The Facts About Coal Tar: What’s It Used In And Is It Safe?

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Coal Tar Cream
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Coal Tar is a byproduct created by burning coal, made up of hundreds of compounds, and is a known carcinogen. It is used in used in food, textiles, cosmetics and personal care products. Unsurprisingly, when I first began my research into this substance I was pretty confused to be honest, it seemed so unlikely that we would really be slathering it onto our skin. I stumbled upon Wikipedia’s description:

Coal tar is a brown or black liquid of extremely high viscosity. Coal tar is among the by-products when coal is carbonized to make coke or gasified to make coal gas. Coal tars are complex and variable mixtures of phenols, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and heterocyclic compounds.

So it was obvious this wasn’t the stuff that is put into skincare products – but were the two connected? After scrolling down a little, it became apparent that they were.

Also known as liquor carbonis detergens (LCD), and liquor picis carbonis [a] (LPC) BP it can be used in medicated shampoo, soap and ointment, as a treatment for dandruff and psoriasis, as well as being used to kill and repel head lice.

When used in the extemporaneous preparation of topical medications, it is supplied in the form of coal tar topical solution USP, which consists of a 20% w/v solution of coal tar in alcohol, with an additional 5% w/v of polysorbate 80 USP; this must then be diluted in an ointment base such as petrolatum.

So coal tar, the black sticky stuff used to seal roofs and roads could also be used topically when diluted? My interest was piqued and I needed to find out more so that I could share the full story with you. Here is a summary of what I found.

Coal Tar
Coal Tar

What Exactly Is Coal Tar?

The following was found on Safe,

Coal Tar is considered a known carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Coal tar is a complex chemical mixture that also includes a number of suspected and known carcinogens, such as benzene, toluene, naphthalene, anthracene, xylene, creosote oils and benzo[a]pyrene, which is a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH). PAHs are a large class of chemical that are reasonably anticipated to cause cancer.

Why Is Coal Tar Used Topically?

Coal tar is known as a keratoplastic drug, and is sometimes suggested to treat the skin when suffering from itching, scaling, and flaking. It is considered a suitable medication to treat conditions including psoriasis or seborrheic dermatitis.

It causes the skin to shed it’s top layer of  dead cells while slowing down the growth of new skin cells. This reduces itchiness, scaling and dryness.

Dry Skin
Dry Skin

What Is Coal Tar Found In?

Coal tar crops up in age ingredients list for some shampoos, scalp treatments, soaps, hair dyes, and lotions.

When looking at the label be aware of the following:

  • Coal tar solution
  • Tar
  • Coal
  • Carbo-cort
  • Coal tar solution
  • Coal tar solution USP
  • Crude coal tar
  • Estar
  • Impervotar
  • KC 261
  • Lavatar
  • Picis carbonis
  • Naphtha
  • High solvent naphtha
  • Naphtha distillate
  • Benzin B70
  • Petroleum benzin

What Foods Contain Coal Tar?

Coal tar can be used as a food dye.  Artificial coloring agents are made by combining hydrocarbons including toluene, xylene, and benzene, which are obtained from the distillation of bituminous coal. It is not generally obvious when coal tar dyes are used, so be sure to check the ingredients list.


Is It Safe To Use Coal Tar Products?

Coal tar has been used for many years – long before steroids were readily available to treat dry skin conditions. Therefore lots of people feel that worries about it’s safety are largely unfounded. It is very cheap to use, and obviously avoids the steroid related side effects of alternative topical ointments.

The FDA considers 0.5 to 5% OTC coal tar preparations safe for psoriasis.

EWG’s Skindeep Database gives Coal Tar a hazard rating of 10 out of 10, with 10 being the most hazardous!

Benzopyrene, one of the compounds within coal tar, has been found to be carcinogenic through skin exposure, which makes these products a particular cancer concern.

Studies have also found that exposure to coal tar produces skin tumors. In addition, it has been linked to cancer of the lung, bladder, kidney and digestive tract, with some instances of skin cancer being reported amongst individuals using coal tar products.

There are also concerns regarding toxic damage to the organs and neurological system. Loss of co-ordination, sleep and emotional disturbances have been linked to coal tar usage.

The real worry is that many of the components of coal tar have not actually been identified, so it is difficult to know exactly which elements cause adverse reactions.


How To Keep Safe

The best course of action is to stay informed. Be aware of the products that are suggested by your doctor for treatment of any skin conditions, particularly when treating large areas. Keep a close eye on ingredients lists, so that you can control exactly how much exposure, if any you and your family are subjected to.

If it is not possible to avoid usage, then be aware of the dosage and keep a note of side effects. These can vary dramatically from brand to brand. The following recommendations come from , who urges you to not let the details go over your head when you buy over the counter.

Tar can irritate, redden and dry the skin. Test a tar product on a small area of the skin first. If reddening occurs, try applying the tar on top of a moisturizer. Tar can stain clothing, bed linen, and light-colored hair. Tar makes skin more sensitive to sunlight, so be sure to wash it off thoroughly, use sunscreen and monitor your sun exposure. Tar remains active on the skin for at least 24 hours, and you are at increased risk of sunburn during this period.

Studies show some of the chemicals in coal tar may cause cancer, but only in very high concentrations, such as in what is used in industrial paving. Anyone using tar regularly should follow a regular skin cancer checkup schedule. California requires OTC coal tar shampoos, lotions and creams that contain more than 0.5 percent coal tar to be labeled with cancer warnings. However, the FDA maintains that OTC products with coal tar concentrations between 0.5 percent and 5 percent are safe and effective for psoriasis, and there is no scientific evidence that the tar in OTC products is carcinogenic.

We would agree with this advice wholeheartedly. Make your own choices on whether to use coal tar or not, based on the scientific research, and opinions of your medical professionals, but stay vigilant and test small areas of skin at first.

Do you already use or avoid coal tar products? We would love to hear from you.

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