Coal tar has been used for centuries to address various skin conditions, and it's especially effective in hair care products as a soothing agent for symptoms of psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, and dandruff. However, the best coal tar shampoos will be fast-acting and able to effectively treat both itchy and flaky skin. Bonus points if it has an endorsement of the National Psoriasis Foundation (NPF) on the label and/or comes highly recommended by a dermatologist.
To get more information about how shampoos with coal tar work (and get her favorite picks), I reached out to Dr. Ava Shamban, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist. "Coal tar has anti-inflammatory and anti-itch properties, so as it slows down the growth of cells, it eliminates discomfort from inflammation and itching," she explains to Bustle, adding that coal tar can also help shed the skin and slow down the production of flakes, be it from dandruff or from psoriasis-induced scales caused by plaque buildup.
Though it's been clinically proven as an effective ingredient for scalp irritation from conditions like psoriasis, there are two minor drawbacks to consider. The first is that has a fairly strong, pungent smell, which may be a bit off-putting at first, but should fade as you rinse. So if you have a particularly sensitive nose, you may prefer a fragrance-free shampoo or even one with menthol, which can help cover up the medicinal odor, and, according to Dr. Shamban, is also great to further help with itch relief.
The other thing to keep in mind is that coal tar can temporarily stain skin, light-colored hair, or clothing, so be sure to follow your shampoo's directions regarding maximum leave-in time and then thoroughly rinse it out. Those with color-treated hair may also want to go for a sulfate-free formula to avoid stripping your color or exacerbating dryness.
To get you started on your path to a soothed scalp, you'll find a list of the best coal tar shampoos on Amazon below. And if you find that want something even stronger than an over-the-counter option, remember to consult with your dermatologist first.
1. The Overall Best Coal Tar Shampoo
Coal Tar Concentration: 0.5%
This Neutrogena T/Gel shampoo gets the approval of the National Psoriasis Foundation, Dr. Shamban, and thousands of Amazon shoppers (it has earned a five-star rating from more than 6,700 users). The effective formula is intended to be nonirritating and safe for people with psoriasis, plus it's gentle enough to be used every day and starts to work after just one use. If there’s one downside, it’s that there is a distinct medicinal smell, however, with so much positive feedback surrounding this shampoo, it’s worth it for the results.
One success story: "As with most dandruff/medicated shampoos the smell is not pleasant. BUT this 100% cured my scalp psoriasis. I've been struggling to keep it under control for a few years, even what the dermatologist prescribed for me was no longer working. This got rid of my psoriasis that was covering my entire scalp in 2 uses. So thankful for this product, I can't recommend it enough!"
2. The Most Concentrated Treatment
Coal Tar Concentration: 5%
With the highest concentration of coal tar on this list, this Psoriatrax shampoo is potent, but according to the brand, it can help get rid of symptoms of psoriasis after only a few uses. For best results, the instructions suggest two to three washes until your symptoms start to disappear. Following that, your scalp should remain free of plaque and residue for at least a few weeks until you might need to reach for it again, so consider this more of a treatment than a daily shampoo. With such a powerful and effective formula, it's a popular choice on Amazon, with more than 1,000 glowing ratings.
One success story: "I've battled moderate to severe scalp psoriasis for years, nothing has worked until this. After a horrible flair up, I took a chance and bought this shampoo. With one use, I had relief - within a week - I was 100% cleared up. It's been 3 months and haven't had a flair up. I consider this a miracle in a bottle."
3. The Best Sulfate-Free Shampoo For Color-Treated Hair
Coal Tar concentration: 3%
Though a sulfate-free shampoo can work well for any hair type, it's especially important to avoid sulfates if you have color-treated hair because they can cause your color to fade faster. This Scalp 18 shampoo from ArtNaturals is also paraben- and phthalate-free, and while it does have a strong concentration of coal tar, it's still gentle enough to use as a daily therapeutic cleanser. Thanks to nourishing ingredients like argan oil and jojoba oil, the formula will help keep hair soft and smooth while it works to combat dry and itchy scalp symptoms. Take note that it does have a distinct smell, but several users reported that it dissipates as soon as you rinse it out.
One success story: "This stuff is absolutely incredible! I've struggled with seborrheic dermatitis throughout my adolescence and early adulthood, and it's been a huge challenge finding a daily shampoo that manages the 'hot spots' as I call them. This shampoo really helps clear up current 'flare-ups' and does a GREAT job preventing them."
4. The Best Fragrance-Free Shampoo
Coal Tar concentration: 0.5%
Dr. Shamban calls this DHS shampoo "excellent," and given coal tar's pungent reputation, its biggest selling point is that it's fragrance-free. It's also fast-acting, with some users reporting noticeable results after just one use. "I get these outbreaks of painful infected hair follicles on my scalp. After just two or three days of using this they dry up," one Amazon reviewer shared. Of all the picks on this list, this one has the highest price for its size, however, a little bit goes a long way — the formula has a thinner, more watery consistency so you only need a little bit to get it to work up into a lather.
One success story: "I noticed a difference the first wash. I’m an African American woman with 4c hair & it’s hard finding ways to reduce my scalp psoriasis other than apple cider vinegar. This literally kept my psoriasis gone for almost 2 full weeks and it usually reappeared within 4 days! That’s a big difference & relief for myself. It also don’t make my hair feel stripped like other shampoo does, it felt like my hair was already conditioned."
5. The Best With Menthol
Coal Tar concentration: 1.8 %
The addition of menthol in this Denorex shampoo makes it a worthwhile option for those who may be looking for additional anti-itch properties. Plus, the invigorating menthol scent also helps counterbalance any noticeable coal tar smell. Because it's formulated as a shampoo and conditioner in one, you're basically getting two products here — and its conditioning properties help prevent it from drying out your hair. Another recommendation from Dr. Shamban, it's been highly rated by more than 350 Amazon customers with one of them calling it "the best dandruff shampoo ever made." To see the best results, you'll want to use it at least twice a week.
One success story: "This has helped my psoriasis on my scalp more than I ever hoped. I was worried it would dry my curls out too much and I would be left with unmanageable frizz. Instead of a frizzy mess, my curls were left hydrated and I now have 'good hair days' everyday! The scale has decreased dramatically, the itchiness has completely subsided, and spots are decreasing slowly in size."
Dr. Ava Shamban, M.D., board-certified dermatologist
Zeichner J. A. (2010). Use of Topical Coal Tar Foam for the Treatment of Psoriasis in Difficult-to-treat Areas. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 3(9), 37–40. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2945847/