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We may still not understand all of the 10000+ chemicals present in coal tar, it may have been used since biblical times to treat skin conditions, and it may have recently undergone a cancer scare causing the product to briefly disappear from our shelves, but coal tar remains on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines, is an FDA approved treatment for seb derm and psoriasis and coal tar shampoos are still a much-loved treatment for dandruff caused by both seborrheic dermatitis and scalp psoriasis.
After reviewing 107 (and counting) shampoos (doing literally hundreds of hours of research in the process), and speaking to four board-certified dermatologists, we finally reached a conclusion on what the best coal tar shampoos are on the market today.
The shampoo contains a 0.5% coal tar concentration and uses gentle surfactants in a very minimalist gentle formula. While 0.5% coal tar is way below 5% you’ll see in some shampoos, stronger isn’t necessarily better. In fact, a recent study suggests that a 1% coal tar solution is more effective than a 5% solution when treating mild to moderate psoriasis.
In addition, this is one of the gentlest shampoos we’ve reviewed. The ingredient list is minimal, with only 7 ingredients in total. Two of these ingredients are surfactants; Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine. So while it isn’t sulfate-free, we’re talking two relatively gentle but high performing cleaning agents all the same. The other ingredients are salt, citric acid, and an emulsifier.
Washing with this shampoo is better than most coal tar shampoos. And, while no coal tar shampoo has a particularly pleasant aroma, DHS has done a good job in formulating a coal tar shampoo with a relatively decent(ish) smell.
If you have a sensitive scalp we simply can’t recommend this shampoo highly enough.
An outstanding shampoo formulated by an outstanding company. A 0.5% coal tar formulation in a fragrance-free formula makes this the gentlest coal tar shampoo we've yet reviewed
The Runner Up
Scalp 18 Coal Tar Shampoo ran our winner extremely close and is our second favorite coal tar shampoo.
The manufacturer, Art Naturals, are one of our favorite shampoo manufacturers. This is a company who value quality ingredients and transparency in what they do.
The Scalp 18 Coal Tar shampoo is a stronger formulation than the DHS shampoo, containing a 2% coal tar concentration. It also contains almost 3 times as many ingredients – many of them fragrant essential oils. Unlike DHS, this shampoo is sulfate free, using instead a combination of gentle surfactants. Interestingly the company has added a number of moisturizing ingredients such as Aloe Vera, Panthenol and Argan Oil. Tea Tree Oil gives the shampoo antifungal properties while the addition of Peppermint Oil and Rosemary oil adds scalp cooling and anti-inflammatory properties.
Scalp 18 is a 2% coal tar formulation, and contains fragrant essential oils to offset the unique coal tar aroma. It washes and smells as well as any coal tar shampoo we've tested and is formulated with a unique combination of gentle surfactants and fragrant essential oils.
It's an outstanding shampoo
In Third Place
Salicylic Acid is keratolytic, and will gently soften and exfoliate your skin. It can help increase the penetration of the other ingredients if you have existing build up on the scalp and is another ingredient certified by the FDA to treat psoriasis and seb derm.
Coconut Oil, on the other hand, is a moisturizer that can soothe the scalp.
Combining these three ingredients is a stroke of genius as far as we’re concerned.
It would be a guaranteed gold medal winner of our best coal tar shampoo too, but the company has added two sulfates and coco betaine to the formula.
In spite of this, Capasal is a superb shampoo and if the other two don’t quite work for you, this is definitely the third best coal tar shampoo we’ve reviewed.
Capasal is a combination shampoo, combining coal tar, salicylic acid and coconut oil in a unique highly targetted shampoo for mild to moderate scalp psoriasis sufferers.
It would have likely been a winner if the formula didn't contain so many harsh surfactants, but that aside this is still an outstanding shampoo.
What’s in this article:
The Best Coal Tar Shampoos
Below is a selection of our favorite and best-formulated coal tar shampoos we’ve yet reviewed.
DHS Coal Tar Shampoo is an expertly formulated shampoo containing 0.5% coal tar and is the gentlest coal tar shampoo we’ve yet reviewed
We can't recommend this product or this company highly enough.Read the entire review
Hydrating shampoo formulas don’t come around often making Art Naturals Scalp 18 Coal Tar Shampoo a gem. Best for dry, itchy scalp symptoms. Can be used for mild dandruff. Plant-based, sustainable and cruelty-free – an all-round goodie.Read the entire review
Capasal have taken the unique step of combining 1% Coal Tar with 0.5% Salicylic Acid and added coconut oil.
It's perhaps the most original and interesting shampoo formulation we've yet seen
That aside Capasal is an excellent shampoo for those who suffer mild to moderate scalp psoriasis.Read the entire review
Alphosyl is an outstanding shampoo let down by the presence of both sulfates and parabens.
Given the wide variety of alternatives out there these days, this is very disappointing.Read the entire review
Polytar is an absolute legend of the psoriasis community.
If you suffer from mild scalp Psoriasis then this stuff works for so many of you.
