Dr. Andrea Middleton - Is It Bad For You? Approved by Dr. Andrea Middleton

Is Coal Tar Bad For You?



Short answer

Coal tar and its byproducts contain carcinogenic compounds, with occupational exposure linked to cancer risks. While low-concentration OTC products for skin conditions are FDA-approved and considered safe, awareness and caution are advised. Environmental contamination from coal tar poses serious risks, necessitating regulated use and safety measures in industries.



Long answer

Definition and Common Uses of Coal Tar

Coal tar is a thick, black or dark brown liquid or semi-solid, which is a byproduct of the coal carbonization process that occurs in coal gasification or coke production. It's composed of a complex mixture of phenols, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and heterocyclic compounds. One of the most well-known chemicals it contains is benzene, which is known for its potentially harmful health effects.

This substance has been used historically for its antiseptic and disinfectant qualities, specifically in medical treatments for skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. It is lauded for its ability to reduce scaling, itching, and inflammation. Common in items found over-the-counter in pharmacies, coal tar can be an active ingredient in shampoos, ointments, soaps, and lotions designed for therapeutic dermatological use.

Beyond medical applications, coal tar has been widely used in industrial contexts. This includes protecting and preserving products like:

  • Roofing materials: It acts as a waterproof agent and increases the longevity of roofing products.
  • Protective coatings: It’s used for coating objects like underground electrical cables, pipes, and pilings to prevent corrosion.
  • Pavement sealants: In its sealant form, coal tar helps maintain and protect driveways and parking lots, providing a defense against water and ultraviolet light damage.
  • Manufacturing of chemicals: Coal tar is a starting material for the production of various chemicals like naphthalene, benzene, and toluene, which are precursors for dyes, plastics, pharmaceuticals, and synthetic fibers.

Due to its useful properties, coal tar has cemented its place in various industries, but its application has been met with concerns regarding safety and environmental impact, especially due to its high PAH content. PAHs are a group of chemicals that occur naturally in coal, crude oil, and gasoline; some of which are known carcinogens and can pose both acute and chronic health risks on prolonged exposure.

In addition to these traditional uses, coal tar is sometimes found in smaller concentrations in products like anti-dandruff shampoos and psoriasis creams. The effectiveness and safety of these products depend on the concentration of coal tar. Products with up to 5% concentration are generally considered safe and have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in over-the-counter treatments.

It is important to recognize that the broad application of coal tar necessitates careful consideration of its health implications, not only on individual levels but also for public and environmental health. Studies have shown that occupational exposure to high levels of coal tar and its byproducts is associated with increased risks of cancer among workers in industries such as coal gasification and coke production.

Furthermore, environmental concerns have been raised about coal tar-based pavement sealants, as they can contribute to the contamination of water and soil with PAHs. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), such sealants can be a major source of PAH contamination in urban and suburban areas, with potential effects on human health.

In summary, while coal tar has numerous utilitarian benefits in both medical and industrial spheres, it is imperative that we consider and manage the risks it poses. With the increased awareness and ongoing research into the potential adverse effects of PAHs, the use of coal tar in consumer and industrial products continues to be closely monitored and regulated for safety.

Potential Carcinogenicity of Coal Tar Components

When discussing the safety of any compound, it's crucial to address concerns about its potential to cause cancer. This evaluation becomes particularly poignant when considering a substance like coal tar, a byproduct of coal processing that's found in various medicinal and consumer products. The carcinogenic potential of coal tar and its components has been a topic of research and debate.

Coal tar contains a variety of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), some of which have been identified as carcinogenic. The most well-known PAH in coal tar is benzo[a]pyrene, which is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a Group 1 carcinogen, signifying that there is sufficient evidence for its carcinogenicity in humans. Other PAHs present in coal tar are classified in Group 2A, which means they are "probably carcinogenic to humans," or Group 2B, "possibly carcinogenic to humans." This categorization is based on available evidence, which may be from human studies, animal studies, or both.

It's worth noting that the concentration of these compounds can vary depending on the specific coal tar formulation, and not all components present are categorized as carcinogens. Nonetheless, the presence of any carcinogenic substances in a product used on the skin or in other applications raises legitimate health concerns.

