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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?


  • Trevalfun

    I have used tar shampoo for 24 years, because of my eczema with sever dandruff.
    I’m 40 now and get a regular health check up every year. I am going to cut it down on the usage to 1 or 2 a week instead of 4. The shampoo works wonders for me.. I didn’t realize the health risks.
    Anything that you do to much is a health problem.. I believe.

  • Kay Sellers

    My doctor gave me a script for Fluoclnnonide topically use 0.05% for severe itching of my ear and scalp . Boy does it st the itching!!

  • ssky

    I had severe itching and flaking. I tried every home remedies and dandruff shampoo that’s available and nothing worked! Neutrogena t-gel is god gift from heaven, it brought back my self confidence and no more shame of itchy flaky scalp so far.

  • Ty Ford

    I’ve been using Neutragena tar shampoo or its knockoffs for over 20 years. I use it as a body wash because I have mild Psoriasis. I’m now 70 years old. So far, so good. I did have one small (less than dime sized) “irregular” “age spot” on my right forearm cut off this year, but it was not cancerous.

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