Medically reviewed by Jill Johnson, DNP, APRN, FNP-BC
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 8/20/2021
Acne can affect just about every part of your face, including your hairline. From tiny comedones to large, inflammatory and painful pimples, hairline acne can range from a minor annoyance to a serious problem that affects your appearance and self-confidence.
The good news is that like other forms of acne, even the most annoying hairline acne breakouts are treatable.
Below, we’ve covered how scalp and hairline acne can develop, as well as the specific types of acne you may notice around your hairline.
Like the acne that affects other parts of your face and body, hairline acne forms when your hair follicles, or pores, become clogged with a mixture of sebum and dead skin cells.
Sebum is a natural oil that’s produced by your sebaceous glands — tiny glands that supply your skin with its lipids.
Your skin relies on sebum to seal in moisture and keep your body protected from bacteria, fungi and other pathogens.
Although some sebum is necessary for healthy skin, when your sebaceous glands secrete too much sebum, it can build inside your pores and cause them to become clogged.
Dead skin cells — the second component in acne — are produced through a process referred to as epidermal turnover.
As part of the epidermal turnover process, your skin produces new cells, shedding its old, dead ones in the process.
On average, it takes your epidermis (the outer layer of your skin) 40 to 56 days to complete this process.
Just like your face, your scalp also contains sebaceous glands that secrete sebum. When your hair becomes oily, oils from your scalp may contribute to acne breakouts on your forehead and around your hairline.
Acne breakouts become more severe when bacteria get involved. When bacteria multiply inside a pore, they can cause it to become inflamed, swollen and painful.
Behind the scenes, several different factors all play roles in sebum production and acne. These include your hormones, genetic factors, medications and stress.
Certain cosmetics, skin care products and even hair styling products can also contribute to acne breakouts, especially if they contain oils that can clog your pores.
Even some types of clothing, such as headbands, hats and protective helmets, can contribute to breakouts around your hairline and forehead.
We’ve talked about these factors in more detail in our full guide to the causes of acne breakouts in adults.
Acne can vary hugely in severity, and the acne that affects your scalp, hairline and forehead is no exception.
Like on your cheeks, chin and around your nose, you may have noticed several different types of acne lesions forming near your hairline during breakouts.
Common types of acne that can affect your hairline include:
Inflammatory acne. This type of acne contains bacteria, causing it to become inflamed and sometimes painful. Common types of inflammatory acne
include papules (small, red acne lesions) and pustules (small, inflamed acne lesions that contain pus).
Nodular and/or cystic acne. This severe form of acne develops deeper inside your skin and features large, highly inflamed lesions. Cystic acne can be particularly challenging to treat and often requires prescription medication.
Our full guide to the types of acne provides more information on comedones, inflammatory acne and other acne lesions that can affect your hairline, scalp and forehead.
Hairline acne is treatable. Most of the time, you can treat hairline acne using the same products and medications as you’d use for acne that affects your cheeks, nose or jawline.
If you have mild acne, such as comedones or a few small inflamed acne lesions, you’ll likely be able to treat it with an over-the-counter product, such as a facial cleanser.
When it comes to cleansers, active ingredients are more important than brand names. Look for the following ingredients when you’re comparing products online or at your local drug store:
Salicylic acid. This ingredient works by peeling away dead skin cells that can contribute to clogged pores, and by reducing redness and swelling.
It’s safe and effective for most people, but can sometimes cause stinging and skin irritation.
Benzoyl peroxide. This ingredient works by preventing acne-causing forms of bacteria from growing on your skin. It also has mild sebostatis and keratolytic effects, meaning it may help to stop your pores from becoming blocked in the first place. Because of benzoyl peroxide’s antibacterial effects, it’s a good option if you get infected, inflamed acne on your forehead. Benzoyl peroxide is a bleaching agent.
Be careful when using it close to your hair, as it may lighten its color if left on for long periods of time. Make sure to thoroughly rinse your skin after applying any products that contain benzoyl peroxide.
Adapalene. A topical retinoid, adapalene works by reducing inflammation and stopping the development of acne microcomedones. Research shows that adapalene is usually effective, although it can cause issues such as redness, itching and irritation.
You can purchase adapalene as a generic acne cream and in products such as Differin® gel.
