Coal tar

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Coal tar
Trade namesBalnetar, Cutar, others
Other namesliquor carbonis detergens (LCD)
liquor picis carbonis (LPC)[1]
Clinical data
  • US: C (Risk not ruled out)
Routes of
Defined daily dosenot established[2]
External links
AHFS/Drugs.comMultum Consumer Information
Legal status
  • US: OTC / Rx-only

Coal tar is a thick dark liquid which is a by-product of the production of coke and coal gas from coal.[3][4] It has both medical and industrial uses.[3][5] It may be applied to the affected area to treat psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff).[6] It may be used in combination with ultraviolet light therapy.[6] Industrially it is a railway tie preservative and used in the surfacing of roads.[7]

Side effects include skin irritation, sun sensitivity, allergic reactions, and skin discoloration.[6] It is unclear if use during pregnancy is safe for the baby and use during breastfeeding is not typically recommended.[8] The exact mechanism of action is unknown.[9] It is a complex mixture of phenols, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and heterocyclic compounds.[3] It demonstrates antifungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-itch, and antiparasitic properties.[9]

Coal tar was discovered around 1665 and used for medical purposes as early as the 1800s.[7][10] It is on the World Health Organization's List of Essential Medicines.[11] Coal tar is available as a generic medication and over the counter.[5] In the United Kingdom 125 ml of 5% shampoo costs the NHS about £1.89.[12] In the United States a month's treatment costs less than $25 USD.[5] Coal tar was one of the key starting materials for the early pharmaceutical industry.[13]



Coal tar is used in medicated shampoo, soap and ointment. It demonstrates antifungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-itch, and antiparasitic properties.[9] It may be applied topically as a treatment for dandruff and psoriasis, and to kill and repel head lice.[6] It may be used in combination with ultraviolet light therapy.[6]

Pine tar has historically also been used for this purpose. Though it is frequently cited online as having been banned as a medical product by the FDA due to a "lack of evidence having been submitted for proof of effectiveness", pine tar is included in the Code of Federal Regulations, subchapter D: Drugs for Human Use, as an OTC treatment for "Dandruff/seborrheic dermatitis/psoriasis".[14]

Coal tar may be used in two forms: crude coal tar (Latin: pix carbonis) or a coal tar solution (Latin: liquor picis carbonis, LPC) also known as liquor carbonis detergens (LCD).[9][15][16] Named brands include Denorex, Balnetar, Psoriasin, Tegrin, T/Gel, and Neutar. 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.


The defined daily dose is not established.[2]


Coal tar was a component of the first sealed roads. In its original development by Edgar Purnell Hooley, tarmac was tar covered with granite chips. Later the filler used was industrial slag. Today, petroleum derived binders and sealers are more commonly used. These sealers are used to extend the life and reduce maintenance cost associated with asphalt pavements, primarily in asphalt road paving, car parks and walkways.

Coal tar is incorporated into some parking-lot sealcoat products used to protect the structural integrity of the underlying pavement.[17] Sealcoat products that are coal-tar based typically contain 20 to 35 percent coal-tar pitch.[17] Research[18] shows it is used throughout the United States of America, however several areas have banned its use in sealcoat products, [19][20][21] including the District of Columbia; the city of Austin, Texas; Dane County, Wisconsin; the state of Washington; and several municipalities in Minnesota and others.[22][23]


Being flammable, coal tar is sometimes used for heating or to fire boilers. Like most heavy oils, it must be heated before it will flow easily.

A large part of the binder used in the graphite industry for making "green blocks" is coke oven volatiles (COV), a considerable portion of which is coal tar. During the baking process of the green blocks as a part of commercial graphite production, most of the coal tar binders are vaporised and are generally burned in an incinerator to prevent release into the atmosphere, as COV and coal tar can be injurious to health.

Coal tar is also used to manufacture paints, synthetic dyes (notably tartrazine/Yellow #5), and photographic materials.

In the coal gas era, there were many companies in Britain whose business was to distill coal tar to separate the higher-value fractions, such as naphtha, creosote and pitch. A great many industrial chemicals were first isolated from coal tar during this time. These companies included:[24]


Side effects of coal tar products include skin irritation, sun sensitivity, allergic reactions, and skin discoloration.[6] It is unclear if use during pregnancy is safe for the baby and use during breastfeeding is not typically recommended.[25]

According to the National Psoriasis Foundation, coal tar is a valuable, safe and inexpensive treatment option for millions of people with psoriasis and other scalp or skin conditions.[26] According to the FDA, coal tar concentrations between 0.5% and 5% are considered safe[27] and effective for psoriasis.


