Psoriasis causes new skin cells to grow too fast, leaving a chronic buildup of dry, itchy, and sometimes painful skin. Prescription medication can treat the condition, but home management also makes a difference.
One aspect of managing psoriasis at home is considering which soaps and shampoos you use. Some may actually help you relieve dryness and itchiness — or at the very least help you avoid making them worse.
However, not all at-home products work in the same way. Here are some types of soap and shampoo to consider, along with expert tips about products that are good for skin with psoriasis.
You may want to try managing your psoriasis symptoms with tar. But there are a few things to know before you speak with your doctor or head to the pharmacy.
Wood tar soaps and coal tar soaps
There are two types of tar: one made from wood and one made from coal. The one from coal is the kind people most commonly use to help reduce psoriasis symptoms.
You can get shampoo or soap with tar already in it, or you can get a solution that you add to your soap or shampoo.
Tar also comes in different concentrations. In lower concentrations, you can get it without a doctor’s prescription. In higher concentrations, you’ll need a prescription.
Your doctor may prescribe it by itself or as part of a treatment plan with other medications or therapies.
Tar can be effective at relieving the symptoms of itching, scaling, and plaques that psoriasis can cause. It’s a substance you can use to help reduce your symptoms long term.
Some people who use it consistently see symptoms clear away for prolonged periods of time. It can be very effective for difficult to manage psoriasis, especially on the scalp.
In lower concentrations, often when it’s an additive in soaps or shampoos, you may find that it’s cheaper to get it over the counter (OTC) than the cost of prescribed medication.
Even though products containing tar usually indicate how much tar they contain on the label, this doesn’t always accurately reflect how well the product may help reduce your symptoms.
Studies have found that some products containing only 1 percent coal tar extract are more effective than other products containing 5 percent coal tar extract. So, when you buy a random product with tar, you risk not getting the best results.
That’s why it’s a good idea to ask a doctor for specific product recommendations, even if you plan to purchase OTC.
In addition, there are some safety considerations before using tar:
- If you’re pregnant or nursing, you should avoid it.
- If you’re more sensitive to ultraviolet (UV) light, you should avoid it. Even if you’re not, you should limit your time outdoors for 24 hours after using it, as it increases your sun sensitivity.
- There’s some evidence that, in extremely high doses, tar may cause cancer. Usually, this involves people who are exposed to tar in industrial settings. There’s no evidence that OTC products with low tar concentrations are carcinogenic. But if you’re worried, a regular skin cancer checkup may help ease your mind.
- If you use tar on your scalp, it may make your hair brittle and dry.
Stop use immediately and tell your doctor if you experience:
- worsening of your psoriasis symptoms
- extreme burning
These can be signs of allergic reaction.
When you exfoliate your skin, you peel away the top layer. This helps your skin heal and rejuvenate faster.
In the case of psoriasis, one common agent that can help you do this is soap or shampoo that contains salicylic acid. You can find many types OTC.
Salicylic acid is a keratolytic, which means it helps the outer layer of your skin shed. It’s a common way to help manage psoriasis symptoms, but it can come with some side effects.
Like coal tar, it can cause some skin irritation. It can also weaken your hair and lead to some hair loss. Talk with your doctor first to make sure it’s right for you.
Colloidal oatmeal, which is just finely ground oats, is a common ingredient in many skin care products.
People use oatmeal to protect their skin and relieve symptoms of different skin conditions. Research shows that oatmeal can be effective because of its anti-inflammatory properties.
You can buy oatmeal soap or shampoo in a pharmacy, which has added oatmeal as an ingredient. You can also get colloidal oatmeal powder and add it to your bath.
This may be a good natural alternative if you cannot use other products to help manage your symptoms.
Although dry skin by itself does not cause psoriasis, experts generally agree that those who have psoriasis should steer clear of products that can dry out or irritate skin.
“Anything gentle and moisturizing is best, and it’s important to moisturize as soon as possible after bathing,” says Dr. Robin Evans, a dermatologist in Stamford, Connecticut.
The American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD) recommends the following soap brands:
If you have the option, you may want to use cleansers instead. Good choices include:
- Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser
- CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser
- Aquanil Cleanser
Other gentle cleansing agents to consider include:
- sodium laureth sulfate
- sodium lauroyl glycinate
- soybean oil
- sunflower seed oil
“All of these would help cleanse psoriatic skin with little risk of over-drying,” says Dr. Daniel Friedmann, a dermatologist at Westlake Dermatology in Austin, Texas.
