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Symptoms and Photos of Seborrheic Dermatitis on the Face, Scalp, and Body

Posted on November 22, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Kevin Berman, M.D., Ph.D.
Article written by
Emily Wagner, M.S.

The symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis vary from person to person, but they almost always involve the scalp and face. Common symptoms include dry, itchy, flaky patches of discolored skin. Many people experience flare-ups caused by environmental factors like stress and cold weather. In infants, symptoms usually go away a few months after birth, but adults often need treatment to control seborrheic dermatitis.

Adults between ages 30 and 60, particularly white men, are more likely to develop seborrheic dermatitis symptoms, according to Cleveland Clinic. The condition isn’t caused by poor personal hygiene, and it isn’t contagious.

Skin Areas Affected by Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis symptoms occur on areas of the skin that have higher concentrations of sebaceous glands, or oil glands. Sebaceous glands exist all over the body except the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. These glands produce a natural oil known as sebum, which helps keep skin moisturized and protects it from invading bacteria.

The face and scalp have a high number of sebaceous glands, which is why some people have oilier skin there. Other areas of skin commonly affected by seborrheic dermatitis include:

  • Ears
  • Eyebrows
  • Eyelids
  • Nose
  • Nasolabial folds (known as smile lines or laugh lines)
  • Chest

About 88 percent of seborrheic dermatitis cases affect the face, 70 percent affect the scalp, and 27 percent affect the chest. Seborrheic dermatitis symptoms tend to be symmetrical, occurring on both sides of the body.

Depending on the severity of your seborrheic dermatitis, you may also notice symptoms in these places:

  • Neck
  • Upper back
  • Under the breasts
  • Armpits
  • Arms and hands
  • Inside the elbows
  • Buttocks
  • Groin area
  • Genitals
  • Behind the knees
  • Legs and feet

Studies show that 2.3 percent of people with seborrheic dermatitis experience symptoms on the legs and feet, and 1.3 percent have symptoms on their arms and hands.

Seborrheic Dermatitis Symptoms in Adolescents and Adults

Symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis often develop in adolescents (teenagers) going through puberty and in middle-aged adults. These symptoms include:

  • Flaking or itchy skin
  • Dry scalp, eyebrows, or facial hair with dandruff (white skin flakes)
  • Blepharitis (inflammation and red, scaly patches around the eyelids)
  • Yellow, greasy scales or crusts on skin
  • Inflammation of the hair follicles on the chest and face
  • Discolored areas of thick skin (plaques) on both sides of the face
  • Rashes in creases and skin folds in the armpits, near the genitals, and under the breasts
About 88 percent of seborrheic dermatitis cases affect the face. The rash may be reddish or brownish, depending on your natural skin tone. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)
The discolored, dry, flaky skin and rashes of seborrheic dermatitis differ among skin tones and can appear almost anywhere on the body, including the arms and legs and the armpits. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)

Studies show that the most common symptom of seborrheic dermatitis is dandruff, affecting 15 percent to 20 percent — some findings suggest 50 percent — of people with the condition.

In 70 percent of cases, seborrheic dermatitis affects the scalp, producing greasy scales of dandruff (left) or small, shiny cylinders called hair casts (right). (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)
People with seborrheic dermatitis, which occurs in areas with a lot of oil glands, also often develop blepharitis. The inflammation and scaly patches of this eye condition may be caused by oil buildup on the eyelid. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)

Blepharitis commonly occurs alongside seborrheic dermatitis. In studies of people with blepharitis, from 33 percent to 46 percent of those with the condition also have seborrheic dermatitis. Although the exact cause is unknown, researchers believe blepharitis is caused by bacterial growth or a buildup of oils on the eyelid. Along with inflammation and scaly patches, dandruff can appear along the eyelashes.

Seborrheic Dermatitis Symptoms in Darker Skin Tones

People with darker skin tones may develop petaloid seborrheic dermatitis — red, scaly patches in the eyebrows and the skin folds between the cheeks and nose. Petaloid seborrheic dermatitis may also appear as a pink or light-colored round rash shaped like flower petals.

Discoloration — either lighter or darker than the surrounding skin — may also occur in people with darker skin.

