Coal Tar (Topical)

Used as a topical medication, Coal Tar is an effective treatment for seborrheic dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis and other skin conditions.


Although Coal Tar has been used for many years, it remains an effective treatment for numerous skin disorders. Considered to be one of the safest medicines available, it is a byproduct of the coal gas manufacturing process.

When applied to affected areas, Coal Tar softens the skin's keratin and reduces the rate at which skin cells grow. This means that the medicated solution is particularly beneficial when used to treat psoriasis and eczema.

Considered to be an autoimmune disease, psoriasis is characterized by scaly patches of dry, irritated skin. Normally, skin cells are replaced every 28 to 30 days but, in cases of psoriasis, skin cells are replaced every three to five days. This leads to a build-up of skin in the affected areas and may result in raised patches of dry skin. By reducing the rate at which skin cells grow, Coal Tar can be used to reduce the effects of psoriasis on the patient.

When patients develop seborrheic dermatitis, it is normally a long-lasting condition. Although the condition can occur anywhere on the body, it typically presents on oilier skin and is most commonly found on the scalp, nose and/or upper back. Although there are various suspected causes of seborrheic dermatitis, Coal Tar can be used to manage the condition and to reduce the appearance of red, dry and/or itchy skin.

The term eczema actually refers to a number of conditions but the most common is known as atopic eczema. Also known as atopic dermatitis, the condition can cause peeling, blistering or thickening of the skin, as well as painful, red and itchy areas of skin. When atopic eczema occurs, the skin cells typically grow too quickly. This results in them being shed earlier, leaving sensitive open to the elements. Despite shedding an excess of skin cells, these tend to accumulate on the surface of the skin, leading to dry patches and inflammation.

Currently, there is not a cure for most of these skin conditions but medications, such as Coal Tar, can be used to manage the symptoms. By softening keratin, Coal Tar effectively reduces rough and/or dry patches of skin which means that the patient's skin cracks less and is significantly less painful. In addition to this, Coal Tar prevents skin cells from growing too quickly and, therefore, being shed too quickly. This lessens the amount of dry skin and reduces the accumulation of dead skin cells, thus limiting the amount of inflammation which occurs.

As Coal Tar can be used on a long-term basis, many patients find that it is extremely effective in managing their skin condition. As well as improving the appearance of psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, and eczema, Coal Tar helps to alleviate the pain, itching and discomfort associated with these conditions.

Conditions Treated

Type of Medicine

  • Anti-inflammatory

Side Effects

Although prescription Coal Tar can cause mild stinging when it's applied, this normally only occurs when it is used in solution or gels forms. Typically, patients do not suffer any significant side effects when using this medication.

In some cases, however, patients may develop side effects if the medication is not suited to them. If patients notice any of the following adverse effects when using Coal Tar, they should seek medical advice:

  • Rash on the skin
  • Irritation which was not present before the Coal Tar was used

Patients should only use the medication as their doctor has prescribed. Using too much Coal Tar may increase the risk of side effects occurring. If patients experience any other adverse effects when using Coal Tar topically, they should seek medical advice. Patients can also report additional side effects to the Food and Drug Administration on 1-800-FDA-1088.


When patients are prescribed Coal Tar for topical use, their physician or dermatologist will provide specific application instructions. In addition to this, they will advise the patient how much Coal Tar to apply and how often to use it.

There are, however, standard adult dosage instructions depending on which type of medication the patient is given. When using a Coal Tar cleansing bar, for example, patients are generally advised to use the bar once or twice per day. If Coal Tar cream is prescribed, patients may be able to apply it to the affected areas up to four times per day. Alternatively, when using Coal Tar gel, patients should only usually apply the medication once or twice per day. If Coal Tar ointment is prescribed, patients may be able to apply this to their skin two or three times per day.

If using Coal Tar lotion, patients may be advised to apply the medicine the affected areas directly or they may be told to add the lotion to a bath and soak the affected areas in the solution. Similarly, a topical Coal Tar solution or a topical suspension should usually be applied to wet skin or a wet scalp but it can also be added to a bath. If patients experience symptoms on their scalp, they may also be given a Coal Tar shampoo. In most cases, patients should only use Coal Tar shampoo once per week, unless their doctor has advised otherwise.

Although these standard dosage instructions are applicable to adult patients, Coal Tar can also be prescribed to younger patients. If children are prescribed Coal Tar for use on their skin or scalp, the appropriate dose and frequency of use will be determined by their physician.

