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What is Coal Tar Soap?

By N. Phipps
Updated May 21, 2024
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Coal tar is a liquid byproduct of distilled coal. The black liquid is well known for its ability to help remove toxins from the body, and it also contains antiseptic qualities. Coal tar soap is used as a cleansing antiseptic for a variety of skin disorders. In fact, it is a commonly prescribed treatment that is used in dermatology.

Soap made with coal tar thoroughly cleanses the skin, drawing out toxins. It has been used to effectively treat skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, acne, seborrhea dermatitis, scabies, and ringworm. The tar helps relieve the inflammation and itchiness associated with severe dry skin, slows down rapid skin cell growth, and restores the skin’s natural appearance.

In shampoo form, coal tar also helps to alleviate symptoms of flaky skin from conditions like dandruff and dry scalp. It exhibits anti-parasitic properties as well, and is beneficial for treating problems with head lice. In addition to coal tar soap and shampoo, ointments, gels, and creams are also available. These are available by prescription or over-the-counter.

Since the quality of coal tar products varies between brands, it is important for consumers to find a good over-the-counter product. For instance, many products claim to be made from genuine coal tar but are instead imitations. True coal tar products will contain PAH, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. In some areas, a prescription may be required before obtaining these products, due to health concerns associated with the use of coal tar.

Some studies have shown that certain chemicals found in coal tar soap and related products may cause cancer. Only high concentrations of coal tar are linked to this research, however. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is no scientific evidence that support carcinogenic properties within coal tar products in lower concentrations—from 0.05% to 5%. In fact, these products are deemed safe and effective for treating multiple skin conditions when used properly and in low doses.

There are side effects from using coal tar products, however. This is especially true for individuals with overly sensitive skin. Coal tar can irritate and redden the skin in some people, especially when used in higher concentrations. In addition, the soap can make the skin more sensitive to the sun.

Although coal tar soap washes off easily and usually doesn’t leave any residue behind, the tar can still remain active within the skin for at least 24 hours, which may increase the risk of sunburn. Nonetheless, the benefits of using coal products seem to outweigh the possible side effects. Many people swear by their healing properties, choosing to continue their use in spite of any risks.

BeautyAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon962769 — On Jul 25, 2014

There's such a thing as sulfur soap, too, Charlie89 (e.g. Grisi Sulfur Soap). These products aren't 'dirty' at all. In fact, they're probably the best skin cleansers you're ever likely to find.

By anon928618 — On Jan 28, 2014

@ Charlie89: Paracetamol is derived from coal tar. It does stink but it also works. However it stinks. It cured my mother's skin problems and did help with mine although I stopped due to the smell.

By anon277236 — On Jun 28, 2012

Wright's Coal Tar soap does not contain any coal tar because of an EU directive banning the use of coal tar in non-prescription products. The coal tar in Wright's Coal Tar soap has been replaced with Tea Tree Oil instead as this has natural antiseptic properties, although the soap still retains it's traditional coal tar fragrance.

By anon265217 — On May 01, 2012

Gave me terrible problems with my eyes. They became very red and extremely sensitive to light.

By anon249890 — On Feb 23, 2012

@charlie89: Don't knock it before trying it. I once had a terrible flare up of clogged oil glands on my face and tar soap was the only thing that helped. It has a strong tar odor but it's not dirty.

By anon229599 — On Nov 14, 2011

I've used coal tar ointment for eczema flare-ups in the past, and I've have to say it was more effective than more expensive eczema lotions without coal tar oil as an ingredient. The only thing I could not get over was the smell. Coal oil products don't look dirty or black, but they still smell like coal. It's not so overwhelming that others would want to leave the room or anything, but it's not a smell you'd want following you everywhere.

I'd probably use coal tar oil more often if the manufacturer could do something about the smell. Other than that, I did get relief from the itching and redness, and the coal tar oil did seem to soften the scales between my fingers.

By anon164859 — On Apr 03, 2011

I just started using coal tar soap and it has been a godsend.

By anon153611 — On Feb 17, 2011

I purchased a bar of pine tar soap today due to ezcema on my face. I would like more info on coal tar soaps or salves if you have any to share.

By naturesgurl3 — On Sep 17, 2010

My boyfriend always laughs at me because I use pine tar shampoo and coal tar soap for my psoriasis -- he say's I'm a tar addict!

By StreamFinder — On Sep 17, 2010

@Charlie89 -- I understand your concerns, but actually there's a lot of evidence for the benefits of coal tar treatments.

Many people use coal tar ointment for psoriasis, and I personally use coal tar cream as a moisturizer because I have extremely dry skin.

It may sound like "snake oil", but it really does work. If you would like to try it, may I recommend Wright's coal tar soap, which tends to give pretty good results.

By Charlie89 — On Sep 17, 2010

I have never heard of this, but I can't really imagine washing with something that comes from coal.

Isn't it always really dirty? I think this sounds like one of those so called "organic soap" snake oil things.

It would be like using sulfur for soap or something -- I just can't see how you use something dirty or smelly to make yourself clean.

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