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 is still a much loved and much used active ingredient.
After reviewing 107 (and counting) shampoos, doing literally hundreds of hours of research in the process, we are unashamedly the web’s most comprehensive dandruff control resource. With all that research behind us, we’re in a good place to name the best in class coal tar shampoos on the market today.
It’s one of the most gentle dandruff shampoos we’ve ever reviewed period. The shampoo contains a 0.5% coal tar concentration and uses gentle surfactants in a very minimalist gentle formula. While no coal tar shampoo has a particularly pleasant aroma, DHS have done a good job in formulating a coal tar shampoo with a relatively ok smell that doesn’t dry your hair too much.
|DHS Fragrance Free Tar Shampoo|
|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. It’s 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. If you’re not sensitive to fragrances, it could be a better shampoo for you.
|Scalp 18 Coal Tar Shampoo is on sale now|
|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
— Our reviewers test and recommend all the shampoos to help you find your best dandruff shampoo. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn some commission. We must stress that our reviews are completely independent and our reviewers are unaware of any of these commission agreements
What’s in this article:
- The 9 best coal tar shampoos
- How we chose the winners
- What is a coal tar shampoo?
- What are coal tar shampoos made of?
- Are there any side effects from using a coal tar shampoo?
- Are coal tar shampoos cancerous?
- How effective is a coal tar shampoo at treating Psoriasis?
- How effective is a coal tar shampoo at treating Seborrheic Dermatitis?
- Medical Journals referred to in this article
The 9 Best Coal Tar Shampoos
Below is a selection of our favorite and best-formulated coal tar shampoos we’ve yet reviewed.
Scalp 18 Coal Tar shampoo is a 2% coal tar formulation that has a number of added essential oils to further nourish and soothe the scalp.
These essential oils do contain fragrance but if you're not sensitive to fragrances then this is a superb shampoo.
It is extremely gentle and washes like a high end salon shampoo.
If you’re not sensitive to fragrances then I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this shampoo.
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.
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.
T/Gel is an age old classic for dandruff sufferers containing too many age old classic contact allergens for our liking.
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.
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 there
How we chose the winners
All our reviewers are experts in product formulation, haircare, qualified pharmacists or haircare experts.
They assess the primary purpose of the dandruff shampoo, by examining the active ingredients present in the formulation. These active ingredients are designed to control specific types of dandruff and we’ll explain what those are.
Our reviews will also assess the rest of the formulation, deconstructing the shampoos to their constituent parts and describe the key ones in detail. In addition, we warn of the presence of any one of over 100 ingredients that can potentially itch, irritate and even cause dandruff themselves. A significant number (~90%) of these chemicals have never been tested for their effect on human health. Many of these chemicals are known to have adverse effects on our skin and one of these adverse effects is dandruff.
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!
What we won’t do is tell you if the shampoo will work for you. To understand that, you have to understand how to control your dandruff.
Coal Tar Shampoos
What is a coal tar shampoo?
A coal tar shampoo is a shampoo with coal tar added as an active ingredient.
Coal Tar is a much loved, much used active ingredient that has been used Coal tar has been used medicinally for thousands of years. It contains over 10,000 chemicals , of which opnly 50% have been identified .
The ingredient itself is a by-product of coal, created by distilling coal at extremely high temperatures. The resulting crude coal tar is a dark brown thick liquid with a “characteristic” odor (it stinks basically).
Included on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines, it is considered an important healthcare agent and has been for many years. It is one of only two ingredients approved by the USFDA for over the counter treatment of psoriasis. It’s also a NICE recommended first-line treatment for psoriasis in the UK.
How do coal tar shampoos work?
How coal tar reduces symptoms of psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis is not completely understood.
Coal Tar is keratolytic that works by slowing the growth of skin cells to help your skin shed dead cells from its top layer – the keratoplastic.
We have compiled a full article on coal tar if you want to read more of this unique ingredient.
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.
It’s quite often in shampoos these days to see coal tar mixed with other ingredients e.g. Salicylic Acid to enhance their performance.
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 .
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.
Are coal tar shampoos cancerous?
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 their 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 insist 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.
How effective is a coal tar shampoo at treating 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 effective is a coal tar shampoo at treating 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.
 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.
 Zeichner, J. A. (2010) Use of Topical Coal Tar Foam for the Treatment of Psoriasis in Difficult-to-treat Areas. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2010 Sep; 3(9): 37–40.
 Goodfield M1, Kownacki S, Berth-Jones J. (2004) Double-blind, randomised, multicentre, parallel group study comparing a 1% coal tar preparation (Exorex) with a 5% coal tar preparation (Alphosyl) in chronic plaque psoriasis. J Dermatolog Treat. 2004 Jan;15(1):14-22.
 Pion IA, Koenig KL, Lim HW. (1995) Is dermatologic usage of coal tar carcinogenic? A review of the literature. Dermatol Surg. 1995 Mar;21(3):227-31.
 Roelofzen JH, Aben KK et al. (2010) No increased risk of cancer after coal tar treatment in patients with psoriasis or eczema. J Invest Dermatol. 2010 Apr;130(4):953-61. doi: 10.1038/jid.2009.389. Epub 2009 Dec 17.
 Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel. Final safety assessment of Coal Tar. Int J Toxicol. 2008;27 Suppl 2:1-24. doi: 10.1080/10915810802244405.
 Thomas Berk, MD and Noah Scheinfeld, MD. Seborrheic Dermatitis. (2010) P T. 2010 Jun; 35(6): 348–352.
 N.J. Lowe J. Breeding M.S. Wortzman The pharmacological variability of crude coal tar (1982)
 G. Maiganga et al. Physicochemical Characterization of Coal Tar Produced by Pyrolysis of Coal (2017) Journal of Minerals and Materials Characterization and Engineering
Vol.05 No.05(2017), Article ID:78984
 B. J. Mahler et al. Coal-Tar-Based Pavement Sealcoat and PAHs: Implications for the Environment, Human Health, and Stormwater Management. (2012) Environ Sci Technol. 2012 Mar 20; 46(6): 3039–3045.