Coal Tar for Psoriasis: How It Helps and More | MyPsoriasisTeam

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Coal Tar for Psoriasis: How It Helps and More

Medically reviewed by Kevin Berman, M.D., Ph.D.
Written by Megan Cawley
Updated on January 5, 2024

If you have psoriasis, you understand the care that goes into selecting the right products for your skin condition. Coal tar is an ingredient found in shampoos, soaps, and other products that can improve symptoms like itchiness, dryness, and flaking.

This article will explore how coal tar can help alleviate psoriasis symptoms. We’ll discuss coal tar’s different forms and how this ingredient may be used. As always, talk with your dermatologist before trying any new products for your psoriasis.

What Is Coal Tar?

Coal tar, as the name suggests, comes from coal. It’s a byproduct of the production of coal gas and coke, a solid fuel made up mostly of carbon. Coal tar has long been used in skin care products because of its medicinal benefits.

MyPsoriasisTeam Members on Coal Tar

Many MyPsoriasisTeam members have shared their experiences using coal tar. Some find coal tar to be an effective treatment for psoriasis. One member raved about coal tar treatments for their daughter. “I remembered that we actually did have great success with coal tar. It was the ONLY medication-type solution that worked, and we tried everything!” they shared. This member said they found coal tar ointment “stinky” but ultimately worth it: “If she used it every day, it completely controlled her psoriasis. However, it was tough to use it on her scalp.”

Several members have complained about how coal tar smells and stains. Other members have suggested using coal tar creams or ointments instead of soaps, rather than forgoing the treatment entirely.

Others have found that coal tar hasn’t helped them manage their psoriasis. One member wrote that coal tar “helped with some itching, but did not make the scales or rawness clear up.”

Coal tar may work well for some people but prove ineffective for others. If you think you may benefit from coal tar treatments, talk with your dermatologist about the best options for you — and also let them know if you experience any side effects while using it. Coal tar may not always be easy to use, but it can be an effective part of a comprehensive treatment plan for your psoriasis.

How Can Coal Tar Help With Psoriasis?

Coal tar appears to act as a keratolytic agent, suppressing excess skin-cell growth during a psoriasis flare-up and smoothing the skin. It can also help alleviate various symptoms of psoriasis, including the itchiness, scaling, and inflammation seen in plaque psoriasis and scalp psoriasis. It can be used on both the body and the scalp.

Types of Coal Tar Products for Psoriasis

Coal tar is one of two over-the-counter (OTC) treatments the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved to treat psoriasis. It’s often used in psoriasis shampoo, but it can also be found in bar soaps and topical treatments. Your dermatologist can recommend products that may help you.

Many coal tar soaps, shampoos, and topical treatments are available at pharmacies or online retailers. Some products may have the National Psoriasis Foundation Seal of Recognition on their packaging. You may also be able to use a flexible spending account, if you have one, to purchase certain OTC coal tar products.

Coal Tar Soap

Coal tar soap can treat itching and plaque psoriasis, including difficult-to-treat areas like the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. However, not all MyPsoriasisTeam members have been satisfied with coal tar soap. One member warned that, while it did work, it also had “a very strong odor.”

Another member found that their visible psoriasis lesions improved but itching did not: “I got coal tar bar soap, and my skin looks great, but I’m so itchy.”

Coal tar soap may not be ideal for daily use, but it can be used in rotation with other soaps.

Coal Tar Shampoo

Coal tar shampoos should be applied to the scalp, massaged in, and then rinsed thoroughly for best results. The shampoo should be left on the scalp for five minutes, which allows the product to penetrate deeply into the skin affected by psoriasis and have its maximum effect.

Depending on the severity of your condition, your health care professional might also advise wrapping the treated area for a while before rinsing to increase the product’s effectiveness. Since this significantly increases the effective strength of the coal tar, you shouldn’t wrap your head without instructions from your dermatologist. You can use regular shampoo after coal tar shampoo to keep your hair feeling and smelling how you want.

