Seborrhoeic dermatitis in babies causes bad dandruff (cradle cap). It sometimes causes a rash on other areas of the skin. Treatment is not usually needed, as it does not normally cause any discomfort and usually clears on its own.
What is seborrhoeic dermatitis?
Seborrhoeic dermatitis in babies is a type of skin inflammation which mainly affects the scalp and face. The exact cause of seborrhoeic dermatitis is not known. It is thought that babies who develop this condition may produce more oil (sebum) from the sebaceous glands in their skin. Yeast germs from the Malassezia species may also be involved. However, it is not just a simple skin infection and you cannot catch this condition from others (it is not contagious). The fungal germ lives in the sebum of human skin and some babies may react to the germ in some way which causes the skin inflammation.
Many babies have a mild form of this condition within the first six months of life but it usually goes away on its own after a few months. In most children, it has cleared by the age of 6 months. It does not usually occur in older children. Some teenagers and adults have a related condition which causes bad dandruff and a rash. See separate leaflet called Seborrhoeic Dermatitis for more details.
What are the symptoms of seborrhoeic dermatitis in babies?
- Cradle cap. This is areas of greasy, yellow, scaly patches on the scalp. In some cases a thick scaly layer covers the whole scalp. Over time the scales may become flaky and rub off easily. The condition is not usually itchy and, in most cases, the baby is not aware of any problem or discomfort.
- Rash. In addition to cradle cap, some affected babies develop a mild red rash. This can appear on the eyebrows, on the skin next to their nose, or in the creases of the skin such as around the neck, behind the ears or in the armpits. Sometimes it can cause a kind of nappy rash in the groin creases.
The condition most commonly develops in the first six weeks of life. It tends to last a few weeks or months and then goes.
What is the treatment for seborrhoeic dermatitis in babies?
Treatment is not usually needed, as the condition is usually mild, is not serious and does not usually cause any discomfort to the baby. The condition will usually clear by itself eventually.
However, the appearance of the scalp can be improved by daily washing with a baby shampoo followed by gentle brushing with a soft brush to loosen scales. Alternatively, soften the scales with baby oil first, followed by gentle brushing and then washing off with baby shampoo. If this does not work, it may be helpful to soften the scales by rubbing in olive oil, vegetable oil or white petroleum jelly. Leave this in overnight to allow it time to work. Wash it off with baby shampoo in the morning. Another option is to try a greasy moisturising lotion (emollient) such as emulsifying ointment.
If other areas are affected, regular washing helps. Use an emollient cream instead of soap on the affected skin.
If needed, a medicated antifungal cream may be prescribed by your doctor. Creams which may be used are clotrimazole, econazole or miconazole. This will usually clear the rash. Rarely, if inflammation is more severe, a mild steroid cream may be prescribed by your doctor.
Further reading and references
Seborrhoeic dermatitis; NICE CKS, February 2013 (UK access only)
Cradle cap (infantile seborrhoeic dermatitis); DermNet NZ
Hald M, Arendrup MC, Svejgaard EL, et al; Evidence-based Danish guidelines for the treatment of Malassezia-related skin diseases. Acta Derm Venereol. 2015 Jan95(1):12-9. doi: 10.2340/00015555-1825.
Olive oil treatment for cradle cap - can it worsen the condition?; UK Medicines Information (UKMi) Q and As, Updated October 2015