Studies have shed light on the risks associated with occupational exposure to coal tar. Workers in industries like coal processing, aluminum production, or paving and roofing, where coal tar usage is more prevalent, have shown an increased risk of skin and lung cancers. These findings further support the need for caution and regulation when it comes to coal tar exposure.

When it comes to consumer products containing coal tar components, such as shampoos and ointments used to treat psoriasis and other skin conditions, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that concentrations up to 5% are generally recognized as safe and effective for over-the-counter therapeutic use. However, it is recommended that consumers follow the instructions and warnings provided by manufacturers and health care providers when using these products.

For individuals concerned about their exposure to coal tar, it is wise to:

  • Limit the use of coal tar-based products, using them only as directed by healthcare professionals.
  • Wear protective clothing and follow safety guidelines when working with or near coal tar in occupational settings.
  • Be informed about the ingredients in personal care products and opt for alternatives if desired.

Ultimately, the risk of carcinogenicity associated with coal tar components means that the use of coal tar needs to be approached with awareness and caution. As always, staying informed and seeking advice from healthcare professionals is key to managing these risks.

Exposure Risks: Inhalation, Ingestion, and Dermal Contact

Understanding the exposure risks associated with coal tar is crucial, as different routes of exposure can lead to varying health effects. Coal tar and its by-products contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), some of which are classified as carcinogens. Let's delve into the three primary exposure pathways: inhalation, ingestion, and dermal contact.

Inhalation Risks:

  • Occupational Hazard: Workers in industries such as aluminum production, coal gasification, and road paving may be exposed to airborne coal tar pitch volatiles, which can lead to respiratory issues and an increased risk of lung cancer.
  • Smoke and Fumes: Burning coal tar or being near heated coal tar can release harmful vapors that, when inhaled, can irritate the respiratory system and may contribute to problems like asthma or bronchitis.
  • Long-Term Exposure: Prolonged inhalation can lead to chronic dermatitis and increased risks of skin and scrotal cancers, as recorded in historical occupational studies.

Ingestion Risks:

  • Accidental Ingestion: Accidental ingestion of coal tar or contaminated soil can be particularly harmful, potentially causing gastrointestinal issues like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • Contaminated Water: Coal tar can leach into groundwater, and consuming this water may pose health risks, including potential harm to the kidneys and liver.
  • Food Contamination: Eating food that has come into contact with coal tar or coal-tar-contaminated soil can introduce PAHs into the body, which may have toxic effects.

Dermal Contact Risks:

  • Coal Tar Products: Certain topical medications and personal care products containing coal tar, commonly used to treat skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema, can pose risks if used improperly. Users should follow application guidelines carefully, especially considering that some studies suggest a potential link between the long-term use of high concentrations of coal tar and cancer.
  • Direct Skin Contact: Direct contact with coal tar can cause irritation, rashes, and in extreme cases, burns. Photosensitivity, or increased sensitivity to sunlight, can also occur, potentially leading to sunburns or skin cancer with chronic exposure.
  • Protective Measures: It is essential for individuals handling coal tar in occupational settings to wear protective gear such as gloves, long sleeves, and masks to reduce the risk of skin and respiratory tract contact with tar and fumes.

Research indicates that the severity of health risks associated with coal tar exposure is dose-dependent, and it is the long-term, high-level exposure that is most concerning from a health perspective. In regulatory terms, organizations like OSHA have established permissible exposure limits (PELs) to help mitigate these risks, especially in workplace environments.

While incidental contact or low-dose topical application (as in some therapeutic shampoos) is seen as having a small risk profile, careful usage and adherence to usage guidelines are emphasized. If you are concerned about coal tar exposure, consulting with a healthcare provider for personalized advice is recommended.

Safe Usage Guidelines for Coal Tar in Medical Treatments

Coal tar, a byproduct of coal processing, has been used for decades in the treatment of skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, and dandruff. While its therapeutic benefits are well-documented, certain precautions must be taken to use coal tar safely and effectively in medical treatments. Here are some guidelines to ensure safe usage:

