On most people, pimples pop up in the same typical places -- the face, chest and back. Of course, if you walk into any drugstore, you can find a wide variety of products made specifically to treat acne on the face and body. But what do you do when pimples appear somewhere else, like on your scalp?
Pimples form on the scalp more often than most people realize. Since your hair usually hides the occasional scalp zit, you may not know you have one until you bump it with a brush or comb. But when scalp pimples become irritated or numerous, ordinary hair care, like shampooing and blow drying, can become uncomfortable or painful. And, just like with zits on the face, picking at zits on your scalp can lead to an infection.
While scalp pimples form the same way pimples on the face do, it can be tricky to treat pimples that are under your hair. Some acne products can bleach hair or make it look dirty, and over-treating your scalp can cause it to produce extra oil, leading to greasy hair. In this article, we'll explain how scalp pimples form and what to do to make them go away.
Causes of Scalp Pimples
Scalp acne is less common than acne on the face or back, but it develops in the same way. Skin naturally produces a protective layer of oil known as sebum. Sebum makes its way to the skin's surface through pores, and excess oil, dead skin cells or other substances can clog them. Bacteria multiply in the trapped sebum, forming a pre-pimple, or a microcomedone.
As the microcomedone becomes larger and more visible, it becomes a comedone -- a whitehead or a blackhead. The comedone can become inflamed and red, and it may fill with pus: Then, a zit is born.
So, at its most basic level, any pimple -- including one that pops up on your scalp -- is caused by some sort of blockage in the pore. It's a little harder to pinpoint exactly what causes the blockage. Hormones play a part, as does the quantity of oil your skin produces. People with oily skin seem to be more prone to acne of all types.
Your scalp produces sebum, too, and hair holds that sebum close to the scalp, contributing to the buildup of oil. On top of that, hair products, from conditioners to styling gels, can contain ingredients that can clog pores.
Since throwing out all your hair products probably isn't an option, what can you do to prevent scalp pimples?
Scalp Pimple Treatments
Although hair often hides pimples on the scalp, making them less of a cosmetic problem than face pimples, they can still be a nuisance. At the same time, your hair gets in the way of any kind of topical medication you might ordinarily use to treat acne. So what can you do?
Your first idea might be to break out that old standby, benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide is one of the most widely used acne medications, but it's not recommended for use on the scalp because it can bleach your hair.
A better option is salicylic acid. Often found in dandruff shampoos and other medicated shampoos, salicylic acid helps to exfoliate your skin, so there are fewer dead skin cells on your scalp to clog pores. You can also find salicylic acid in toners, cleansers and creams. To use it on your scalp, dab a small amount onto pimples with a cotton swab or cotton ball [source: Surviving Hairloss, WebMD].
If your acne does not respond to these measures, your doctor may be able to prescribe a stronger topical medication. If you have really stubborn acne, your doctor may prescribe an oral antibiotic or other oral medication [source: WebMD].
Besides over-the-counter and prescription medications, there are several ways that you can fight scalp acne at home. To learn how, get ready to open your cupboards and cabinets and keep reading.
Home Remedies for Scalp Pimples
First of all, if you are prone to scalp acne, you should try to prevent the pimples from forming in the first place. This means removing excess oil on a regular basis and avoiding unnecessary hair products. Choose a gentle shampoo, or use one that contains salicylic acid to help keep your pores clear. Don't use products that are heavy, oily or full of fragrance. Oily products will only add to pore clogging, and fragrances may irritate your scalp if you have sensitive skin, making it more susceptible to breakouts. These measures alone may help reduce or eliminate your scalp pimples [source: Kern].
Another remedy that many people with acne have found helpful is tea tree oil. Tea tree oil is made from the Australian Melaleuca alternifolia tree, and it's used as an antiseptic. You can buy tea tree oil as an ingredient in other products, like shampoos, or in its pure form, and you can use it as a preventive or a spot treatment [source: Sorgen]. However, the medical jury's still out on whether tea tree oil is truly effective at preventing or treating acne [source: National Library of Medicine].
The herb fenugreek has been used in tea to help nursing mothers increase their milk production, and people have used it to treat acne as well. Crush fenugreek leaves, which can be found at a health food or general nutrition store, and mix with water. Then, smooth the paste on your scalp or face, wherever the affected areas tend to be. Leave the paste on for about 10 minutes and then rinse it off with warm water [source: AcneTalks]. Although this probably won't harm you, there's not enough scientific evidence to say for sure whether it will treat or prevent acne [source: NCCAM].
For more information about preventing and treating scalp pimples, visit the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Absolute Acne Info. "Why What you ARE NOT Eating May Cause Acne." (Accessed 10/09/09)http://www.absoluteacneinfo.com/diet/eat.html
- AcneTalks.com. "Blackhead Removal at Home: Some Time Tested Home Remedies for Your Blackheads." (Accessed 10/09/09)http://www.acnetalks.com/pimple/Acne-Treatment/Herbal-Natural/Homemade-Blackhead-Removers.htm
- CareFair.com. "Learning About Scalp Folliculitis." (Accessed 10/09/09)http://www.carefair.com/hair/Learning_about_Scalp_Folliculitis_4178.html
- Kern, Daniel W. "Scalp Acne." Acne.org. (Accessed 10/09/09)http://www.acne.org/scalp-acne.html
- Kern, Daniel W. "What is acne?" Acne.org. (Accessed 10/09/09)http://www.acne.org/whatisacne.html
- Medline Plus. "Tea Tree Oil: Medline Plus Supplements." 8/26/2009 (Accessed 11/11/2009)http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/patient-teatreeoil.html
- MotherNature.com. "Acne: 18 Remedies for Smoother Skin." (Accessed 10/09/09)http://www.mothernature.com/Library/bookshelf/Books/47/2.cfm
- Sorgen, Carol. "Tea Tree Oil Treats Skin Problems." MedicineNet. (Accessed 10/09/09)http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=51985
- Surviving Hairloss. "What is Scalp Acne?" Surviving-Hairloss.com (Accessed 10/09/09)http://www.surviving-hairloss.com/Scalp_Acne.html
- WebMD. "Acne-Medications." (Accessed 10/09/09)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/acne/acne-vulgaris-medications