While over-the-counter treatments are perfect for dealing with the occasional comedone, they’re not always effective for moderate or severe acne.
If you have persistent hairline acne, or severe breakouts that just don’t respond to products sold over the counter, you’ll usually get the best results from prescription acne medication.
Prescription medications used to treat acne include:
Tretinoin. One of the most widely-used and well-known acne medications, tretinoin is a topical retinoid that works by speeding up epidermal turnover and preventing pores from becoming clogged with sebum and dead skin cells. Tretinoin is one of the ingredients in Hers’ Prescription Acne Cream, which is formulated to control stubborn adult acne breakouts.
Clindamycin. A topical antibiotic, clindamycin works by controlling swelling and stopping acne-causing bacteria from growing on your skin.
Hormonal birth control. Acne breakouts are often caused by fluctuations in your levels of androgen hormones — sex hormones that can stimulate sebum production and cause you to develop clogged pores. When your acne is hormonal, some combination birth control pills can help by reducing androgen levels and promoting clearer, less oily skin. We offer birth control online, following a consultation with a licensed healthcare provider who will determine if a prescription is appropriate.
Oral antibiotics. If you have infected, inflammatory acne that doesn’t seem to respond to topical antibiotics, your healthcare provider may prescribe an oral antibiotic to control bacterial growth. There are several oral antibiotics used to treat acne, such as doxycycline, minocycline, amoxicillin, erythromycin, and trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole.
Isotretinoin. Previously sold as Accutane®, isotretinoin is a powerful acne medication that’s often used for severe breakouts, or when other acne medications fail to properly clear your skin. Isotretinoin is effective, but it can cause side effects and isn’t safe for use if you plan to become pregnant or are pregnant. While you use this medication, you’ll need to use two forms of birth control and check in with your healthcare provider on a regular basis.
Our full guide to the best acne treatments provides more information on the medications above, their effectiveness, side effects and more.
Treating acne is the first half of the process. The second, which is just as important, is stopping acne from coming back.
Try using the following skin care techniques to keep your hairline clear and prevent forehead acne from making a comeback:
Keep using medication, even after your acne clears. If you’re prescribed medication to control acne, it’s best to keep using it as prescribed even after your breakouts start to disappear. As well as getting rid of breakouts, many acne medications provide ongoing effects that can prevent acne from coming back.
Avoid using oily hair care or styling products. Many hair care and styling products contain oils that can build up on your scalp and clog your hair follicles, causing hairline pimples to develop. When you’re shopping for hair products, look for items labeled as “non-comedogenic” or “oil-free.” These are formulated using fewer pore-clogging ingredients, making them less likely to cause acne around your hairline.
Wash your face twice a day, plus after exercise. Washing regularly helps to get rid of sweat, which can make acne breakouts worse. Try to wash your face
twice a day (once in the morning, then once before bed), as well as after you exercise.
Avoid scrubbing your skin. Scrubbing your skin firmly can cause irritation, especially if you use a washcloth, sponge or other item. When you need to wash your face, use your fingertips to gently apply any skin care products, then rinse them off with warm water.
Wash your hair whenever it feels oily. Since everyone’s hair is slightly different, there isn’t an ideal amount of days to wait between washes. Instead, experts recommend that you wash your hair whenever it starts to feel oily.If you have naturally oily hair, this could mean washing every day. On the other hand, if you color your hair, you may only need to wash it less frequently. Washing regularly is a key part of controlling oil buildup and preventing oil from clogging your pores.
Carefully wash items that touch your forehead. Natural oils and artificial residue from hair or skin care products can gradually build up on your clothing and other fabric items, such as pillowcases, headbands and hats. If you’re prone to acne that affects your hairline and forehead, make sure to wash these items regularly to remove oil buildup.
Hairline acne can be a major annoyance to deal with, especially when it becomes inflamed and uncomfortable.
Like all forms of acne, hairline acne is treatable. From over-the-counter products to prescription acne medication, a range of acne treatments can get rid of hairline acne breakouts and prevent them from coming back.
Worried about acne? You’re not alone. Our guide to preventing acne shares practical strategies that you can use to get rid of breakouts before they appear and enjoy smooth, blemish-free skin throughout the entire year.