If patients forget to apply Coal Tar or miss a dose, they should administer the medication as soon as they remember to do so. If the next application of medicine is almost due, however, patients should simply skip the dose they've missed. Using excess amounts of Coal Tar will not help to alleviate the patient's condition, even if a dose has been missed, and may increase the chance of side effects occurring.


When prescription medications are used alongside other drugs, interactions may occur. Although Coal Tar has not been associated with any specific drug interactions, patients should tell their physician if they are taking any other medications before using Coal Tar topically. Similarly, patients should seek medical advice before taking any medicines once they have begun treatment with Coal Tar. This applies to over-the-counter medicines, vitamins and/or supplements, as well as prescription medications.

Although Coal Tar can be prescribed to younger patients and children, it is not typically prescribed for use on infants. Parents or guardians should discuss the use of Coal Tar with their child's physician before using it.

When used topically, Coal Tar can increase the effects of sun exposure and may result in patients getting sunburnt more quickly. Patients should avoid prolonged exposure to the sun when using this medicine and should avoid using sunbeds and/or heat lamps. If patients get sunburnt or experience blistering and/or redness of the skin, they should inform their physician.

In most cases, Coal Tar will not be prescribed to patients who are pregnant. Although the medication is not thought to present a significant risk to pregnant patients, it will only be prescribed if the patient's physician believes the benefits of the medication outweigh any potential risks.

If patients become pregnant while using Coal Tar topically, they should seek medical advice.

Similarly, Coal Tar is not thought to present a risk to patients who are breastfeeding. However, medications can be passed on to an infant via breastfeeding so patients should discuss these risks with their doctor before using Coal Tar whilst breastfeeding.

Coal Tar can cause staining to the patient's skin and/or clothes, regardless of what format the medication is in. Patients should avoid getting Coal Tar on their clothes and should rinse their skin thoroughly after use, providing this is in-keeping with their doctor's advice. Generally, staining of the skin will dissipate once the patient is no longer using the medication.

If used on the scalp or neck area, Coal Tar can affect tinted, bleached and/or blond hair. In some cases, it may discolor this type of hair but this effect is normally only temporary. If concerned, patients should carry out a patch test on a small area of skin before using the medication.

Before using Coal Tar topically, patients should tell their physician if they have any existing allergies. In addition to this, patients should read the ingredient label on the medication before using it. This will help them to confirm whether the solution contains anything they might be allergic to.

If patients develop an allergic reaction whilst using Coal Tar, it may present as skin irritation but it could also present as a more serious reaction. Swelling of the throat, face and/or lips, hives, welts, and itching can be indicative of an allergic reaction taking place. If patients experience these symptoms when using Coal Tar topically, they should seek urgent medical help. As allergic reactions can be life-threatening, it's vital that patients access medical assistance quickly.


As Coal Tar is available in various formats, patients should read the medicine's instruction guide and/or label in order to obtain specific storage instructions. In most cases, however, Coal Tar should be kept at room temperature and should not be exposed to freezing and/or heat. In addition to this, the medicine should usually be kept away from moisture and out of direct sunlight.

Although patients may automatically try and store Coal Tar solutions in their bathroom, this may not be the best place to keep medicines. As bathrooms can become hot and contain a lot of moisture, this could potentially damage the medication.

When storing Coal Tar at home, it's also important to ensure that pets and/or children cannot access it. Placing the Coal Tar solution on a high shelf or inside a locked medicine cabinet may help to keep it out of reach.

If patients need to dispose of Coal Tar, they should use designated medical disposal routes. Patients can contact their physician's office or pharmacist for assistance when disposing of medicine.


Skin conditions, such as psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis and eczema, can be extremely painful and may cause patient's significant discomfort. In addition to this, broken or cracked skin can increase the risk of infections occurring and may leave the patient vulnerable to further health problems.

Currently, the causes of the skin conditions are unknown. Although it's believed that genetic, environmental and hormonal factors play a role in skin conditions, an underlying cause has yet to be confirmed.

Whilst Coal Tar does not provide a cure for skin conditions, such as eczema, seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis, it does provide effective treatment. By relieving the symptoms of these conditions, Coal Tar can reduce the patient's pain and discomfort, as well as help to improve the appearance and feel of the skin. When used on a mid or long-term basis, Coal Tar can also help to prevent skin from cracking or peeling and this can reduce the risk of subsequent infections or conditions occurring.