Cradle Cap

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is cradle cap?

Cradle cap, or seborrheic dermatitis, is a scalp condition frequently seen in infants and very young children. It is caused by the overproduction of sebum or oils by the sebaceous glands. Cradle cap is characterized by flaky patches of skin that can develop white or yellowish crusting scales. This usually occurs on the scalp, but may sometimes appear inside the ear or on the face, especially in the creases of the nose, lips, eyelids or eyebrows. It can also occur in skin folds in the middle of the baby’s body. Sometimes the affected skin may be reddened, but in most cases, cradle cap does not itch.

Cradle cap is not contagious or serious, though in rare instances when itching occurs, excessive scratching may cause bleeding, inflammation, or even secondary infection. While seborrheic dermatitis can be a lifelong condition for adults, in infants it is a harmless and temporary condition.

Cradle cap is not associated in any way with poor hygiene or allergies; instead, it is caused by overproduction of sebum, or natural oils, by the sebaceous glands. The cause of this overproduction is not known. It is possible that a yeast called malessizia plays a role in its origins. Cradle cap is not associated with any other known conditions. It is thought that weather extremes, fatigue, and infrequent shampooing might make it worse, but none of these are the actual cause of the condition. Most cases of cradle cap develop in infancy and disappear by age three.

Cradle cap is never a serious condition. However, in rare instances of itching, excessive scratching may cause bleeding or inflammation. Seek prompt medical care if your child has cradle cap that has been aggravated by constant scratching and shows signs of frequent bleeding, inflammation, or persistent scratch sores that do not heal due to constant disruption from scratching.

What are the symptoms of cradle cap?

Symptoms of cradle cap include mild symptoms that are marked most consistently by flaky patches of skin. These patches may become thickened and crusty.

Common symptoms of cradle cap

Your child may experience cradle cap symptoms daily or just once in a while. At times, any of these symptoms can lead to inflammation if aggravated by excessive scratching:

  • Flaking skin
  • Itchy skin (very rare in infants and children)
  • Non-inflamed red patches of skin (sometimes present)
  • Scaly skin
  • Thick white or yellow crusting scales

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

Cradle cap is not a serious condition, but in rare cases, excessive scratching may lead to a small, localized infection. Seek prompt medical care if your child has any of these symptoms including:

  • Bleeding from scratches
  • Excessive development of scales
  • Frequent scratching
  • Persistent scratches or sores that do not heal
  • Redness, warmth or swelling

What causes cradle cap?

Cradle cap is caused by the overproduction of sebum, or natural oils of the skin, by the sebaceous glands. The cause of this overproduction is not known. It is speculated that a yeast called malessizia may play a role in causing cradle cap. Cradle cap is not associated with poor hygiene or allergies.

What are the risk factors for cradle cap?

Several factors increase the risk of developing cradle cap. Not all infants with risk factors will get cradle cap. Risk factors for cradle cap include:

  • Exposure to stressful environments

  • Fatigue

  • Genetics

  • Oily skin

  • Skin exposure to lotions or shampoos that contain alcohol

  • Weather extremes

Reducing your infant’s risk of cradle cap

Although some risk factors cannot be controlled, you may be able to lower your infant’s risk of cradle cap by:

  • Bathing your infant and washing the infant’s hair regularly with alcohol-free products (for example, baby soaps and shampoos)

  • Protecting your child from weather extremes

How is cradle cap treated?

For infants, medicated dandruff shampoos are too harsh. Instead, cradle cap is treated with a variety of physical techniques, and the only products used on the skin are mild shampoos (such as baby shampoo) and mineral oils.

Treatment strategies for cradle c ap

  • Brushing your child’s hair with a clean soft brush after each shampoo and several times daily

  • Gently massaging the infant’s scalp with your fingers or a soft brush (this improves circulation and loosens scales)

  • Gently shampooing daily with mild soap (while scales are present)

  • Rinsing thoroughly after shampoos and baths

  • Shampooing twice weekly with mild soap (once scales are gone)

  • Topical prescription corticosteroid or antifungal ointments (both work equally well!)

  • Using mineral oil wraps to loosen stubborn scales (apply mineral oil to scales and wrap the area with warm wet cloths for up to one hour before shampoos; ensure that the cloths stay warm)

What are the potential complications of cradle cap?

Cradle cap is not a serious condition. While seborrheic dermatitis can be a lifelong condition for adults, in infants it is a harmless and temporary condition. Most cases of cradle cap develop in infancy and disappear by age three. You can help minimize your infant’s risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for your child. Complications of cradle cap include secondary bacterial or fungal infection from untreated scratches (very rare).

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 19
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Seborrheic dermatitis. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001959/.
  2. Seborrheic dermatitis. American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. http://www.aocd.org/skin/dermatologic_diseases/seborrheic_dermati.html.
  3. Cohen S. Should we treat infantile seborrhoeic dermatitis with topical antifungals or topical steroids? Arch Dis Child 2004; 89:288.