Evidence is inconclusive whether the coal tar in the concentrations seen in non-prescription treatments causes cancer, because there is insufficient data to make a judgment.[28] While coal tar consistently causes cancer in animal studies,[29] short-term treatments of humans have shown no significant increase in rates of cancer.[28] It's possible that the skin can repair itself after short-term exposure to PAHs, but not after long-term exposure.[28]

Coal tar was one of the first chemical substances proven to cause cancer from occupational exposure, during research in 1775 on the cause of chimney sweeps' carcinoma.[30] Modern studies have shown that working with coal tar pitch, such as during the paving of roads or when working on roofs, increases the risk of cancer.[29]

Coal tar contains many polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and it is believed that their metabolites bind to DNA, damaging it.[31] Long-term skin exposure to these compounds can produce "tar warts", which can progress to squamous cell carcinoma.[30]

The International Agency for Research on Cancer lists coal tars as Group 1 carcinogens, meaning they directly cause cancer.[29][32][33] Both the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the state of California list coal tars as known human carcinogens.[34]

In response to public health concerns regarding the carcinogenicity of PAHs some municipalities, such as the city of Milwaukee, have banned the use of common coal tar-based road and driveway sealants citing concerns of elevated PAH content in groundwater.[35]


Coal tar causes increased sensitivity to sunlight,[36] so skin treated with topical coal tar preparations should be protected from sunlight.

The residue from the distillation of high-temperature coal tar, primarily a complex mixture of three or more membered condensed ring aromatic hydrocarbons, was listed on 28 October 2008 as a substance of very high concern by the European Chemicals Agency.

Mechanism of action

The exact mechanism of action is unknown.[9] Coal tar is a complex mixture of phenols, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and heterocyclic compounds.[3]

It is a keratolytic agent, which reduces the growth rate of skin cells and softens the skin's keratin.[37][30]


Coal tar is produced through thermal destruction (pyrolysis) of coal. Its composition varies with the process and type of coal used – lignite, bituminous or anthracite.[30]

Coal tar contains approximately 10,000 chemicals, of which only about 50% have been identified.[38][better source needed] Components include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (4-rings: chrysene, fluoranthene, pyrene, triphenylene, naphthacene, benzanthracene, 5-rings: picene, benzo[a]pyrene, benzo[e]pyrene, benzofluoranthenes, perylene, 6-rings: dibenzopyrenes, dibenzofluoranthenes, benzoperylenes, 7-rings: coronene), as well as methylated and polymethylated derivatives, mono- and polyhydroxylated derivatives, and heterocyclic compounds.[29][39] Others include benzene, toluene, xylenes, cumenes, coumarone, indene, benzofuran, naphthalene and methyl-naphthalenes, acenaphthene, fluorene, phenol, cresols, pyridine, picolines, phenanthracene, carbazole, quinolines, fluoranthene.[30] Many of these constituents are known carcinogens.[40][31]


Various phenolic coal tar derivatives have analgesic (pain-killer) properties. These included acetanilide, phenacetin, and paracetamol (acetaminophen).[41] Paracetamol is the only coal-tar derived analgesic still in use today, but industrial phenol is now usually synthesized from crude oil rather than coal tar. Coal tar derivatives are contra-indicated for people with the inherited red cell blood disorder glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency (G6PD deficiency), as they can cause oxidative stress leading to red blood cell breakdown.[42]

Society and culture

Coal tar is on the World Health Organization's List of Essential Medicines, the most effective and safe medicines needed in a health system.[11] Coal tar is generally available as a generic medication and over the counter.[5] In the United Kingdom 125 ml of 5% shampoo costs the NHS about £1.89.[12] In the United States a month of treatment costs less than US$25.[5]


Exposure to coal tar pitch volatiles can occur in the workplace by breathing, skin contact, or eye contact. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set the permissible exposure limit) to 0.2 mg/m3 benzene-soluble fraction over an 8-hour workday. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has set a recommended exposure limit (REL) of 0.1 mg/m3 cyclohexane-extractable fraction over an 8-hour workday. At levels of 80 mg/m3, coal tar pitch volatiles are immediately dangerous to life and health.[43]

When used as a medication in the United States, coal tar preparations are considered over-the-counter drug pharmaceuticals and are subject to regulation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

See also


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External links