Bear in mind that it stinks like your grandad's pipe and will strip your hair and scalp of their natural oils.Read the entire review
T/Gel is an age old classic for dandruff sufferers containing too many age old classic contact allergens for our liking.Read the entire review
If coal tar helps your psoriasis then MG217 will probably help you out. This benefit may well come with significant side effects though. Especially if you are normally sensitive to soaps or shampoos.
Use with caution.Read the entire review
Psoriatrax Coal Tar Psoriasis Relief shampoo a 5% coal tar solution - the highest concentration deemed safe by the FDA.
Unfortunately, the wash, scent and formulation fall well short of the desired standard. It leaves the hair feeling dry, smelling of tar and 5 of the 12 ingredients are known contact allergens.
For those with sensitive skin, or if you're allergic to any of these ingredients, you will want to look elsewhere for a gentler shampoo.
In fact, unless you really need a 5% coal tar formulation - I would look elsewhere.Read the entire review
Most shampoos aimed at treating seborrheic dermatitis or psoriasis are targeted at mild to moderate cases. Sebcur-T Medicated Shampoo is different. Sebcur-T Medicated Shampoo contains a very helpful concentration of 10% coal tar solution and 4% w/w salicylic acid.
This does come at a cost. Both coal tar and salicylic acid can irritate if used too frequently, and the supporting cast of ingredients (sulfates, parabens, formaldehyde releasers and fragrances) make this tough to recommend to anyone.
There are far gentler alternatives out thereRead the entire review
How we chose the winners
All our reviewers are experts in product formulation, haircare, qualified pharmacists or haircare experts.
They assess the formulation of the shampoo, deconstructing the shampoos to their constituent parts and describe the key ones in detail. In addition, they highlight the presence of any one of over 100 ingredients that can potentially itch, irritate and exasperate your condition.
Unlike most review sites, our reviewers personally try every shampoo they review and they also assess how the shampoo washes, how it smells and look at the price point in their market. These may be medicated shampoos, but that doesn’t mean we want to compromise on a little bit of luxury!
We applied these same principles when choosing our best coal tar shampoo. For example, the winner is one of the gentlest dandruff shampoos we’ve reviewed. It’s not perfect, but compared with the others it washed slightly better and the fact that it was fragrance-free gave it another edge. That’s not to say it’s the best coal tar shampoo for you. For example, Scalp 18 shampoo contains slightly more coal tar but is fragrance heavy. They’re both outstanding shampoos, so we eventually chose the gentlest formulation.
Coal Tar Shampoos
What is a coal tar shampoo?
A coal tar shampoo is a shampoo with up to 5% coal tar added as an active ingredient. It’s is a much loved, much-used treatment that has been used medicinally for thousands of years. Despite its usage, there’s still an air of mystery with this ingredient. For example, it contains over 10,000 chemicals , of which only 50% have been identified .
That said, it’s such an important healthcare treatment that:
- It’s included on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines.
- It is one of only two ingredients approved by the USFDA for over the counter treatment of psoriasis.
- NICE recommend it as a first-line treatment for psoriasis in the UK.
Board certified dermatologist, Debra Jaliman MD, is a fan. She explained to us, “coal tar can give you relief from itching and dry scalp. Coal tar extract helps with the winter dry scalp and it continues to work even hours after you have rinsed it off. It also helps who trouble with psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis of the scalp.”
What is a coal tar shampoo made of?
Coal tar is added to shampoos in two forms; crude or in a solution.
Crude or raw coal tar is generally considered the most effective form of the substance. However, many shampoos these days use a coal tar extract. This refined form of coal tar is cleaner, doesn’t smell as bad, is more practical for home use but symptom improvement may take longer.
Coal tar is often mixed with other active ingredients e.g. Salicylic Acid to enhance the overall performance of the shampoo.
The FDA maintains that OTC products with coal tar concentrations between 0.5 percent and 5 percent are safe. This is crude coal tar – manufacturers will often have to add 5 times that amount of coal tar solution for it to be as effective as crude coal tar. Psoriatrax, for example, add 25% Coal Tar Solution and label that as equivalent to 5% Coal Tar.
It is worth noting that stronger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to a coal tar shampoo. Quite the opposite in fact. A recent study suggests that a 1% coal tar solution is more effective than a 5% solution when treating mild to moderate psoriasis .
How do coal tar shampoos work?
How coal tar reduces symptoms of psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis is not completely understood.
Dr. Jaliman goes on, “coal tar causes the skin to shed dead cells from its top layer and slow down the growth of skin cells. This lessens the dryness of the scalp and helps with dandruff.”
Coal tar slows the growth of skin cells as it is keratolytic.
It’s for this reason that Radha Mikkilineni, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at Sadick Dermatology, NYC, “usually reserves use of coal tar for recalcitrant cases. But it acts by reducing the thickening of the scalp in a poorly understood manner whereby the keratinization and differentiation of the scalp skin (causing the plaques and scaling) is suppressed.”
In addition to being keratolytic, coal tar has proven anti-fungal  properties, antiseptic properties, anti-inflammatory  properties and it also seems to normalize keratin growth on the skin and reduce the formation of scales.
