Seborrheic dermatitis is a chronic (ongoing) type of eczema that causes greasy scales and itchy, flaky patches on the skin and scalp. Its name is based on the fact that it occurs on areas of the skin that have a lot of sebaceous glands (oil glands). Seborrheic dermatitis isn’t caused by a lack of personal hygiene, and it’s not contagious. There currently is no cure for seborrheic dermatitis, but with the right combination of treatments, symptoms and flares can be managed.
Seborrheic dermatitis is a common condition, affecting around 11 percent of the general population. The condition occurs more often among men than women, according to an InformedHealth.org study. Seborrheic dermatitis tends to be more common in certain age groups as well — it’s usually seen in infants and in adults between the ages of 30 and 60.
Researchers aren’t exactly sure what causes seborrheic dermatitis, but several factors may play a role in its development. One possibility is that seborrheic dermatitis is an inflammatory reaction to a type of yeast called Malassezia. This yeast is present on everyone’s skin but thrives on areas of skin that tend to be affected by seborrheic dermatitis, leading researchers to wonder if there’s a connection. Some studies have explored whether an immune system reaction to Malassezia or its byproducts causes seborrheic dermatitis, but a direct relationship between yeast and the condition hasn’t yet been found.
Other factors that may have a role in seborrheic dermatitis include a family history of dermatitis, a higher level of androgen hormones, and a higher amount of certain skin lipids (natural fats). Because seborrheic dermatitis is chronic, factors such as the following may trigger or worsen symptoms:
People with certain medical conditions or diseases have been found to be at a higher risk of developing seborrheic dermatitis. These conditions include human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, depression, alcoholism, and eating disorders.
Seborrheic dermatitis looks similar to other skin diseases, such as atopic dermatitis (a more common form of eczema) and psoriasis, which can make it difficult to diagnose. Although seborrheic dermatitis usually is diagnosed based on a physical exam, your doctor or dermatologist may also do a skin biopsy (take a sample of body tissue) to look closely at your skin.
There are several other conditions that you may be diagnosed along with or instead of seborrheic dermatitis, such as:
Doctors will make a differential diagnosis by comparing your symptoms with those of other skin conditions. The location of lesions, plaques, and rashes can tell your doctor a lot about what condition you may have. They may also do tests such as a fungal culture or skin biopsy. Compared with other skin conditions, seborrheic dermatitis looks much different under a microscope.
Sebaceous glands exist everywhere on your skin except the palms and soles. As a result, seborrheic dermatitis can be found on many parts of the body. It often affects the scalp and face, especially the:
On other parts of the body, you might notice symptoms where the skin rubs together and there isn’t much airflow, such as these areas:
Symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis include:
The color of a rash associated with seborrheic dermatitis depends on your natural skin tone, appearing red in lighter skin and discolored (either darker or lighter than normal) in darker skin. People of color might also develop petaloid seborrheic dermatitis, a pink, round, flower petal-like rash around the cheeks and nose and in the eyebrows.
In infants, seborrheic dermatitis is known as cradle cap. Light-skinned babies with cradle cap usually have thick yellow crusts or plaques with some redness on the scalp. Black infants and those with darker skin tones may have lighter or pink patches or scaly, flaky skin.
Seborrheic dermatitis treatments focus on clearing the skin and controlling flare-ups. It’ll likely take some trial and error to find a combination of therapies that works best for you. You may also have to rotate treatments to keep them working effectively.
Treatments include a variety of shampoos, lotions, creams, and ointments that contain antifungal ingredients and steroids. Your doctor’s recommendations will depend on the severity and location of your symptoms.
Treatments for mild seborrheic dermatitis include:
Treatments for moderate to severe seborrheic dermatitis include:
Seborrheic dermatitis often occurs alongside other health conditions. Known as comorbidities, these conditions include Parkinson’s disease, HIV, AIDS, and metabolic syndrome (conditions that raise the risk of stroke, diabetes, and heart disease). Comorbidities may make it harder to treat seborrheic dermatitis, but treating the other condition can help resolve the skin symptoms.
Seborrheic dermatitis is also associated with bacterial, fungal, and other skin conditions (in addition to atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, contact dermatitis, and rosacea, discussed above). These conditions include:
Seborrheic dermatitis and its treatments can bring on several related complications. If left untreated, the condition can lead to fungal or bacterial infections. You may experience some unwanted side effects from topical corticosteroids or antifungal medications, including skin thinning, nausea, and other skin problems. Sometimes, people with seborrheic dermatitis also experience changes in their mood.
Seborrheic dermatitis is a chronic skin condition — symptoms come and go over the course of years — that is generally harmless but can be uncomfortable during flares. When symptoms worsen, they can be managed well with treatments. Although seborrheic dermatitis causes inflammation of the hair follicles, it doesn’t cause permanent hair loss.
If you begin to notice symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis, or if you have an underlying health condition that increases your risk, talk to your doctor or dermatologist. They can work with you to develop a treatment plan to help keep your symptoms under control, as well as treat any underlying conditions that may make your symptoms worse.
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 been diagnosed with seborrheic dermatitis? What advice do you have for others living with the condition? Share your tips and experiences in a comment below or on your Activities page.