coal tar topical

Medically Reviewed on 3/29/2023

Generic Name: coal tar topical

Brand Names: Fototar, Medotar, Oxipor VHC, Polytar Soap, Psorent, Psoriasin, Taraphilic

Drug Class: Keratolytic Agents

What is coal tar topical, and what is it used for?

Coal tar topical is a medication applied on the skin and scalp for the relief of symptoms including itching, scaling, flaking, redness, and irritation caused by skin conditions such as dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, eczema and psoriasis. Coal tar is a viscous by-product that results when coal is used to make coke or coal gas. Coal tar topical is available over the counter (OTC) in many forms such as cream, gel, ointment, lotion, solution, foam, shampoo and soap.

In skin conditions such as dermatitis and psoriasis, inflammation causes excessive growth of skin cells that exceeds the shedding rate of dead skin cells. As a result, layers of skin cells accumulate, along with oil and bacteria, causing scaling, flaking, itching and irritation. Coal tar is a complex mixture of several compounds that have antiseptic and antibacterial properties. Coal tar is also a keratolytic substance that breaks down keratin, a fibrous protein that is part of the skin structure, softens and loosens the scaly skin, and helps shed dead skin cells.


  • Do not use coal tar topical if you are hypersensitive to any of its components.
  • Coal tar topical can increase skin sensitivity to light (photosensitivity). Avoid exposure to direct sunlight for 24 hours and sunlamps for 72 hours after application.
  • Do not apply coal tar topical to broken, infected or inflamed skin.
  • Some formulations may contain polysorbate 80 which may cause allergic reactions in some people. Exercise caution.
  • Do not use coal tar topical concurrently with other forms of psoriasis therapy such as ultraviolet radiation or prescription drugs unless directed by your healthcare provider.
  • Check with your healthcare provider before using coal tar if a large area of the body, or the genital, groin or rectal areas require treatment.
  • Coal tar shampoo can discolor gray, blond, tinted or bleached hair, and also stain light-colored fabrics. Plastic and fiberglass sinks and tubs can also get stained.
  • Some formulations may contain propylene glycol which can be toxic in large amounts.


An average adult has about ________ square feet of skin. See Answer

What are the side effects of coal tar topical?

Common side effects of coal tar topical include:

  • Dermatitis
  • Skin irritation
  • Stinging and burning
  • Skin peeling (desquamation)
  • Inflammation of the hair follicles (folliculitis)
  • Acne-like eruptions
  • Skin photosensitivity
  • Staining and discoloration

Call your doctor immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms or serious side effects while using this drug:

This is not a complete list of all side effects or adverse reactions that may occur from the use of this drug. Call your doctor for medical advice about serious side effects or adverse reactions. You may also report side effects or health problems to the FDA at 1-800-FDA-1088.

What are the dosages of coal tar topical?

Topical cream

  • coal tar 10% solution (equivalent to 2% coal tar)

Topical ointment

  • 2%

Topical gel/shampoo

  • 0.5% (Thera-Gel)
  • 2.9% (DHS)

Topical lotion

  • coal tar 25% solution (equivalent to 5% coal tar)
  • coal tar 5% solution (equivalent to 1% coal tar)


  • coal tar 2.5% solution (equivalent to 0.5% coal tar)

Topical solution

  • coal tar 15% solution (equivalent to 2.3% coal tar)


Psoriasis and Seborrheic Dermatitis

  • Apply sparingly to affected area up to 4 times/day; decrease frequency to 2-3 times/week once improvement observed
  • Product content varies, check individual labeling


  • Safety and efficacy not established


  • Topical use of coal tar is unlikely to result in overdose. Oral ingestion of coal tar topical can be harmful. Overdose may be treated with symptomatic and supportive care.

What drugs interact with coal tar topical?

Inform your doctor of all medications you are currently taking, who can advise you on any possible drug interactions. Never begin taking, suddenly discontinue, or change the dosage of any medication without your doctor’s recommendation.

  • Coal tar topical has no listed severe, serious, moderate, or mild interactions with other drugs.

The drug interactions listed above are not all of the possible interactions or adverse effects. For more information on drug interactions, visit the RxList Drug Interaction Checker.

It is important to always tell your doctor, pharmacist, or health care provider of all prescription and over-the-counter medications you use, as well as the dosage for each, and keep a list of the information. Check with your doctor or health care provider if you have any questions about the medication.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

  • Limited application of coal tar topical may be used during pregnancy if clearly needed.
  • It is not known if coal tar topical is absorbed sufficiently to be present in breastmilk. Use with caution if you are breastfeeding, avoid applying on the breast region, and avoid allowing direct contact between the treated skin and the infant.
  • Avoid using any OTC product, including coal tar topical, without first checking with your healthcare provider if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

What else should I know about coal tar topical?

  • Use coal tar topical products exactly as directed. Do not use for longer periods or more frequently than recommended, it may make your condition worse.
  • Coal tar topical is for external use only. Avoid contact with eyes. In case of accidental contact, flush the eyes thoroughly with clean water.
  • Discontinue use and consult with your physician if your condition does not improve, worsens or you have excessive irritation after using coal tar topical.
  • Store coal tar topical products safely out of reach of children.
  • In case of oral ingestion and overdose, immediately seek medical help or contact Poison Control.

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Coal tar topical is a medication applied on the skin and scalp for the relief of symptoms including itching, scaling, flaking, redness, and irritation caused by skin conditions such as dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, eczema and psoriasis. Common side effects of coal tar topical include dermatitis, skin irritation, stinging and burning, skin peeling (desquamation), inflammation of the hair follicles (folliculitis), acne-like eruptions, skin photosensitivity, staining, and discoloration.

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You are encouraged to report negative side effects of prescription drugs to the FDA. Visit the FDA MedWatch website or call 1-800-FDA-1088.

Medically Reviewed on 3/29/2023