We have compiled a full article on coal tar if you want to read more of this unique ingredient.
How does coal tar shampoo help psoriasis?
Psoriasis.org explains that psoriasis is a condition of the immune system that can cause skin symptoms like itching, flaking, scaling and a rapid build-up of skin cells that creates raised plaques. The use of a coal tar shampoo can reduce inflammation and slow the growth of skin cells to restore the skin’s normal appearance while helping to reduce uncomfortable symptoms.
Despite its age, coal tar remains extremely popular and effective for sufferers of mild to moderate scalp psoriasis. There are steroid treatments available on prescription but the popularity of coal tar never seems to wane. The effects of coal tar on psoriasis may even be enhanced when the substance is used in conjunction with ultraviolet light therapy.
How does coal tar help seborrheic dermatitis?
Although the root cause of Seborrheic Dermatitis is still unknown, recent research  suggests seb derm to be associated with a type of fungus called Malassezia furfur. Symptoms include itching, scaling, rash and ring-shaped patches of dry, pink skin. The antifungal properties of coal tar are believed to be the primary reason that it reduces symptoms of the common skin condition. In a clinical study , coal tar demonstrated its ability to inhibit the growth of 52 Malassezia strains.
However, there are other more modern treatments for seb derm which seem to be more precise and more effective at combatting the symptoms associated with seb derm. Piroctone Olamine, Ketoconazole and Selenium Sulfide are three active ingredients that tend to be more widely used in recent years.
How often should I wash using a coal tar shampoo?
To use a coal tar shampoo, you should always follow the guidance provided on the label.
For example, DHS recommends using their tar shampoo, “at least twice a week or as directed by a physician” for best results. Whereas Psoriatrax recommends that you, “use daily until symptoms disappear. Usually 3-5 days.”
We asked Dr. Ben Barankin, a Toronto based board-certified dermatologist at the Toronto Dermatology Centre, for his advice, and he told us, “For mild-moderate dandruff, I recommend daily shampooing, and ideally alternating 3 shampoos, each with active anti-dandruff ingredients.”
Dr. Matthew Zirwas, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Bexley Dermatology in Bexley, Ohio, recommended trying a shampoo for, “at least a month because if your old shampoo had ingredients that were causing a dandruff-like rash of their own, it will take 4-8 weeks for that ingredient to work its way out of your body after you start the new stuff.”
And if it doesn’t work, board-certified dermatologist Adam J. Friedman, MD, FAAD, assistant professor of dermatology and director of dermatologic research, Albert Einstein College of Medicine explains via the AAD, “For most people, dandruff does not require medical attention. However, sometimes the flaking and itching that appears like dandruff is actually a medical condition, such as seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, fungal infections of the scalp, or eczema. If you continue to have symptoms after using a dandruff shampoo, consult a board-certified dermatologist.”
By visiting a board-certified dermatologist, you can be properly diagnosed and be prescribed stronger medication than you can pick up at the pharmacy. As Dr. Ben Barankin says, “for moderate to severe cases of dandruff, a steroid shampoo or leave-in lotion can be prescribed. A prescription ciclopirox olamine lotion is often a nice option.”
Are there any side effects from using a coal tar shampoo?
Although most people do not experience significant side effects, the WHO state that coal tar shampoos may cause skin irritation and on rare occasions allergic sensitization is possible. They also recommend that a coal tar shampoo should not be applied to inflamed, broken or infected skin.
Because coal tar can increase sensitivity to sunlight, skin treated with coal tar products should be protected from ultraviolet rays to avoid irritation and sunburn. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that you protect your scalp from the sun by wearing a hat when outdoors and seeking shade whenever possible if you use a coal tar shampoo.
The same organization advises that tar shampoos can discolor blonde, grey or light-colored hair.
Can coal tar shampoos cause cancer?
There’s been a number of controversies over coal tar in recent decades.
Coal tar contains as many as 10,000 different chemicals, but only about half of these have actually been identified. Many people have expressed concern over the unknown components that could be potential carcinogens or cancer-causing substances.
In the 1990s, studies appeared apparently linking coal tar exposure to cancer in animals . A number of countries including the EU, China and Taiwan banned the use of coal tar in cosmetics as a result of these findings.
However further research found that coal tar in low doses wasn’t linked to cancer .
This prompted the EU to overturn its own ruling. The FDA maintains that there is no scientific evidence that the tar in OTC products is carcinogenic.
Despite its 75-year history of documented use without any clear evidence of increased cancer risk in low doses, some skepticism remains. Formulations containing more than five percent crude coal tar are listed as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization. California still insists that coal tars treatments are labeled, Warning: This product contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer.
Some of the controversies may be related to the questionable safety of using coal tar in the production of sealant products  and in other industrial settings; these problems are not relevant to the use of weak coal tar solutions in shampoo formulations.
 Nenoff, P., Haustein, U. F., & Fiedler, A. (1995). The antifungal activity of a coal tar gel on Malassezia furfur in vitro. Dermatology, 191(4), 311-314.
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