Soaps and lotions that help manage psoriasis symptoms may contain similar ingredients, such as colloidal oatmeal or salicylic acid. Some lotions may contain topical steroids, like hydrocortisone, which also help reduce inflammation.
Try to follow these tips when using soaps, shampoos, or lotions for psoriasis:
- Limit your showers to 5 minutes and baths to 15 minutes.
- Moisturize within 5 minutes of your shower or bath.
- Try to stick to products intended for psoriasis or products that do not contain ingredients that may make your symptoms worse.
- Avoid washcloths or loofahs, and dry off gently.
One thing to consider: If you want to use lotions, especially after bathing, you may want to use a cream or ointment instead.
According to the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, lotions may be less effective at keeping your skin moisturized than creams or ointments. In fact, ointments contain the most lipids, which help form a protective layer around your skin to retain moisture.
Ask your doctor if a lotion, cream, or ointment is right for you.
Dr. Jessica Kaffenberger, a dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, notes that unmanaged psoriasis can lead to systemic inflammation and potentially increase the risk of developing other conditions, such as:
- high blood pressure
- liver disease
“Scalp psoriasis may lead to persistent itching and scalp sensitivity, which may interfere with normal activities,” Friedmann adds.
So, the earlier you begin to manage symptoms consistently, the better. Speaking with your dermatologist regularly for the most up-to-date product recommendations is a good idea.
Choosing the right soaps and shampoos may be just one part of your symptom management plan, but it can play an important role in easing your psoriasis symptoms.
Ingredients to look for
The ingredients in your psoriasis management products are going to depend on the type of psoriasis you have and your symptoms. Before you make a selection, you may want to talk with your doctor.
In addition to the ingredients we already discussed, you can also look for soaps or shampoos with the following:
- Lactic acid, urea, and phenol. These ingredients also help remove scales on the skin.
- Anti-itch ingredients. These ingredients, like calamine, hydrocortisone, camphor, diphenhydramine hydrochloride (HCl), benzocaine, and menthol, can help with itching. However, they may dry out and irritate skin.
- Aloe vera, jojoba, zinc pyrithione, and capsaicin. These ingredients help moisturize and soothe skin. However, it’s important to test them on a small patch of skin and stop using them if you experience irritation.
- Epsom and Dead Sea salts. Add these to your bath to help remove scales and reduce itch.
When it comes to scalp psoriasis that includes dandruff, you can look for salicylic acid as well as “sulfur or zinc ingredients to help with the flaking and itching,” says Dr. Kelly M. Cordoro, a member of the Society of Pediatric Dermatology.
Anti-dandruff shampoos, like Head & Shoulders or Selsun Blue, can also work well, adds Dr. Kaffenberger.
She also recommends medicated shampoos, such as:
- ketoconazole shampoo
- ciclopirox shampoo
- steroid shampoos, like clobetasol shampoo
The National Psoriasis Foundation recommends the following shampoo brands to help ease the discomfort of psoriasis on the scalp:
- MG217 Medicated Conditioning Shampoo, Coal Tar Formula
- Active ingredient: 3 percent coal tar
- Neutrogena T/Gel Therapeutic Shampoo, Stubborn Itch
- Active ingredient: 0.5 percent coal tar
- Dermarest Psoriasis Medicated Shampoo + Conditioner
- Active ingredient: 3 percent salicylic acid
More National Psoriasis Foundation Seal of Recognition products are available on psoriasis.org.
Ingredients to avoid
Many ingredients in soaps and shampoos assist with the spa-like enjoyment of cleansing the body, but there are some that might not be great for people who have psoriasis.
You may want to avoid products with fragrances or dyes, as these can irritate the skin or even cause allergic reaction.
The Annex III of the European Union Cosmetics Directive listed the 26 most common cosmetic fragrance additive allergens for your reference.
Alcohol is also an ingredient that can inflame the skin, Kaffenberger adds.
Alcohol can often be listed on a label as:
- lauryl alcohol
- myristyl alcohol
- cetearyl alcohol
- cetyl alcohol
- behenyl alcohol
You may want to avoid products that contain preservatives, like:
- butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
A key part of managing your psoriasis successfully is understanding which products work best for your symptoms. This includes the type of soap and shampoo you use, as well as the type of moisturizing lotion or ointment.
With so many prescription and OTC options available, and so many ingredients, you may find it hard to know what to choose. Organizations, like the American Academy of Dermatology or the National Psoriasis Foundation, can provide resources.