne or if it’s scalp folliculitis (both of which stem from the hair follicle).
From there, they’ll work with you to figure out how to treat the acne and help you make your way back to a healthy scalp. It’s possible they’ll suggest over-the-counter products (like benzoyl peroxide), but they may also recommend prescription medication, too.
Either way, they’ll know best.
While we don’t treat scalp acne here at Apostrophe, we have amazing treatments for facial acne, body breakouts, hyperpigmentation, and more. Starting a virtual consultation with a board-certified dermatologist with Apostrophe is easy and convenient.
Titus, S., Hodge, J., (2012). Diagnosis and Treatment of Acne. American Family Physician. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/afp/2012/1015/p734.html
Acne. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/acne
Are Your Haircare Products Causing Breakouts? American Academy of Dermatology. Retrieved from https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/acne/causes/hair-products
Sharquie, K., Noaimi, A., Mijthab, Z., (2012). Chronic Scalp Folliculitis versus Acne Vulgaris. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dermatology Research. Retrieved from https://www.longdom.org/open-access/chronic-scalp-folliculitis-versus-acne-vulgaris-observational-case-series-study-2155-9554.1000153.pdf
Acne-Like Breakouts Could Be Folliculitis. American Academy of Dermatology. Retrieved from https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/a-z/folliculitis
Acne (2012). Retrieved from https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/acne
Makrantonaki, E, Ganceviciene, Zouboulis, C (2011, Jan-March). An update on the role of the sebaceous gland in the pathogenesis of acne. Dermato Endocrinology. 3(1), 41-49. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3051853/
Folliculitis. American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. Retrieved from https://www.aocd.org/page/Folliculitis
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