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Coal Tar Shampoos: the Good, the Bad and the Smelly

Several of our readers have mentioned that they use coal tar shampoo as an over-the-counter (“OTC”) treatment to control their scalp psoriasis, scalp eczema and dandruff. Coal tar is one of the few old-fashioned psoriasis treatments that has stood the test of time. While many people have seen positive results from coal tar shampoos, there is also worry about the long-term side effects and unpleasant scent of coal tar. Are coal tar shampoos for you?

Here are some of the benefits and risks associated with coal tar treatments:

The Good

Coal tar products are regulated by the FDA and are a recognized treatment for psoriasis. According to the National Psoriasis Foundation, “Tar can help slow the rapid growth of skin cells and restore the skin’s appearance. In addition, it can help reduce the inflammation, itching and scaling of psoriasis.” Coal tar shampoo is a keratolytic. It works by slowing bacterial growth and loosening and softening scales and crust. While the concentration of tar varies from product to product, the greater the concentration of tar, the more effective the shampoo.

The Bad

As with most treatments, the use of coal tar does not come without potential risks and side effects. According to the NPF, coal tar may irritate, redden or dry the skin. It also makes the skin more sensitive to sunlight. However, use of sunscreen and avoiding the sun within 24 hours of using coal tar products may help control sun exposure risks.

Moreover, coal tar, in very high concentrations, may cause cancer. However, according to the NPF, “the FDA maintains that OTC products with coal tar concentrations between 0.5 percent and 5 percent are safe and effective for psoriasis, and there is no scientific evidence that the tar in OTC products is carcinogenic.” Nonetheless, if you use coal tar treatments, it is recommended that you receive regular cancer screenings.

The Smelly

Coal tar shampoos are messy and have a strong (and for many, unpleasant) odor. It is recommended that the coal tar shampoo be left on the scalp for 10 minutes before rinsing and can leave a tar smell after it is rinsed away. To minimize the unpleasant odor, we recommend following your coal tar shampoo treatment with a more pleasant smelling, all-natural shampoo or conditioner. Also, be aware that coal tar may stain clothing and sheets.

The Verdict

We have tested several coal tar shampoos (Neutrogena T/Gel is our favorite) and have seen positive results. However, we would not use the coal tar shampoos more than once a week, limit our sun exposure, and mix it up with all-natural shampoos and scalp treatments.

Coal tar shampoos are not right for everyone. If you are interested in trying coal tar shampoos, always consult a doctor prior to use.

So tell us: have you seen positive results from coal tar shampoos?


9 comments

  • sw

    Been treated for 2 years for itching, bumpy rash on my scalp. Antibiotics did not work. Cortisone creams did not work. This week had shots in the scalp with a cortisone medicine, tiny amounts were injected around the sores, it was like a bee sting and hurt for about 20 minutes afterward. But it took the intense itching away. I was given 3 different brands( samples) from the dermatologist of tar shampoo. Tried it this am and the smell was horrible, smelled like fresh tarred road. I followed up with my special shampoo. Must say that i have gotten relief. I have tried vinegar rinses, dabbing with alcohol and cortisone. Think this might be the answer. I will use a tiny amt. of the tar shampoo followed by a regular shampoo.

  • Bob

    It works for me. Solved the problem.

  • Pamela Theobald

    The coal tar shampoo helps a lot,.I am taking phototherapy for psoriasis on my body, which works great,and the coaltar shampoo doesn’t cause me a problem with that.

  • Garry Ross

    Bloody good soap – Only problem none of supermarkets now stock it.

  • MARTHA

    THE Coal tar shampoo will re leave itchy scalp from scalp psoriasis..the Neutrogena t/gel shampoo is great help,used 2x wk.

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