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Scalp psoriasis is a chronic skin condition that causes flaky, itchy, scaly skin on the scalp. Although there’s no cure for scalp psoriasis, specially formulated shampoos may bring some relief.
While many of these products are only available by prescription, there are also some you can buy over the counter (OTC).
We did the research to find seven great options that may help break down scales and reduce itching and flaking.
Since you’re reading this article, chances are you already know what scalp psoriasis is, but here’s a quick overview just in case.
Psoriasis can also appear on other parts of the body, including:
- back of the ears
Like other types of psoriasis, scalp psoriasis causes skin to build up and form scaly patches called plaques.
Mild cases have fine scales, while moderate cases will have thicker scales and more irritation. Severe cases result in large, thick plaques with overlying thick scales.
To create this list, we looked mainly for products that contain salicylic acid and coal tar to target scalp psoriasis. These are two ingredients recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD).
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that’s often used as an exfoliant. It helps soften and break down plaques and scales for easier removal. Removing the plaques should help ease symptoms, like itching, burning, and irritation.
Coal tar is derived from black coal, and, according to the AAD, has been used to treat psoriasis for over 100 years. It helps pump the brakes to make sure the skin cells on your scalp aren’t growing too fast and building up. Still, coal tar can be drying and can stain.
We also included shampoos with other research-backed ingredients, like selenium sulfide.
Finally, we looked at reviews from customers with scalp psoriasis to determine the effectiveness of each one.
- $ = under $10
- $$ = over $10
- Price: $$
- Best for: all hair types
This shampoo uses 3 percent coal tar as the active ingredient. It claims to fight irritation, itchiness, redness, and scaling. It leaves behind a fresh herbal scent — a rare feature, since many coal tar shampoos have a strong smell.
One reviewer says the shampoo is “effective, conditioning, and smells better than the other tar shampoos.”
One important thing to note: Coal tar makes your skin sensitive to sunlight and may increase your chances of sunburn for up to 24 hours after use. Be sure to stay out of the sun, or wear a hat or other sun protection if you do go out.
- Price: $$
- Best for: many hair types, except fine
This medicated shampoo is a gentle yet mighty cleanser used to fight dandruff without chemical irritants.
It contains 2 percent pyrithione zinc, which has antifungal, antibacterial, and antimicrobial properties. That means it can help banish fungus, bacteria, and microorganisms that may contribute to an itchy, flaky scalp.
Reviewers say the product is great for dandruff control, and it relieves itching, irritation, redness, flaking, and scaling — all of which are common symptoms of scalp psoriasis.
The shampoo is reported to be very thick, making it hard to spread. Some reviewers report that it can leave hair looking greasy, so it might not be the best choice for fine hair.
- Price: $
- Best for: all hair types
Head & Shoulders has a variety of dermatologist tested clinical shampoos and conditioners to help with dandruff and itchiness.
The collection includes this shampoo, which contains 1 percent selenium sulfide. Thanks to its antimicrobial properties, selenium sulfide reduces Malassezia yeast growth (one of the culprits behind dandruff) and helps slow cell turnover.
Reviews say the shampoo is “absolutely amazing” and a “great and effective product.” The only downside is the smell, which one customer likens to “lava rock.”
Note: If you have bleached, tinted, gray, or permed hair, Head & Shoulders recommends rinsing for 5 minutes after shampooing, likely because these hair types are prone to weakening.
- Price: $$
- Best for: many hair types, except curly and dry
Neutrogena Therapeutic T/Gel Shampoo contains 0.5 percent coal tar. It’s designed to be gentle on the scalp. Neutrogena claims the shampoo starts working immediately and continues to be effective after it’s rinsed.
Reviewers rave about this shampoo. They say it’s great for targeting a dry, itchy, and flaky scalp, and it seems like a good choice for most hair types. The only reported downside is the smell, a common issue among coal tar shampoos.
Keep in mind that this product contains sodium laureth sulfate, which can be drying. It also contains fragrance.
In addition to finding a specially formulated shampoo, here are a few other things you can do to keep scalp psoriasis symptoms in check:
- Shampoo your hair as often as you can. This will help alleviate buildup and itchiness of the scalp. However, keep in mind that shampooing every day isn’t suitable for all hair types.
- Limit stress, alcohol, and smoking. Along with irritants in your hair products, scalp psoriasis flare-ups can also be triggered by stress, alcohol consumption, and smoking. Limiting stress and intake of these substances may help keep things under control.
- Try aloe vera. Aloe vera gel has anti-inflammatory properties and may be soothing. You can try applying it to your scalp, or look for it as an ingredient in your shampoo.
- Use baking soda. Baking soda is great for an itchy scalp. One tablespoon of baking soda mixed with a cup of water should do the trick. Apply the mixture to your scalp to relieve itching and irritation.
- Apply natural oils. These will help keep your scalp moisturized and are filled with fats to keep the scalp healthy. Coconut oil is a great oil to start with.
Still unsure how to pick the right shampoo for your hair and scalp? Here’s what to consider:
- Severity of your symptoms. If you’re experiencing a mild to medium case of scalp psoriasis, start with an OTC shampoo. If you have a severe case, or if OTC products don’t seem to help, you may need to see your doctor for a prescription shampoo.
- Consider your hair type. Check the ingredients list before you make a purchase, especially if you have dry, curly, color treated, or fine hair. Some shampoos may contain drying ingredients, like sulfates, while others may be too heavy for fine hair.
- Do your research. If you didn’t see a shampoo on this list you want to try, no worries! There are many shampoos out there that will work great for you. Just look for key ingredients, like salicylic acid or coal tar, and be sure to check reviews to see what others with scalp psoriasis have to say about it.
Keep in mind that these products won’t cure scalp psoriasis, but they may help manage flare-ups.
If your condition worsens, it’s best that you check in with your doctor. Some cases of scalp psoriasis are more severe and may require prescription shampoos.
As with any new product, be sure to do a patch test before using a scalp psoriasis shampoo over your whole head. To do a patch test, put some product on the inside of your wrist and wait 24 hours. Keep an eye out for any signs of irritation.
Coal tar might not be safe to use during pregnancy or on infants, so it’s always best to talk with your doctor first.
Using some of these shampoos alone can be drying to your hair because coal tar and salicylic acid strip away oils. Find a good conditioner and make sure that you’re keeping your hair and scalp moisturized.
Kenkoderm, Head & Shoulders, and Vanicream have conditioners that pair with their respective shampoos. As for other shampoos, you can pair them with moisturizing or intensive care conditioners.
There are a variety of products that can help you manage scalp psoriasis flare-ups. Any products that contain salicylic acid and coal tar are great options.
Talk with a doctor or dermatologist if your scalp psoriasis persists or worsens while using these shampoos, or if at-home treatments don’t work.
Morgan Armstead is a senior at Johnson C. Smith University and an intern with Healthline, writing beauty and wellness material.