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Scalp acne is often the result of the same factors contributing to acne. Excess oil can trap dead skin cells in your hair follicles. As skin cells stick together, they form soft plugs that clog your pores and, in turn, cause the walls of follicles to bulge, leading to pimples. While medications can improve acne on your scalp, your hair likely makes application a challenge. Plus, most topical preparations contain benzoyl peroxide, which eventually bleaches your hair. Fortunately, a number of shampoos can be used to improve this condition. The same, however, can’t be said for most conditioners.
To manage scalp acne, try reducing the amount of oil on your scalp by shampooing with a cleanser formulated for oily hair. Oily hair can increase the amount of oil on your scalp, setting the stage for clogged pores. You may also see an improvement with anti-dandruff shampoos, which tend to contain zinc. Zinc helps control breakouts by promoting better wound healing and reducing inflammation, explains Brent Bauer, M.D., an internist writing for MayoClinic.com. Bauer also suggests using products made with tea tree oil.
Conditioners, on the other hand, aren’t as beneficial for acne as shampoos. In fact, many conditioners can make matters worse. Conditioners often contain humectants — additives that help the hair and scalp retain moisture. This may sound like a good thing, but humectants are sometimes oil-based, so they can aggravate acne of the scalp. Consider skipping your conditioner for a couple of weeks to see if your breakouts improve. If you must use a conditioner, stick with those containing zinc or even tea tree oil.
Besides changing shampoos and cutting out conditioners, other self-care measures may also improve scalp acne. Washing your hair more frequently can sometimes help. This is especially true if you work out. Don’t just wash your face and body, but also shampoo your hair to get out any of the sweat and oil left on your scalp after exercise. You may also see improvement by applying a light layer of salicylic acid to the active lesions.
If you don’t see an improvement with self-care measures, the papules on your scalp may be an indication of folliculitis. While this skin condition often forms along the hairline, it may also radiate farther into your scalp. Like acne, it can develop from a blockage in the hair follicle. This blockage, however, can become infected with the Staphylococcus bacterium — or staph. The bacteria cause inflammation of the skin surrounding the affected follicles, leading to papules. Treatment often involves a combination of antibiotics and antifungal agents.