People with darker skin tones may develop petaloid seborrheic dermatitis, distinguished by a rash of pink, light-colored rings that resemble flower petals. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)
In skin of color, the scaly rash of seborrheic dermatitis may be lighter than a person’s natural skin tone. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)

Seborrheic Dermatitis Symptoms in Infants

Cradle cap — seborrheic dermatitis in babies — affects nearly 70 percent of newborns. In lighter skin tones, it may appear as thick, crusty, yellowish scales. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)

Seborrheic dermatitis in infants may develop from a buildup of sebum or yeast growth. Known as cradle cap, this condition affects around 70 percent of newborns. However, unlike seborrheic dermatitis in teenagers and adults, cradle cap usually goes away on its own after six to 12 months.

Symptoms of cradle cap in lighter skin tones include:

  • Dry or oily skin with yellow scales or dandruff
  • Thick crusts or scaling on the scalp
  • Some redness of the skin

In infants with darker skin tones, cradle cap symptoms include:

Scaly, light-colored patches on the scalp may indicate cradle cap, or seborrheic dermatitis, in infants with darker skin. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ/DermNet)
  • Reddish, pinkish, or lighter patches of skin
  • Flaky skin
  • Scaly patches on the eyebrows and around the nose

Cradle cap may also lead to rashes in skin folds, especially at the back of the neck and in the groin area, where it might first be mistaken for a diaper rash. Rashes that form on the scalp, ears, and face are rarely itchy or painful.

If your baby’s skin doesn’t clear up with use of lotions or medicated shampoos, it’s possible they have another skin condition such as atopic dermatitis.

Causes of Seborrheic Dermatitis Flares

Seborrheic dermatitis is a chronic inflammatory condition, meaning you’ll experience alternating periods of flares and clear skin over time. Some environmental factors can cause symptoms to become worse, and learning what sets off your flares can help you manage your seborrheic dermatitis. Unfortunately, some triggers, such as weather changes, can’t be avoided. Your dermatologist will prescribe treatments to help you manage these flares.

Seborrheic dermatitis flares are more common in winter and tend to ease up during summer. Researchers believe that ultraviolet light from the sun might kill the yeast living in sebum, making symptoms less severe. Other environmental factors that may contribute to seborrheic dermatitis flares include:

  • Products that contain harsh ingredients, such as soaps, chemicals, and laundry detergents
  • Stress or recovery from a stressful event like a stroke or heart attack
  • Lack of sleep
  • Hormonal changes or conditions
  • Medications like lithium, interferon, and psoralen
  • Conditions like HIV, AIDS, or Parkinson’s disease

Mental Health and Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis can affect your mental health and quality of life. Because the condition mainly affects the face and scalp, it can be difficult to hide symptoms like rashes or excess dandruff. Many people with seborrheic dermatitis may also worry about flares or that other people will think their symptoms are caused by a lack of personal hygiene.

Symptoms can lead to the development of mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression. Studies show that people with seborrheic dermatitis experience depression similarly to those who have other skin diseases, such as psoriasis and atopic dermatitis. Specifically, women and teenagers with seborrheic dermatitis have lower quality-of-life scores compared with people who have dandruff only, according to a study published in the journal Mycoses.

If you begin to notice symptoms of anxiety or depression, talk to your doctor or a mental health provider. They’ll discuss your treatment options, which might include medications such as antidepressants or therapy. You can also connect with other people living with seborrheic dermatitis on MySebDermTeam to talk about your experiences and find support.

Management of Seborrheic Dermatitis

Although seborrheic dermatitis can’t yet be cured, it can be managed with a variety of treatments. These therapies focus on clearing the skin and managing flares so they’re less noticeable.

Treating seborrheic dermatitis involves a combination of creams, lotions, ointments, and shampoos that contain medications. These include:

  • Antifungal medications such as ketoconazole
  • Over-the-counter medications such as hydrocortisone
  • Dandruff shampoos containing zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide, and coal tar
  • Topical corticosteroids
  • Calcineurin inhibitors including topical tacrolimus and pimecrolimus

You can read more about different treatment options and how they’re used in the treatment guide.

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 those who understand.

Have you experienced seborrheic dermatitis rashes on your face, scalp, or body? Do you have advice for others on managing these symptoms? Share your tips and experiences in a comment below or on your Activities page.

    All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
    Kevin Berman, M.D., Ph.D. is a dermatologist at the Atlanta Center for Dermatologic Disease, Atlanta, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
    Emily Wagner, M.S. holds a Master of Science in biomedical sciences with a focus in pharmacology. She is passionate about immunology, cancer biology, and molecular biology. Learn more about her here.

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