Coal Tar

What Is It?

Coal Tar occurs as a nearly black viscous liquid or semi-solid. Coal Tar is used in the formulation of Over-the-Counter (OTC) shampoos, skin care products, and hair care products for treatment of dandruf, seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis.

Why Is It Used?

In OTC drug products, Coal Tar helps to control dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, and psoriasis. Coal Tar can be added to ethyl alcohol (grain alcohol) as a denaturant.

Scientific Facts

Coal Tar used in OTC drug products is obtained as a byproduct during the destructive distillation of bituminous coal at temperatures in the range of 900 degrees C to 1,100 degrees C. It may be further processed using either extraction with alcohol and suitable dispersing agents and maceration times or fractional distillation with or without the use of suitable organic solvents.

Safety Information

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permits the use of Coal Tar as an active ingredient in Over-the-Counter (OTC) external drug products. For the control of dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, and psoriasis, Coal Tar may be used at concentrations of 0.5% to 5%. The FDA also requires that OTC drug products containing Coal Tar must carry appropriate warning statements on the product label. The safety of Coal Tar has been assessed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel. The CIR Expert Panel evaluated the scientific data and concluded that the available data were insufficient to determine the safety of Coal Tar for use in cosmetics and personal care products as described in the safety assessment. They did not address the safety of the use of Coal Tar in OTC drug products.

CIR Safety Review: Coal Tar was absorbed through the skin and was systemically distributed. In short term laboratory studies, Coal Tar in the diet was found to be unpalatable, but no adverse effects were reported other than weight loss. In a subchronic neurotoxicity study, a mixture of phenols, cresols, and xylenols at concentrations approximately equal to those expected in Coal Tar extracts, produced selective effects on different regions of the brain, with a rank order of striatum greater than cerebellum greater than cerebral cortex. Coal Tar applied to the back increased skin thickness. Painting with tar decreased the absolute and relative weights of the ovaries and decreased the number of interstitial cells in the ovary. Four therapeutic Coal Tar preparations used in the treatment of psoriasis screened using bacterial tests were mutagenic. Urine and blood from patients treated with Coal Tar were genotoxic in bacterial assays. Coal Tar was genotoxic in another genotoxicity assay and induced DNA adducts in various tissue types. In chronic exposure laboratory study, Coal Tar decreased survival and liver neoplasms were seen in a significant dose-related trend; in other studies, lung tumors and perianal skin cancers were found. Coal Tar was comedogenic in three small clinical studies. Folliculitis is associated with the prolonged use of some tars. Several published reports described cases of contact sensitivity to Coal Tar. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which make up Coal Tar are photosensitizers and cause phototoxicity by an oxygen dependent mechanism.

A retrospective study of the reproductive toxicity of Coal Tar in humans compared exposed women to controls and found little difference in spontaneous abortion and congenital disorders. Cancer epidemiology studies of patients who have received Coal Tar therapy of one form or other have failed to link treatment with an increase in the risk of cancer. While the CIR Expert Panel believes that Coal Tar use as an antidandruff ingredient in OTC drug preparations is adequately addressed by the FDA regulations, the CIR Expert Panel also believes that the appropriate concentration of use of Coal Tar in cosmetic formulations should be that level that does not have a biological effect. Additional data requested by the CIR Expert Panel to reach a conclusion included product types in which Coal Tar is used (other than as an OTC drug ingredient), use concentrations, and the maximum concentration that does not induce a biological effect.

More information about Coal Tar.

Link to FDA Code of Federal Regulations for Coal Tar

Coal Tar is listed as crude and refined coal tars in Annex II of the Cosmetics Directive of the European Union and must not form part of the composition of cosmetics and personal care products.

Link to the EU Cosmetic Regulation:…

Health Canada does not permit the use of Coal Tars, crude and refined, in cosmetics and personal care products.…

More Scientific Information

Coal Tar is obtained as a byproduct in the destructive distillation of bituminous coal. Crude Coal Tar is composed of 48% hydrocarbons, 42% carbon, and 10% water. In OTC drug products, Coal Tar is used to treat dandruf, seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis.


Find out more about the regulation of Over-the-Counter drugs by the Food and Drug Administration

OTC Drug Home Page:…

Information about OTC Drug monographs:

Search the Code of Federal Regulations

The European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-Food Products Intended for Consumers (SCCNFP) opinion concerning Refined Coal Tar by Bi-Distillation

EU Cosmetics Inventory