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Scalp Pimples: What Causes Scalp Acne & What To Do About It

May 15, 2020

We've heard of bad skin days; we've heard of bad hair days. How about bad scalp days? Getting zits on your scalp and hairline seems to be the most annoying crossover of hair and skin issues. But, as we've waxed poetic many times over, your scalp is simply an extension of your face. Of course you can get breakouts there. 

If you do get scalp acne, are there special precautions you must take in order to treat and prevent them? Turns out, the answer is both. 

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What causes scalp acne?

Pimples, unfortunately, can appear almost anywhere—well, any place on the body that you have pores. As a refresher, acne is a complex skin condition triggered by a few different factors, but the most simplistic explanation is this: Your sebaceous glands become clogged with dirt, bacteria, debris, or its own oil. When trapped, this can result in blackheads, whiteheads, pustules (those really inflamed, angry pimples), cysts, and so on. 

And depending where you get your zits, each area may have unique triggers. For the scalp: "Most people experience them closer to the hairline for two reasons: Your face cream or makeup may not get washed off properly and still remain in your hairline. And the hairline is often neglected when shampooing, thus leaving natural hair oil on the scalp," says certified trichologist Shab Reslan


Improve your cleansing habits.

Given that the breakouts may be caused by the simple fact that you're not effectively cleansing the area, the first thing to do is evaluate your cleansing habits. Listen: It's a weird in-between space, and so it is entirely understandable if sometimes you forget to diligently scrub your hairline. It happens to the best of us. Simply consider budding zits a wake-up call to spend a little more time and attention on the area. After a few more diligent washes, ideally the situation should start to subside. 

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Add acne-treating actives.

For more persistent problems, look for all the same acne-targeting all-stars in your shampoos or facial cleansers: AHAs, BHAs, tea tree oil, and calming herbs. If your pimples are more on the skin side than hair side of the hairline, a nice exfoliating face wash will do just fine. While going about your evening face wash, just be sure to work the product into the area—those little hairs will do just fine when exposed to a facial cleanser. But if your zits are deep into the scalp, you may consider upgrading your shampoo to a more treatment-oriented option, like one that contains salicylic acid or witch hazel.  

You can also spot-treat the areas, in the same way you might on the face. Just take your favorite natural acne spot treatment or blackhead remover and dab it on the area. Just, perhaps, avoid thick, rinse-off products (like clay masks) as they will be harder to remove: Getting a dense mask stuck on your scalp may worsen the issue, as it will stick around, causing buildup. 


Don't pick.

You should never pick your zits, hard stop. "Please, do not do any facial surgery," board-certified dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., FAAD, told us about all the beauty rituals best left to professionals

The problem, of course, is that picking leads to acne scars. These scars pose a special problem along the hairline, especially. When you damage a hair follicle, it will weaken regrowth. If the damage is severe enough, it may cause the hair to shed entirely and (gulp) never grow back1. So acne scars in the area could cause an uneven hairline if bad enough. 

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Check your hairstyling products.

If the pimples came on suddenly, they may be a reaction to a new styling product. In the same way that certain skin care and makeup products can be comedogenic, so can hair care. This is especially true if you are applying a product to your root or scalp, like you might a dry shampoo, styling cream, or hairspray. Look for comedogenic ingredients that may be causing the issue, like waxes, mineral oil, and dimethicone.  

If skipping your styling routine is nonnegotiable, just be sure you are properly rinsing out the products regularly. If you don't know how often you should be shampooing, consult our guide to shampooing your hair


Consider a scalp exfoliant. 

For frequent cases of scalp acne, it might be a sign that your scalp isn't getting cleansed properly. "The only way to treat them is to keep your scalp clean. If you're prone to them, I would suggest a scalp cleaner that acts like an exfoliant, like you would exfoliate acne on your face," says Reslan. And, like the face, there are two kinds of scalp exfoliants: chemical and physical. Chemical exfoliants dissolve oil and skin cell buildup with acids and enzymes, while physical exfoliants help manually lift off the grime and dirt. If you need help deciding which one is for you, read our scalp scrub guide and check out our favorites

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The takeaway.

If you're breaking out along the hairline or into the scalp, take a second to think about the culprits. Are you thoroughly washing the area, or could it use more tending to? Do you need to upgrade your shampoo, or even go for a scrub? Regardless, there are plenty of easy fixes for you to try.

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Alexandra Engler
Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty Director

Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.