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The Best Shampoos for Scalp Acne According to Dermatologists

Photo by Mystockimages/Getty Images

Anyone who’s ever dealt with acne knows that it can show itself in surprising ways. Just when you think you’ve got your forehead, nose, and chin area under control, you start to notice acne popping up on your scalp or at the base of your neck. 

“Scalp acne is no different than acne on other parts of the body,” explains Jeanette Graf, MD, dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. “Scalp acne can actually be more common. The scalp produces more oil than other body parts and can have more product buildup and dry skin buildup from conditions like seborrheic dermatitis.” 

If you experience this issue, don’t worry! There are tons of products on the market that can help get your scalp acne under control. Here are just a few you should reach for, according to experts. 

About the Experts: 

Paul Nassif, MD, is a plastic surgeon and the founder of NASSIFMD SKINCARE.
Jeannette Graf, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mt Sinai School of Medicine.

1. Best Shampoo With Tea Tree Oil:

RAW SUGAR The Scalp Restore Shampoo

RAW SUGAR The Scalp Restore Shampoo
Courtesy of RAW SUGAR

According to Paul Nassif, MD, plastic surgeon and founder of NassifMD Skincare, “You can use a combination of scalp exfoliant and/or shampoos with AHA’s to help remove the dead skin cells and unclog the hair follicles.” He notes that shampoos with tea tree oil are effective and there are a number of derm-office treatments you can do as well, like Restorsea or a HydraFacial Keravive scalp treatment.

RAW SUGAR’S The Scalp Restore shampoo contains tea tree oil and activated charcoal to remove buildup, impurities, and anything clogging the scalp causing acne to occur.

2. Best Sea Salt Shampoo for Scalp Acne:

NASSIFMD SKINCARE Purifying Scalp Detox Exfoliant Scrub

NASSIFMD SKINCARE Purifying Scalp Detox Exfoliant Scrub

Other ingredients Dr. Nassif likes to see in scalp shampoos for acne? Sea salt. “Sea salt is great because it doesn’t dry out the skin, but provides that physical scrub to help unclog hair follicles while also removing the top layer of skin cells,” says Dr. Nassif. “It’s good to pair a physical exfoliant with a chemical exfoliant like Regenine, which is a fruit acid complex that works similarly to an AHA exfoliant but without drying or stripping the skin of its natural oils or disrupting the microbiome.”

This scrub exfoliates the scalp while also cleansing hair. Plus, you can use it once per week or as needed to stop breakouts in their tracks.

3. Best Shampoo for Scalp Acne and Dandruff:

ORIBE Serene Scalp Anti-Dandruff Shampoo

ORIBE Serene Scalp Anti-Dandruff Shampoo
Courtesy of ORIBE

“This shampoo includes salicylic acid because it’s designed to treat dandruff, but this is also effective for treating scalp acne,” says Dr. Graf. “It’s able to break down the excess oil and product that builds up on the scalp over time.”

According to Dr. Graf, washing hair regularly is the key to treating scalp acne. “Some shampoos formulated with salicylic acid can help to clear scalp acne by dissolving oil and dead skin buildup in the pores on the scalp,” she says. “If you’re using a shampoo with an active ingredient like salicylic acid, I don’t recommend using it daily. But if you wash your hair every few days, you can use it each time.”

4. Best No-Frills Shampoo for Scalp Acne:

SULFUR 8 Medicated Deep Cleaning Shampoo

SULFUR 8 Medicated Deep Cleaning Shampoo
Courtesy of SULFUR 8

“Salicylic acid, cortisone, and sulfur can all be found in scalp acne shampoos,” says Dr. Graf. This no-frills option is only $12 for a large size bottle and Dr. Graf recommends it to remove dead skin buildup on the scalp.

5. Best Shampoo for Oily Scalps:

DAVINES Rebalancing Cleansing Treatment

DAVINES Rebalancing Cleansing Treatment
Courtesy of DAVINES

This scalp treatment directly combats overproduction of sebum which is what clogs pores in the scalp and causes breakouts. Unlike other sebum regulating treatments, this one won’t have a rebound effect where your scalp goes into oil overproduction mode when you stop using it.

“This product also includes products like peppermint oil and ginger that work to purify the scalp and counter the overproduction of oil on the scalp,” says Dr. Graf.

6. Best Scalp-Acne Shampoo for Fine Hair:

THE ORDINARY’s Sulphate 4% Cleanser for Body and Hair

THE ORDINARY’s Sulphate 4% Cleanser for Body and Hair
Courtesy of THE ORDINARY

Another affordable shampoo option that includes sulfur is THE ORDINARY’s Sulphate 4% Cleanser for Body and Hair. It’s safe on colored hair and it effectively and gently cleanses the scalp of oil and dirt to reveal a healthier scalp.

7. Best Scalp-Acne Shampoo for Sensitive Scalps:

THE INKEY LIST Salicylic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Scrub

THE INKEY LIST Salicylic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Scrub
Courtesy of THE INKEY LIST

Sometimes if you have scalp acne you need a pre-cleanse treatment, and that’s where this scrub from THE INKEY LIST comes in. It contains 2% salicylic acid, which is the derm-approved ingredient to combat scalp acne. It gently exfoliates and reduces excess oil at the same time. It also includes 2.5% Fluidipure 8G, which helps to reduce the scalp’s redness and irritation that comes with clogged pores and over production of oil. Finally, since this treatment includes panthenol, hair will feel and look hydrated and moisturized after using.

8. Best Scalp-Acne Shampoo for Dry Scalps:

OUAI Anti Dandruff Shampoo with Salicylic Acid

OUAI Anti Dandruff Shampoo with Salicylic Acid
Courtesy of OUAI

Even though having a dry scalp plus scalp acne seems counter-intuitive, it can happen. Tackle both problems at the same time with this anti-dandruff shampoo from Ouai that contains 2% salicylic acid.

Dr. Nassif says that your nutrition can also play a big role in scalp health, including scalp acne breakouts. “Specifically eating foods that are anti-inflammatory to support the gut microbiome which in turn impacts scalp health,” he says. “Some ingredients that you should incorporate in your diet include Zinc, Vitamin E (almonds, peanuts, spinach), Omega-3 fats (wild salmon, anchovies), and Niacin (chicken, tomato sauce, turkey).”

9. Best AHA/BHA Treatment for Scalp Acne:

VERB Ghost Exfoliating Scalp Nectar

VERB Ghost Exfoliating Scalp Nectar
Courtesy of VERB

Both derms suggest AHA/BHA treatments for scalp acne to help remove dead skin cells that clog pores. This treatment that you leave in for 10 minutes before washing out, also contains biotin to help hair look lustrous, and become stronger over time. We love a product that tackles more than one issue!

10. Best Drugstore Shampoo for Scalp Acne:

NEUTROGENA T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo for Scalp Buildup

NEUTROGENA T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo for Scalp Buildup
Courtesy of NEUTROGENA

You can’t go wrong with NEUTROGENA’S T/Sal formula that actually contains 3% salicylic acid (the highest percentage we’ve seen!) to help treat clogged pores, scalp psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, dandruff, and more. Many people say they notice the difference after just one use and the under $8 bottle is a risk-free trial.

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About the author
Brittany Leitner
Brittany is an award winning beauty, health, and lifestyle writer and author of the poetry book "23 Emotions." She has eight years of experience writing for brands like Elite Daily, The. Dr. Oz Show, Shape, Stylecaster, Bustle, and more.
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Article Last Updated October 10, 2023 12:00 AM