Scalp health has enjoyed a huge boost in awareness recently, with brands like Aveda, Living Proof and Philip Kingsley doing much to neutralise the embarrassment surrounding issues such as hair loss and dandruff. But there’s still a long way to go when it comes to getting to know the various concerns and conditions that can take their toll on our scalps.
Here, we chat to expert trichologist Anabel Kingsley all about scalp acne (or scalpne as we like to call it) to find out the causes, treatments and risks...
What even is scalp acne/spotty scalp?
“Pimples on your scalp occur when hair follicles become blocked with oil and dead skin cells, or bacteria, and subsequently become inflamed or infected,” explains Anabel. “You have a lot of oil glands on your scalp – there is one at the base of every hair follicle, so it is not unusual for a few spots to form. However, if you have many spots on your scalp, and they are angry, painful and inflamed, you should seek help from a doctor or trichologist.”
Why does it happen?
According to Annabel, it’s pretty normal to get a few pimples on your scalp once in a while. “You may find their formation correlates with hormonal changes, like menstruation. Just like the skin on your face, your scalp can get a bit cranky and spotty leading up to your period. This is because oil secretion can increase, which increases the likelihood of blocked pores.”
As well as fluctuating hormones, there are a vast number of other potential causes to be aware of as they can come with their own unique complications. One such cause is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. “PCOS can raise your androgen (male hormone) levels. An excess of male hormones can increase sebum production on the scalp,” says Annabel.
Other causes could be certain oral contraceptive pills (“Certain birth control pills are ‘androgenic’, and can therefore increase oil production,” explains Annabel) or dandruff or seborrhoeic dermatitis (“Pimples often accompany the skin flaking and oiliness of dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis.”)
But there are also many lifestyle factors that could be causing your spotty scalp. “You may not be shampooing often enough,” says Annabel. “Like your face, the scalp is a very sebaceous environment. The scalp can become overly greasy if you do not shampoo often enough, making it more prone to breaking out.” Stress, a dairy-heavy diet and even nose-picking can also cause flare ups. “Bacteria (specifically staphylococcus aureus) naturally live in your nose and is harmless. However, if you pick your nose and then scratch your scalp, you can transfer staph bacteria onto your scalp, which may cause inflammation and pimples,” explains Annabel.
Finally, there is also a type of skin condition known as ‘folliculitis’; “This looks very similar to the common pimple, but the spots are usually itchier, smaller and in larger clusters. Folliculitis is often caused by bacterial infection, acne or fungal infection. Some people are more prone to it than others, but it is more likely to occur when your scalp is overly greasy; fungi love an oily environment.”
Are there any long-term side effects to scalpne?
“If you pick at pimples, scars can form which will prevent the growth of hairs in the scarred areas. Generally, the healthier your scalp, the healthier your hair will be. Therefore, pimples are not ideal,” says Annabel.
- what should someone avoid if they're getting spots on their scalp? e.g. using certain products, using heat tools, wearing hats
If your scalp is very inflamed and irritated, avoid scented styling products close to your roots. “Also, be careful when brushing,” warns Annabel. “You do not want to run brush over your scalp as this can scratch and further irritate pimples.”
And just like breakouts on your face, it’s best not pick at your scalpne. This can spread infection, and create scars.
So what’s the treatment options?
The first step in tackling your scsalpne is to cleanse your scalp regularly to remove excess oils and dead skin cells. “Use a daily soothing anti-microbial shampoo and a daily astringent, anti-microbial scalp toner (an astringent is an ingredient that helps to soak-up excess oils),” advises Annabel.
As for good ingredients to look for? “Witch Hazel (an astringent), Piroctone Olamine (anti-bacterial) and Camphor (soothing).” The Philip Kingsley Itchy Flaky Scalp Shampoo and Toner for a targeted treatment using the best ingredients.
“I also suggest you use a twice-weekly targeted scalp mask containing Salicylic, Lactic and Hyaluronic Acid which work together to exfoliate, cleanse and soothe, such as the Philip Kingsley Flaky/Itchy Scalp Mask.”
However, if over-the-counter remedies do not work, visit your doctor or trichologist as you may need prescription strength treatments.