Is Coal Tar a Good Option for Helping Psoriasis?
What do Kim Kardashian West, LeAnn Rimes and Eli Roth all have in common? Other than taking over your Insta feed, these (and many other) celebs also have psoriasis.
Psoriasis is a highly visible skin condition that can be difficult to treat, especially when faced with an aisle full of over-the-counter “solutions” promising quick results for cheap.
One of the more “promising” OTC options that is hyped and even recommended by some dermatologists is tar soap, which has been a remedy for skin conditions since ancient times. Here’s a quick overview of just about everything you need to know about tar soap and psoriasis and if it’s worth it to use it.
What is Tar Soap?
Tar soap is what it sounds like: soap made with tar, a dark, thick liquid that’s derived from coal or the wood of various plants and coniferous trees (think pine and juniper).
Certain ingredients from both categories of tar are thought to help ease the symptoms of psoriasis.
Psoriasis, for any newbies in the room, is a chronic autoimmune condition that causes skin cells to build up in inflamed, red or silver, itchy patches. It can also lead to arthritis. Besides potentially affecting your joints in the long run, psoriasis flare-ups are, simply put, uncomfortable and can be really crippling from the discomfort and self-consciousness people feel.
Like most psoriasis treatments, tar soap can’t cure this condition. And because it’s made with tar, it can be harsh.
However, when used in appropriate amounts, it’s been said to reduce psoriasis symptoms and, in most cases, won’t lead to any unpleasant side effects (keep reading, we’ll explain those because there are definitely side effects to watch out for).
Keep in mind that more severe cases of psoriasis typically require more intense treatment, such as light therapy and oral medications. Your doctor can help you figure out the best plan for you if you decide to go down that road. But first, let’s break down some differences between what you’ll find about coal tar.
Coal Tar Soap vs. Pine Tar Soap
There are two main varieties of tar soap to consider, both with similar benefits:
There’s a reason doctors have been prescribing this type of tar for psoriasis since the 1920s. That right there is a red light since many of the doctor-approved remedies of the early 1900s have since been banned. While coal is composed of thousands of ingredients, scientists believe polycyclic aryl hydrocarbons, particularly carbazole, are behind its psoriasis-fighting abilities.
We know it sounds like another name for the Gate Keeper, but research has shown carbazole prevents cells from inflaming, which means fewer flare-ups and flakes. However, this isn’t always the case and your skin can have a negative effect.
Slightly less popular than coal tar, pine tar is thought to have a host of benefits. In addition to slowing the over-production of rough skin cells, research shows it relieves itching, fights inflammation, is antibacterial, and anti-fungal.
Which Type of Tar Product Should I Get?
Tough to say, since tar soaps and other tar products come in different formulations. Most commonly these products are sold with 1–10 percent coal or pine tar. You’ll need to discuss with your doctor and do some experimentation to find the right fit, but they can be bought over-the-counter as:
Bar Soap. Best for treating psoriasis over large areas of your body. You use it a lot like regular bar soap, letting it sit on your skin before rinsing off for the best results.
Cream. Good for psoriasis on parts of your body other than your scalp. Generally, you apply a small amount of cream to the affected areas on your skin, one to four times per day for several weeks. Always check the product directions before applying.
Shampoo. Ideal for scalp psoriasis. You can use tar soap shampoo a lot like your regular shampoo, scrubbing into your wet scalp in the shower and then letting it sit before rinsing off.
Oil. Usually more concentrated than creams and shampoos. Tar oil is very quickly absorbed into the skin and is best suited for aggressive cases of psoriasis.
Stronger concentrations of tar soap, for very serious cases of psoriasis, are sold by prescription only. Again, your doc will know what’s best and can help you craft the right treatment plan.
The So-Called "Benefits"
Just like you need to wait for that delicious takeout order to be delivered by UberEats, it might take a minute before you see results from tar soap. (All good things…) Most see clearer skin within a few weeks.
Users of tar products have reported a reduction in the thickness of skin cell (also called plaque) buildup. Tar soap has also been shown to give skin a smoother and less inflamed appearance. It can also possibly reduce itching.
Tar products are meant for short-term control over psoriasis flare-ups. Because tar is a powerful ingredient, you should not use tar soaps and other tar products more than a few times per week for up to several weeks.
Beware if you have sensitive skin, as tar products can worsen irritation. (This is an oxymoron since psoriasis is classified as sensitive skin.) If this is the case for you, you may want to first try a very diluted product with a lower percentage of tar.
Tar soaps and other products tend to be messy and can lighten skin or stain clothing and bedding. Does that sound appealing to you?
Also, to be honest, they kind of stink. Not like a skunk or anything, just prepare yourself to emit a blacktop-esque aroma (sudden urges to play hopscotch and kickball may follow).
Tar products are generally considered a safe treatment for psoriasis, but women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are advised not to use them.
You should also avoid direct sunlight for 24 hours after using tar-based psoriasis products, as they may make you more susceptible to sunburn. So are you prepared to stay inside for 24+ hours just to use a smelly, staining soap that may or may not help your flare ups?
It has been argued that coal tar products can cause cancer because it was found to cause cancer in occupational exposure to coal tar (for example miners, asphalt workers, or chimney sweeps).
However, a 2010 study did come out refuting it, though there is still plenty of research needed for concrete proof than just one study.
Be aware that showering and washing may actually remove moisture from your skin. In order to prevent that from happening when you use tar soaps, be sure to:
- Use lukewarm, not hot, water when you shower.
- Limit your shower or bath time to 15 minutes or less, once per day.
- Avoid vigorous scrubbing with a washcloth or loofah.
More Soaps (And Other Psoriasis Products) With Benefits
Tar is only one ingredient that is known to sometimes help ease psoriasis symptoms. If tar is not your thing, here’s a list of other ingredients to look for in soaps and other psoriasis products available over the counter and by prescription:
Aloe Vera. Soaps, creams and oils containing aloe vera have been shown to reduce the symptoms of psoriasis. They have a moisturizing, healing effect on skin.
Calcipotriene. A synthetic form of vitamin D3 that is applied to the scalp before bed and then washed off in the morning.
Corticosteroids. The most-prescribed treatment for scalp psoriasis and is most often applied directly to skin as a cream. Beware of regular use like with any steroid though.
Mahonia Aquifolium. Also known as Oregon grape, an herb found in many psoriasis soaps and products. Research suggests it is an effective treatment for mild to moderate psoriasis.
Oatmeal Baths and Oat Soaps. An oldie but goodie. Used by many people with psoriasis, who swear they can help relieve itchy skin and redness. If you’ve ever had chicken pox, odds are your parents dunked you in a tub of this stuff.
Tazarotene. A medication that you leave on overnight and wash off in the morning to clear up psoriasis flare-ups. Consult with your doctor first as all medications have side effects,
When To See Your Doctor
If you’re trying over-the-counter soaps or other psoriasis products, pay close attention to how they affect your skin. If your psoriasis worsens, stop using these treatments right away and call your doctor.
Treating your psoriasis will take some trial and error to determine what works best for you. Over-the-counter tar soaps and products are just one treatment option that is helpful to many people with psoriasis, if you’re willing to deal with all the negatives associated with coal tear.
But, if you want a natural and non-smelly, staining, and abrasive version to soothe your flare-ups, then you need to learn about Manuka Honey! Natural ingredients have been seen to deliver some pretty amazing results for psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, and even shingles!