Scalp Acne Is a Common Condition That Isn't Talked About — Here's What You Should Know

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Acne exists in many forms, and while breakouts on or near your face are typically the focus when it comes to discussing treatment options, acne can show up on virtually any area of the body — including your scalp.

If you've ever experienced greasy or oily roots, you probably know that sebum on the scalp works the same way as sebum on your face. That means the pores on your head can also have product buildup, bacteria, dirt, and oil, resulting in pimples. Understanding where your scalp acne is coming from and how to treat it can be confusing, so if you've come across a few bumps on your scalp and don't know what to do, we're here to help.

We spoke to a dermatologist about a few things you should know about scalp acne, including what causes it, how to treat it, and how to prevent it.

What Causes Scalp Acne?

Scalp acne is very much like acne you might get on your face or anywhere else. "Just like acne on other parts of the body, scalp acne can occur when the pores get clogged by sebum (the skin's natural oil) and dead skin cells," dermatologist and SEEN Hair Care founder Iris Rubin, MD, tells POPSUGAR. "Residue from your hair-care products can also clog pores."

This type of acne can also be the product of stress, which can increase cortisol levels and result in more sebum being produced from the scalp or face. As Dr. Rubin notes, bumps on the scalp can also be caused by folliculitis, which is when the hair follicles become inflamed because of potential infection. If your acne persists, you should probably see a dermatologist to rule folliculitis out. "This may look like scalp acne, though is important to treat, as there can be associated infection," Dr. Rubin says.

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What's the Best Way to Treat Scalp Acne?

You can treat scalp acne with products that contain similar ingredients as traditional acne products. Dr. Rubin recommends using medicated shampoo with salicylic acid if possible, although you can also treat it with dandruff or skin-friendly shampoos like the SEEN Fragrance Free Shampoo ($29) and the Neutrogena T/Gel Extra Strength Therapeutic Shampoo ($11).

"Avoid applying products with excess oil, and make sure to wash your scalp regularly," Dr. Rubin advises. "Also, make sure your hair products are noncomedogenic (won't clog pores). It turns out hair-care products can leave a residue or an invisible film on your scalp, which has the potential to clog pores and cause acne or breakouts."

How Does Scalp-Acne Shampoo Work?

While scalp-acne cases may differ from person to person, there is once ingredient hailed for its effectiveness in treating acne: salicylic acid.

"Salicylic acid is an active ingredient that can be naturally derived from willowbark tree," Anita Sun, a medical aesthetician and founder of Dermovia, tells POPSUGAR. "It is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) and is a gentle exfoliating ingredient that is also anti-inflammatory and antibacterial."

Because of these properties, shampoos with salicylic acid are great for combating scalp acne. "Salicylic acid is very beneficial for turning over dull skin to reveal brighter skin. It's effective in exfoliating away surface dead skin cells, and its sloughing benefit helps to reduce acne and prevent bacteria from spreading," Sun says. "BHAs are oil-soluble, so they can penetrate deeper into the skin to loosen and unclog oil sebum from pores."

How Often Should You Exfoliate Your Scalp?

There is a fine line to walk when it comes to exfoliating your scalp — you don't want to over-exfoliate and cause your scalp to produce more oils, resulting in more scalp acne. According to, you shouldn't exfoliate your scalp more than one or two times per week. If you follow your normal scalp-exfoliating routine and find that your scalp acne persists, it's better to see a dermatologist than to ramp up your at-home exfoliation efforts.

How Can I Prevent Scalp Acne?

If you have breakout-prone skin, you can get ahead of scalp acne by washing your hair regularly and ensuring that you're keeping your hair and scalp free of any buildup of excess product and oil.

"Consider using a salicylic-acid shampoo periodically for prevention, if you are prone to scalp acne," Dr. Rubin says. "Use noncomedogenic hair products that won't clog pores and promote a healthy scalp."