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What’s Up With Tar-Based Shampoos?
from James D.

Hello again Ed.  Can you help clear up the contradictions concerning tar based shampoos? I'm aware of the dangerous chemicals found in Neutrogena shampoo but what about all the others: Polytar, Sebcur T, etc. Personally, I've been using Tersa-tar shampoo, I use it every day and the results are fantastic, BUT it does contain a 3% coal tar distillate? Thanks –James D.


Ed’s Response:  This one makes me mad.  Not you, James. The legislation/litigation in California that’s making negative waves everywhere.

First, to your concern.  No, I can’t clear anything up.  If the entire state of California has gone off the deep end over this, the best I can do is be pissed off.  Clarifying the issue will take bigger guns than I can muster. 

I’m unaware of any evidence stating that any normal use of coal tar-derivative shampoo or other hair-care products causes cancer (the California concern) or any other bad thing.  I italicize “normal use” because some flakers occlude with the shampoo over night or wear it in their hair for hours on end.  This is extreme use and I’m not sure anybody knows or has attempted to learn what the long-term consequences of this extreme use might be.  (Personally, I don’t do it.)

Evidently the National Psoriasis Foundation and the Food and Drug Administration aren’t aware of any evidence, either, because, according to a page 1 article in the January/February 2002 NPF Bulletin, both of these organizations wrote letters expounding this opinion to litigants in California.  (Note:  As of March 4, the January/February 2002 issue of the NPF Bulletin was not yet available on line at 

A law known as Proposition 65 in California requires OTC products containing certain chemicals to print on their packaging, “Warning:  This product contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer.”  Evidently the coal-tar derivative used in anti-flaking shampoo qualifies.  You’ll note the crafty wording that avoids higher court appeals.  Known to the state of California.  Good grief.  When we anthropomorphize a piece of geography and need someone to point a finger at, it’s traditional to aim for the highest political office attached to that piece of geography.  In this case, that means we might as well stick our tongues out at the Governor of California.  He, of course, will wag a finger at “the voters.”

According to the NPF article, it sounds as though the lion’s share of coal-tar shampoo manufacturers will comply with the label warning requirement.  Denorex — a very popular shampoo among flakers, unfortunately — has decided to replace the coal-tar extract with salicylic acid.  Salicylic acid is a keratolytic, a chemical that helps free scale.  The coal-tar derivative helpful for skin lesions, on the other hand, can actually subdue the generation of scale.  This makes the salicylic acid compromise, really a compromise.

One company, Dermik, makers of Zetar, has, according to the NPF article, decided to discontinue sale of this product in California.

We haven’t heard the end of the battle in California.  The National Psoriasis Foundation has promised to keep us updated.  In the meantime, I know lots of FlakeHQers live in California and I loved to get some email from them on this issue.  -Ed

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