What Ingredient Is in Medicated Shampoo?

Updated February 21, 2017

Medicated shampoo is specifically for those who suffer from dandruff, psoriasis, atopic dermatitis and seborrheic dermatitis. Some of the symptoms of such conditions include excessively dry and itchy, flaky scalp. Many of today's medicated shampoos include the active ingredients salicylic acid, selenium sulphide, zinc pyrthione and coal tar. Medicated shampoo can be purchased at chemists or prescribed by your doctor.

Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is usually prescribed as a topical cream to treat acne, and also treats skin conditions. According to Medline Plus, salicylic acid treats psoriasis, ichthyoses, dandruff, corns and calluses. As a keratolytic agent, is treats your skin condition by softening the dry, scaly skin and causes it to fall off. Topical salicylic acid can be used several times a day, but you should also carefully follow the shampoo's directions and your doctor's directions. Excessive shampooing of your hair can dry out your scalp and exacerbate the symptoms of the skin condition.

Selenium Sulfide

Selenium sulphide provides relief from itching and flaking by removing dry and scaly particles from your scalp. Selenium sulphide is specifically for dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis and tinea versicolor (skin fungal infection). Medicated shampoos that contain selenium sulphide are to be used twice a week for two weeks, followed by once a week for the following three weeks or until your doctor says otherwise. It is important to avoid scratching your scalp with your fingernails, as it can cause a burning sensation if it gets into broken skin. Gently brush or comb your hair to avoid scratching and irritating the scalp. It is important to leave selenium sulphide in your hair according to the shampoo instructions, as leaving it in longer can cause soreness and irritation. Some of the side effects of selenium sulphide include hair loss, hair discolouration or excessive oil production.

Zinc Pyrithione

Zinc pyrithione is a main ingredient in medicated shampoos to treat tinea versicolor, a fungal infection of the scalp. Before using the medicated shampoo, check your scalp to be sure there is no broken, irritated or blistered skin. Failure to do so can result in severe scalp irritation. There is a possible side effect of hair discolouration when using zinc pyrithione, and can be avoided by thoroughly rinsing your hair after shampooing. Due to Zinc pyrithione's potency, only use the medicated shampoo for as long as your doctor prescribes. Do not use the medicated shampoo for any other skin conditions besides tinea versicolor, dandruff and seborrhoea.

Coal Tar

Coal tar is one of the most widely used active ingredients in medicated shampoo. Similar to salicylic acid, coal tar is a keratolytic agent that retards bacterial growth and softens scales on the scalp. When used as directed, coal tar reduces the symptoms of psoriasis, seborrhoea and dandruff. Follow your dosage carefully, and if you forget a dose, it is best to forgo it and continue your shampoo regimen. Doubling up on your dose can be harmful to the scalp by causing irritation and burning.


Medicated shampoos can cause dryness to the scalp and irritation if not used properly. Any signs of scalp irritation or burning sensations should be closely monitored by your doctor and medication use should be discontinued until further instructions are given. Do not wash your hair with other soaps or shampoos before or after using the medicated shampoo, and never use medicated shampoo if you have open sores or inflamed skin. Medicated shampoo, specifically coal tar shampoo, can stain clothing. If you accidentally get shampoo or suds in your eyes or mouth, wash them out thoroughly with cool tap water.

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