  • Concentration Matters: Coal tar products are available in various concentrations, ranging from 0.5% to 5% in over-the-counter formulations and can go higher when prescribed. For safe usage, start with the lowest concentration to see how your skin reacts, and only use higher concentrations under medical supervision.
  • Patch Testing: Before applying it over large skin areas, perform a patch test to check for any allergic reaction. Apply a small amount of coal tar product to a discreet skin area and monitor for 24 hours for signs of irritation or redness.
  • Doctor's Approval: It's crucial to involve your healthcare provider, especially if you have sensitive skin, are pregnant, or breastfeeding. Based on your medical history and current medications, your doctor can guide you on the appropriate product and concentration.
  • Application Precautions: When using coal tar, apply it only to the affected skin areas, avoiding healthy skin to minimize potential irritation. Moreover, ensure good ventilation during application to avoid inhaling fumes, which could be harmful.
  • Sun Exposure: Coal tar can make your skin more sensitive to ultraviolet (UV) light, so it's important to minimize or avoid sun exposure on treated areas. Always apply sunscreen to exposed areas or cover the skin with clothing when going outdoors.
  • Duration of Use: Use coal tar as directed, and don't exceed the recommended duration of treatment. Overuse can increase the risk of side effects. If your condition does not improve after consistent use, consult with your doctor.
  • Monitoring Skin Changes: Keep an eye on any changes in your skin while using coal tar products. Report new lesions, persistent irritation, or worsening of your condition to your healthcare provider.
  • Combination with Other Products: Be cautious when combining coal tar with other topical agents. Some ingredients can interact negatively, leading to increased skin irritation or other adverse effects. Always check with your healthcare provider before combining treatments.
  • Storage and Disposal: Store coal tar products away from heat and open flame, as they are flammable. Make sure the containers are tightly closed and out of reach of children and pets. When disposing of unused coal tar products, follow local regulations to prevent environmental harm.

As with any medical treatment, individual experiences with coal tar will vary, and what works for one person may not work for another. Regular medical supervision and following these safe usage guidelines can help to maximize the benefits while minimizing risks associated with coal tar treatments.

Environmental and Occupational Hazards of Coal Tar

Coal tar has historically been used in various industrial applications, including paving and roofing. Even though it has certain useful properties, coal tar presents several environmental and occupational hazards that warrant careful consideration. Let's dive into some of these concerns further.

Exposure Risks for Workers:

People who work with coal tar or coal tar pitch—such as roofers, road builders, and workers in steel and aluminum industries—may face exposure to coal tar through skin contact or inhalation. These exposures can be significantly higher than what the general public might encounter. This exposure can lead to several health issues such as skin irritation, burns, and what some studies suggest, an increased risk of cancer, particularly skin and lung cancer, as coal tar is a recognized carcinogen by several health agencies.

Contamination of Water and Soil:

Coal tar is made up of a multitude of polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), some of which are toxic and can leach into water and soil. Runoff from coal tar-treated pavements can contaminate water sources, posing risks to aquatic life and potentially entering the human food chain. Soil contamination can similarly impact plant life and indirectly affect animals and humans who rely on these plants for food.

Effects on Aquatic Life:

PAHs from coal tar are toxic to aquatic organisms. These chemicals can cause mutations, reproductive problems, and even death in fish and other marine wildlife. Sediment contamination is particularly concerning as it can lead to long-term damage to aquatic ecosystems, affecting both biodiversity and food safety.

Air Quality Concerns:

When coal tar is heated, as it often is in industrial processes, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be emitted into the air. These substances contribute to air pollution and can have severe impacts on respiratory health. Workers exposed to these VOCs might experience symptoms like eye irritation, headaches, or respiratory issues.

Regulations and Safety Measures:

  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Regulations: OSHA has set permissible exposure limits (PELs) to help protect workers from the harmful effects of coal tar and coal tar pitch volatiles.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Oversight: The EPA monitors the environmental impact of coal tar, and some of its components are listed as priority pollutants under the Clean Water Act.
  • Protective Gear for Workers: To mitigate exposure risks, personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, protective clothing, and respirators are crucial when handling coal tar.
  • Workplace Safety Practices: Implementing safety measures such as proper ventilation, training for handling hazardous materials, and regular health screenings can help minimize occupational risks associated with coal tar.

Understanding the hazards that coal tar poses to both the environment and those who work with it underscores the importance of stringent safety regulations and measures. It's paramount that industries using this substance take responsibility to protect their workers and the surrounding ecosystem.

Remember, health and safety are not isolated to the individual or the workplace but also extend to the broader environmental context in which we live and work. Balancing industrial advancements with environmental stewardship and occupational health is crucial for sustainable long-term progress.

