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3 Seborrheic Dermatitis Symptoms in Infants To Watch Out for

Medically reviewed by Raj Chovatiya, MD, PhD, MSCI
Written by Anika Brahmbhatt
Posted on March 15, 2023

Infant seborrheic dermatitis — also known as cradle cap — is a very common skin condition in infants. About 7 in 10 babies will develop cradle cap by the time they’re six weeks old. It’s characterized by thick scaling, flaking, and a generally benign (harmless) rash on a baby’s scalp.

The appearance of these skin changes can be worrisome to a child’s parents and other loved ones. On MyEczemaTeam — the social network for people living with eczema — a member wrote: “My two-month grandbaby is doing better. She has had two oatmeal baths this week and all the dryness on her scalp goes away, but when she wakes up the next morning, all the dryness that went away is back again!!😞 What would be the best baby shampoo to use for her cradle scalp? I honestly feel that’s what’s going on with her forehead because it’s so scaly. I’ve been applying Vaseline in the affected area as well as the cradle scalp.”

Cradle cap isn’t harmful to your baby’s health, generally isn’t even uncomfortable, and typically doesn’t continue after infancy or indicate an underlying health issue. You can usually manage cradle cap at home with topical, over-the-counter lotions, creams, and oils. If these aren’t effective in managing your baby’s symptoms, a pediatrician can recommend stronger treatment options.

Notably, cradle cap is a form of seborrheic dermatitis that appears only on the baby’s scalp. When the symptoms extend to other parts of the body, it may be a more severe — though treatable — form of seborrheic dermatitis or another skin condition.

Overall, cradle cap on your infant shouldn’t be cause for worry. Learn to recognize its signs and symptoms so you can tell it apart from other conditions, such as atopic dermatitis (the most common type of eczema) or more severe seborrheic dermatitis.

The following are some hallmark symptoms that can indicate infant seborrheic dermatitis.

1. Crusty or Scaly Patches

Thick crusts or patchy scales on the scalp are one indication of cradle cap. The scales usually resemble the pattern of fish scales and are often white, yellow, or brown.

Crusts from seborrheic dermatitis form due to excess oil in the skin. Dead skin cells usually fall off the scalp through natural processes. However, seborrheic dermatitis makes the skin cells stick longer, creating textured patches. These scales often feel greasy but can also feel dry.

Crusty patches and scales associated with cradle cap can be yellow, white, or brown. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)

Regardless of the patches’ color or texture, the medical advice is consistent: Cradle cap is not painful for your baby, and you can usually remove the crusts of skin with gentle at-home treatment.

However, if you see scales like these on other areas of the body, such as skin folds and creases around the ears, eyelids, nose, neck, armpits, or diaper area, you should consult a pediatric provider. They can diagnose the underlying cause and determine how to help to control it.

2. Flaking

Flaky skin is another hallmark of cradle cap. (In adults, these skin flakes are usually known as dandruff). Flakes that look like dandruff on your baby’s scalp — especially with the aforementioned crustiness or scales — may suggest cradle cap.

The scales may feel fragile and break down into flakes. Underneath the white and yellow flakes, your infant’s skin might appear pink or red if they have lighter skin. On infants with darker skin, the surrounding skin may appear lighter or darker.

Typically, skin flaking alone is not enough for a cradle cap diagnosis. Flaky skin covering several patches of particularly oily or dry skin, however, could be an indication of the condition.

3. Rash

With cradle cap, your child may also develop a red rash. Fortunately, it’s usually mild and generally isn’t itchy or painful.

Redness alone usually doesn’t indicate cradle cap. Other skin conditions can cause the symptom, including baby eczema, milia, psoriasis, and baby acne.

When Are These Symptoms Not Cradle Cap?

Redness and flaking, along with itching or pain, can be symptoms of atopic dermatitis. A baby can have this type of eczema and cradle cap at the same time, although researchers have found no direct link between the two conditions.

Additionally, symptoms of cradle cap, including scales, crusts, and flaking, can overlap with those of more severe seborrheic dermatitis. If these skin symptoms extend beyond the baby’s scalp, they may not simply have cradle cap.

You should contact a doctor if your child’s cradle cap:

  • Worsens after treatment
  • Spreads from the scalp to other body parts
  • Lasts longer than 12 months

Is Infant Seborrheic Dermatitis Contagious?

The condition isn’t contagious, so your child can safely attend day care or play dates — as long as they don’t have an infection (which could happen if there is an open wound from scratching).

Though uncommon, the affected skin can become infected. Signs of infection include:

  • Pimples or blisters
  • Strong odor
  • Draining liquid
  • Signs of increased redness or pain
  • Larger scabs or crusts

If you see signs of infection, you should contact your baby’s pediatrician.

Causes of Infant Seborrheic Dermatitis

The exact cause of seborrheic dermatitis, including cradle cap, is unknown. It may have to do with hormones passed from the mother before the baby is born.

Another factor may be an overgrowth of Malassezia, a type of yeast that naturally grows in people’s sebum (an oily substance naturally produced by the body’s sebaceous glands).

Regardless of the cause, it’s important to understand that cradle cap doesn’t result from poor hygiene or lack of care.

Diagnosing Infant Seborrheic Dermatitis

Your doctor can diagnose infant seborrheic dermatitis by inspecting your baby’s scalp for the hallmark symptoms. They won’t need to complete any invasive procedures to diagnose the condition.

Treating Infant Seborrheic Dermatitis

You can treat cradle cap using several at-home methods. To loosen the scales covering your baby’s scalp, apply petroleum jelly or mineral oil. Once the scales are loosened, they can be removed from the scalp using a soft brush. This process should not hurt or feel irritating.

Once you’ve removed the scales or crusts, you can maintain scalp care by using baby shampoo and a washcloth on your child’s hair every day or two. You can use medicated shampoo for babies as well if you feel you need a stronger treatment.

If symptoms continue, your doctor might prescribe a steroid or antifungal cream. A topical steroid will target the affected skin area and is meant to reduce inflammation.

Infant seborrheic dermatitis symptoms usually improve when treated and generally clear up within a few weeks or months. If the condition doesn’t improve with treatment, you should speak with your baby’s pediatrician to determine if there’s another underlying cause.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MySebDermTeam is the social network for people with seborrheic dermatitis and their loved ones. MySebDermTeam members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand.

Have you noticed cradle cap on your baby? What advice do you have for other parents? Share your tips and experiences in a comment below or on your Activities page.

Posted on March 15, 2023

A MySebDermTeam Member

You can also us baby oil. It works wonders.

posted July 7, 2023
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Raj Chovatiya, MD, PhD, MSCI is an assistant professor of dermatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois. Learn more about him here.
Anika Brahmbhatt is an undergraduate student at Boston University, where she is pursuing a dual degree in media science and psychology. Learn more about her here.

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