When shopping for an effective, inexpensive over-the-counter (OTC) psoriasis shampoo, knowing which active ingredients to look for means you can pay for what works instead of fancy packaging – or fanciful marketing claims.
Hydrocortisone, coal tar, salicylic acid, urea, and lactic acid can help cut down on itchiness and flakes, as well as gently softening and removing thick scale, says Meghan Feely, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New Jersey and New York City who serves as a clinical instructor at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Department of Dermatology.
Over-the-counter shampoos are best suited for treating mild scalp psoriasis symptoms or as a method for removing scales so prescription scalp topicals can penetrate, says Feely. Keep it safe by using all products as the label directs. “Also be aware that, although these agents can be effective treatments, there are potential side effects,” she says. “Salicylic acid, for instance, if not used properly can irritate the skin and aggravate your psoriasis. Coal tar can also cause irritation, as well as photosensitivity [itching, redness or inflammation triggered by sun exposure].”
The best way to know if an OTC product is safe and effective, she says, is to run it by your dermatologist.
3 tips for use
- Medicated shampoos (and other scalp treatments) are meant to treat the scalp, not the hair. Separate sections of hair and gently apply medicated products only to roots. Let products sit for about 5 minutes (or as directed on the label) before rinsing. You can follow medicated shampoos with a conditioner that moisturizes hair.
- Traumas from aggressive brushing, too much heat during styling or picking at scales can aggravate psoriasis, so go easy on your scalp. “Be gentle when removing scale from the scalp so as to help to prevent hair loss, and consider air drying your hair as opposed to using a hair dryer,” says Feely.
- If you have severe psoriasis or if symptoms persist despite using OTC products, she suggests seeing a board-certified dermatologist for a treatment regimen tailored to your unique scalp problems.
Ingredients to look for
Hydrocortisone is a mild corticosteroid that can decrease itching and inflammation.
Coal tar is an ingredient in both OTC and prescription products. It decreases skin cell growth and helps the scalp shed dead skin cells.
Salicylic acid is a “keratolytic,” or peeling agent, that helps soften and remove thick scale. Ingredients such as urea and lactic acid work similarly. “Once scale is removed, other medications will be able to penetrate the skin more easily, thus potentially increasing their effectiveness,” says Feely.
Products under $10
Here are five budget-conscious scalp shampoos (and one scalp treatment) with active ingredients that work for scalp psoriasis. Some bear the National Psoriasis Foundation’s Seal of Recognition, awarded to OTC products designed to be non-irritating and safe for people with psoriasis.
Neutrogena T/Gel Therapeutic Shampoo-Stubborn Itch
Active ingredient: 0.5% coal tar
$5.12 for 4.4 ounces on Amazon
Rugby Sebex Shampoo
Active ingredients: 2% salicylic acid, 2% sulfur
$5.46 for 4 ounces on Amazon
Dermarest Psoriasis Medicated Shampoo Plus Conditioner
Active ingredient: 3% salicylic acid
$8.78 for 8 ounces on Amazon
MG217 Medicated Conditioning Coal Tar Formula Shampoo
Active ingredient: 3% coal tar
$8.75 for 8 ounces on Amazon
Scalpicin Scalp Itch Relief (a scalp treatment)
Active ingredient: 1% hydrocortisone
$7.49 for 1.5 ounces on Amazon
Take control of your scalp psoriasis
From managing flakes to minimizing hair loss, check out NPF’s fact sheet on tips for managing your scalp psoriasis.
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