Regulations and Safety Measures for Coal Tar Products

Coal tar, a byproduct of coal processing, has been used for decades in medicinal and cosmetic applications such as shampoos, ointments, and treatments for skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema. However, its safety has been a topic of concern and regulation due to the potential for containing carcinogenic substances. Let's delve into the regulatory landscape and safety measures that surround coal tar products to shed light on its safe use.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Oversight

In the United States, the FDA regulates coal tar as an over-the-counter (OTC) drug for use in anti-dandruff shampoos, lotions, and creams. It allows coal tar concentrations between 0.5% and 5% for these purposes. The FDA's guidelines mandate that products containing coal tar are labeled with cautions and directions for safe use due to its potential carcinogenicity when used in high doses or over extended periods.

European Union (EU) Regulations

The EU takes a more conservative stance. Certain coal tar derivatives have been banned from cosmetics under Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009, considering the possible health risks. Products with coal tar must comply with strict safety assessments and concentration limits to ensure consumer protection.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Standards

Occupational exposure to coal tar poses risks mainly in industrial settings. OSHA has set permissible exposure limits to protect workers. Safety measures include proper ventilation, personal protective equipment, and regular health monitoring to mitigate exposure to potentially harmful compounds.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Guidelines

The EPA regulates coal tar as part of the Clean Air Act to limit the release of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are harmful to the environment and human health. Coal tar sealants used in paving also fall under scrutiny due to their high levels of PAHs, leading to some states and municipalities banning their use.

Risks Associated with Improper Use

It's essential to follow the guidelines and regulations surrounding coal tar to minimize health risks. Improper use, such as high concentration applications, prolonged contact, or inadequate protection in occupational settings, can lead to adverse effects including skin irritation, photosensitivity, and increased risk of cancer.

Consumer Responsibility

As consumers, it's important to read product labels, adhere to usage instructions, and be aware of the concentration levels of coal tar in OTC products. For those with underlying health conditions or concerns about coal tar use, consulting with healthcare professionals is recommended for tailored advice.

By staying informed about the regulations and safe handling practices, individuals and professionals can continue to utilize coal tar where it's proven effective while minimizing potential health risks.

Frequently asked questions

Yes, there are alternatives to coal tar-based sealants, including asphalt-based sealants and newer eco-friendly options that release fewer PAHs into the environment. These alternatives are gaining popularity in response to environmental concerns and regulatory restrictions on coal tar use.

Apart from skin irritation, side effects of coal tar may include increased risk of sunburn due to photosensitivity, discoloration of hair or skin, an uptick in acne at the site of application, and rarely, allergic reactions. Prolonged or improperly regulated use can also lead to increased cancer risk.

Yes, coal tar can increase the skin's sensitivity to ultraviolet (UV) light, leading to a higher risk of sunburn. Protective measures such as sunscreen application or wearing protective clothing over treated areas are recommended if exposure to sunlight cannot be avoided.

Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers should exercise caution regarding coal tar use. They are advised to consult their healthcare provider before using coal tar products, as certain chemicals could potentially affect fetal development or pass into breast milk.

Ask a question about Coal Tar and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • irritation
  • rashes
  • burns
  • photosensitivity
  • respiratory issues
  • headache
  • eye irritation
  • skin inflammation
  • gastrointestinal issues
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea

Possible long-term side effects

  • cancer risks
  • chronic dermatitis
  • increased risks of skin and scrotal cancers
  • respiratory problems like asthma or bronchitis
  • kidney and liver harm
  • mutations and reproductive problems in aquatic life

Ingredients to be aware of

  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (pahs)
  • benzene
  • benzo[a]pyrene
  • naphthalene
  • toluene


  • treatment for psoriasis
  • eczema relief
  • reduction of scaling and itching in skin conditions
  • antiseptic qualities
  • disinfectant properties
  • improves longevity of roofing materials
  • prevents corrosion in protective coatings
  • maintenance of pavement elasticity
  • production of various chemicals

Healthier alternatives

  • coal tar-free shampoos and treatments
  • pah-free pavement sealants
  • protective gear in occupational settings
  • safely regulated therapeutic products

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Desmond Richard
Published on: 02-23-2024

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Desmond Richard
Published on: 02-23-2024

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