Coal Tar Ointment

Coal tar can come in an ointment form, which means that it’s mixed with wax, fat, or oil. This makes it easy to spread, although the oily part can stain clothes and surfaces. If you choose to use a coal tar ointment, you might want to cover the area with a bandage or make sure it doesn’t touch anything.

When applying coal tar ointment for psoriasis, make sure you use the right amount for the amount of skin you need to cover. You want to spread a thin layer over the entire area. Try to err on the side of starting with too little — you can always add more if needed. Apply it in the same direction that your hair grows for maximum comfort.

Coal Tar Cream

Coal tar also comes in cream form made with oil, water, and a substance called an emulsifier. The emulsifier helps the oil and water mix together and keeps them from separating. Like ointments, coal tar creams for psoriasis can damage fabrics, but they’re less likely to leave an oily stain.

You can apply coal tar creams for psoriasis in much the same way that you’d apply an ointment.

Coal Tar Extract

Coal tar extract is pure coal tar or crude coal tar. It’s made by burning coal, then cooling the gas to roughly room temperature, but this formulation normally isn’t used alone. Instead, coal tar extract gets mixed, as noted above, with some combination of water, fat, wax, oil, and other substances for use on skin. Even when researchers study the effects of crude coal tar on psoriasis, they mix it with wax to make it spreadable and lower the concentration to a safe level.

MG217 Coal Tar for Psoriasis

MG217 products contain coal tar and other ingredients that may help treat psoriasis. You can buy them in shampoo, cream, gel, and ointment formulations. These products have earned the National Psoriasis Foundation’s Seal of Recognition.

When using an MG217 product, be sure to follow the directions on the box or instructions from your dermatology team. For instance, your dermatologist may want you to leave the shampoo or the topical ointment on for longer than the label states. Always use your doctor’s specific directions over the box instructions, and reach out for medical advice if you aren’t sure how to proceed.

Some MyPsoriasisTeam members have shared reviews and comments on MG217 products. One said, “My flares are healing, clearing and drying up. I used MG217 bar soap and moisturizer to clear them.”

Another member added, “The only thing that helps me is MG217. It takes a while, and I rub it in twice a day.”

What To Keep in Mind When Using Coal Tar for Psoriasis

Tar products can cause skin irritation, discoloration, and dryness, as well as increased sensitivity to sunlight. Like any substance, coal tar can also cause an allergic reaction, so its use should be carefully monitored. The National Psoriasis Foundation recommends testing a tar product on a small area of skin before using it on the rest of your body, as well as watching for skin irritation or other adverse effects.

To test a new product, the American Academy of Dermatology advises applying it to the same small spot of skin twice a day for seven to 10 days. If your skin doesn’t become discolored, itchy, or swollen, the product is likely safe to use.

If your skin responds well to a coal tar product, use it as directed — just make sure to wash it off thoroughly and use sufficient sun protection, like additional sunscreen, so you don’t get a sunburn.

Some warnings caution that coal tar may cause cancer, but these statements apply to highly concentrated industrial uses, such as paving. The FDA states that OTC products with concentrations of coal tar between 0.5 percent and 5 percent are safe and effective for psoriasis.

Find Your Team

If you find yourself struggling with your psoriasis, you’re not alone. On MyPsoriasisTeam, more than 123,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with psoriasis. You can ask questions, offer support and advice, and connect with others who understand life with psoriasis.

Have you tried coal tar products for psoriasis? What was your experience like? Share your story and tips in the comments below or by posting on your Activities page.

Updated on January 5, 2024
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Kevin Berman, M.D., Ph.D. is a dermatologist at the Atlanta Center for Dermatologic Disease, Atlanta, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Megan Cawley is a writer at MyHealthTeam. She has written previously on health news and topics, including new preventative treatment programs. Learn more about her here.

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