Scalp Pimples and Acne

Pimples on your scalp are breakouts of whiteheads or pustules on the skin of your head where your hair grows. Scalp acne is a condition that causes pimples. These pimples can be itchy and painful. Treatment could include changing your hair care routine or the products you use or taking medicine to help the acne go away.


What are pimples on my scalp?

Pimples on your scalp, or scalp acne, occur when you have breakouts on your scalp or hairline. These breakouts are the result of clogged pores or hair follicles. Scalp acne can be itchy or painful.

What is the difference between a pimple and scalp acne?

While acne causes pimples on your skin, there are differences between acne and pimples. Pimples are small growths or bumps on your skin. These could be a different color from your normal skin tone, fluid-filled or inflamed. You can have an occasional breakout of pimples without having acne. Acne is a condition. It can be long term and chronic or short term after effective treatment. Pimples are a symptom of acne.


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How common is scalp acne?

While acne is common on your face, chest and back, pimples on your scalp aren’t as common. Acne affects nearly 80% of people between the ages of 11 and 30. Scalp acne isn’t limited to a certain age group and are more common among adults.

Who is at risk of getting pimples on their scalp?

You might be more at risk of developing scalp acne if:

  • You wear hats, helmets or headgear frequently.
  • You use haircare products made with oil.
  • You work with greasy products throughout the day, like around a kitchen fryer.


Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of scalp acne?

Symptoms of scalp acne include:

  • Pimples on your scalp or hairline.
  • Pus-filled bumps with a white top (whiteheads).
  • Inflamed or swollen bumps (acne papules).
  • Pus-filled cysts deep within your skin (acne cysts).
  • Pain, soreness or itchiness.
  • Pimples appear in a small group or cluster.

Your symptoms of scalp acne can be mild, moderate or severe. If you have severe scalp acne, you may experience hair loss or scabbing around the pimples.

What causes pimples on my scalp (scalp acne)?

Clogged hair follicles cause pimples on your scalp (scalp acne). Your hair follicles are the canals where your hair grows out of your skin. They could be clogged due to:

  • A buildup of hair products like shampoo, hair gel or hairspray.
  • Fungus or microorganisms like bacteria, yeast or mites.
  • Sweat, oil or dead skin cells.
  • Too much or too little sebum (an oily substance that protects the surface of your skin).

Additional causes of pimples on your scalp include:

Are pimples on my scalp a sign of another condition?

Pimples on your scalp or scalp acne could be a symptom of an underlying condition, including:

Your healthcare provider will help you determine the cause of the pimples on your scalp to treat them.


Diagnosis and Tests

How is scalp acne diagnosed?

A healthcare provider will diagnose scalp acne after a physical exam to look at your symptoms. They may ask questions to learn more about your medical history and risk factors like whether or not acne runs in your family history, your stress level and if you’re menstruating. They might also ask questions about the skin care products you use.

If you have a sudden eruption of scalp acne, your healthcare provider might offer additional blood tests to rule out conditions that could cause your acne.

Management and Treatment

How do I get rid of scalp acne?

Treatment for scalp acne varies based on what causes your hair follicles to clog.

You can treat pimples on your scalp at home if your symptoms are mild by:

  • Not using hair care products that contain oil, leave a residue in your hair or are greasy.
  • Washing your hair more often, especially after you sweat.
  • Not wearing headbands or tight-fitting hats. Choose helmets with ventilation that are properly fitted to your head.

If you have persistent, moderate or severe scalp acne, treatment could include taking or using:

  • Topical or oral antibiotics to clear bacteria from your hair follicles.
  • Topical steroids to treat folliculitis.
  • Oral isotretinoin to treat long-term scalp acne.
  • Oral antihistamines to reduce symptoms of itchiness.

You can rub topical medications on your skin in the same way you’d rub lotion on your skin. You can take oral medications by mouth according to your provider’s instructions. Talk to your healthcare provider about the side effects of each medication before starting it. Also, tell your provider about the supplements and medications you currently take to avoid drug interactions.

What types of shampoo should I use for scalp acne?

Types of haircare products, soaps or shampoos that help get rid of pimples on your scalp include:

Can I pop pimples on my scalp?

You shouldn’t pop pimples on your scalp. It can be tempting to pop pimples on your body, but popping pimples can make your symptoms worse by causing more pimples, scarring or infection. Instead, use good hygiene and oil-free shampoos, along with the treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider to make your pimples go away.

How soon after treatment will I feel better?

After you and your healthcare provider determine what caused scalp acne and you begin treatment, it could take up to six weeks before all of your pimples clear up. You could see improvement in your scalp a few days after you begin treatment or stop using hair care products that cause acne, like less itchiness and the lack of new pimples forming on your skin. If you don’t see your acne clear up after six weeks, contact your healthcare provider.


How can I prevent scalp acne?

You can reduce your risk of developing pimples on your scalp by:

  • Washing your hair daily or when it becomes greasy, especially after you exercise or sweat.
  • Using hair care products that are oil-free, noncomedogenic and non-acnegenic.
  • Regularly washing headwear like hats or pillowcases that could hold residue from products that touch your hair.
  • Managing your stress.
  • Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have scalp acne?

Pimples on your scalp can be a temporary irritation or a long-term condition depending on the cause. Your healthcare provider will help you determine the cause and treatment to help your scalp acne go away. Though sometimes difficult, try not to scratch the pimples on your scalp. This can cause them to erupt, leak fluid or bleed. This can result in pain, and scarring and could lead to an infection. After treatment begins, it can take up to six weeks for your skin to clear up.

Living With

When should I see my healthcare provider?

Contact your healthcare provider if:

  • Your acne or pimples get worse.
  • Your skin doesn’t improve after six weeks.
  • You experience severe pain or swelling.
  • You have a fever.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

  • Are there side effects to the treatment?
  • What type of shampoo do you recommend?
  • What do I do if my acne comes back?
  • Did an underlying condition cause my scalp acne?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Pimples on your scalp can be a challenge to your skin care routine. Determining the cause of your scalp acne involves a lot of trial and error to see if the products you’re using are clogging your pores or if there’s an underlying cause of your symptoms. If you have mild acne, it could help to keep a daily skin care log to track the products you use and how your skin reacts to them, then avoid using products that cause pimples to form on your skin. Your healthcare provider will help you manage your scalp acne so you can feel more confident and comfortable.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 10/30/2022.

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