Does this situation sound familiar? You get up in the morning and pick up a brush or comb to run through your tangled hair. As you’re brushing, your brush hits your scalp and you feel a sudden twinge of pain. When you touch the area to identify the cause, you discover a small, painful bump
hidden beneath your hair. It feels like a pimple—but can pimples really appear on the scalp?
What is scalp acne?
Scalp acne is similar to acne that occurs on other parts of your body. It’s caused by an accumulation of dead skin cells and sebum (your scalp’s natural oil) that gets trapped inside your pores, or hair follicles.
When your hair follicles get clogged with oils and skin cells, bacteria have a place to thrive, creating a blackhead or whitehead. These pimples can be quite painful, especially for people who have sensitive scalps, and can become red, inflamed and even itchy.
Scalp acne can happen to anyone—just how anyone can get a zit on their face. However, certain things tend to cause it more often. If the hair and scalp get excessively dirty or oily, there’s a greater chance of scalp acne developing. The same is true for a buildup of hair products like hairsprays, gels and mousses.
If you aren’t washing your hair regularly enough or are paying more attention to the strands than your scalp, you might be letting all these things build up, paving the way for a pimple hidden beneath your hair. Additionally, if you have a naturally oily scalp, you may be more prone to scalp acne.
Once you discover a pimple (or multiple) on your scalp, it’s very important to not touch it. Popping pimples might be tempting, but doing so can introduce even more bacteria into the area, potentially creating an infected wound, and can also cause scarring. Too much scarring on your scalp can lead to hair follicle damage and hair loss.
It’s also important to note that scalp acne is not the same thing as a similar condition called scalp folliculitis. Folliculitis occurs when bacteria cause a severe infection in the hair follicles. This condition also creates small red bumps that tend to itch, but you may need medication to alleviate the symptoms, since they are caused by a bacterial infection.
Preventing scalp acne
Since scalp acne is largely caused by skin cell, oil and product buildup, the best line of defense you have against pimples is washing your hair well and often. You need to take good care of your scalp so it continues to function the way it should.
When you shampoo your hair, make sure to massage it into the scalp and thoroughly scrub away old product reside, dirt and oils. Don’t just rinse the hair!
How often you should wash your hair may require trial and error, but make sure you’re washing at least once or twice a week, as well as after every workout (since sweat and oils can accumulate faster). Also, if your scalp is starting to itch and your hair feels heavy and oily, it’s probably time for a wash.
If your scalp is acne-prone, try to stay away from heavy hair products like hairspray, or make sure to wash them out soon after you apply them so they don’t get the opportunity to settle. You also should use a clarifying shampoo every other week to really scrub your scalp clean. Exfoliating shampoos or masks are also useful in removing dead skin cells.
Treating pimples on the scalp
Sometimes, even the people with the cleanest, healthiest scalps develop pimples. When you discover one, follow some of these tips to help it heal quickly.
- Gently wash: Washing your hair gently with shampoo like you normally do can help the pimple drain and heal on its own. Don’t be afraid to wash your hair when dealing with acne, but use a gentle, fragrance-free shampoo if normal shampoo stings.
- Tea tree oil: Tea tree essential oil contains antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that can help dry up and heal acne. Mix it with coconut oil and apply topically to the acne or mix it with your shampoo to give your scalp a scrub.
- Jojoba oil: Jojoba essential oil is a common acne remedy for the face and can be applied to the scalp (when diluted) to reduce inflammation of pimples.
Give your acne time to clear up and always avoid popping or scratching pimples to prevent future problems. With a little extra TLC for the scalp, your acne should be zapped in no time.