What Is Seborrheic Dermatitis?

Medically Reviewed By Clare Wightman MS, PAC
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Seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin condition. It typically causes inflamed, scaly, greasy rashes, and it can be itchy. Seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin condition. It is most common in infancy and middle age, but it can occur at any age. Although it is not contagious or serious, it can be a source of discomfort or embarrassment.

Two forms of seborrheic dermatitis are dandruff and cradle cap. Cradle cap is the name for seborrheic dermatitis when an infant has it. It looks like white or yellow scales on the scalp.

In older children, adolescents, and adults of any age, seborrheic dermatitis typically presents as flaking and itching on the scalp. Sometimes, it also presents with pink, greasy areas with yellowish scales on oily areas of the skin. These areas include the face, ears, chest, and back.

Seborrheic dermatitis tends to come and go, as it is a chronic condition. There are treatments that can relieve the symptoms during a flare-up.

This article discusses seborrheic dermatitis in more detail, including its symptoms, causes, and treatment options.

What are the symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis?

Woman with her hand in her hair
Jesse Morrow/Stocksy United

Symptoms vary slightly depending on the age of the person experiencing seborrheic dermatitis and the severity of their condition.

Cradle cap

Cradle cap, which is the infant form of seborrheic dermatitis, is very common in the first 3 months of life. It is characterized by thick, greasy, pinkish-yellow scales on the scalp. It can also affect the ears and mid-face.

Cradle cap is harmless, though it may cause some parental distress. It usually improves by the first year of age.

Adult seborrheic dermatitis

In adults, seborrheic dermatitis flare-ups tend to come and go. The condition commonly affects areas where the skin is oilier. These places include:

  • the scalp
  • the ears, both inside and out
  • the eyebrows
  • the creases of the nose
  • the chest
  • the armpits
  • the groin
  • the upper back
  • the face

Dandruff is a form of seborrheic dermatitis that occurs on the scalp. It typically appears as dry, itchy skin without inflammation that causes white flakes in the hair. Although it is not contagious or harmful, it can cause some embarrassment.  

In its more severe form, seborrheic dermatitis presents as:

  • reddish skin with some swelling
  • white or yellow crusty scales
  • greasy patches
  • itching

What causes seborrheic dermatitis?

There appear to be multiple factors that can cause seborrheic dermatitis. These factors include:

  • yeast that is normally present on the skin
  • genetics
  • the climate
  • stress levels
  • varying lipid compositions on the surface of the skin
  • a person’s overall health

Seborrheic dermatitis does not result from poor hygiene. It is not an allergy, and it is not contagious.

Learn more about skin conditions here.

What are the risk factors for seborrheic dermatitis?

Several medical conditions and circumstances can increase your risk of developing seborrheic dermatitis. These include:

Reducing your risk of seborrheic dermatitis

It may not be possible to prevent seborrheic dermatitis from developing, but you can reduce some of the triggers and reduce reoccurrence by:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • maintaining a moderate weight
  • avoiding shampoos and lotions that contain alcohol
  • limiting your alcohol consumption
  • managing oily skin
  • protecting your skin from extreme weather conditions
  • decreasing stressors in your life, if possible

Seborrheic dermatitis

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Cradle Cap

Cradle cap is a common term for seborrheic dermatitis in infants. This skin condition does not require any special treatment and usually improves as infants grow.

Eaaw/Shutterstock

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Seborrheic dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin condition that causes a red, itchy rash. It is usually on the scalp.

Photography courtesy of Amras666/Wikimedia

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Seborrheic dermatitis

Patches of oily red skin with an overlying scale are the common traits of seborrheic dermatitis.

Zay Nyi Nyi/Shutterstock

Close-up of scalp with dandruff flakes and brown hair

Seborrheic dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis, also known as dandruff, is a common skin condition that causes a red, itchy rash with an overlying skin scale.

rob_lan/Getty Images

Dandruff In Woman's Hair

Dandruff

Seborrheic dermatitis can lead to dry, flaky skin on the scalp that sometimes falls onto clothes.

AndreyPopov/Getty Images

What are the treatments for seborrheic dermatitis?

Although no treatment will cure seborrheic dermatitis, some options can ease or stop the itching and inflammation.

Cradle cap does not require treatment, as it tends to resolve on its own. If you have any concerns, however, contact a doctor.

It is possible to improve cradle cap more quickly by massaging a small amount of olive oil into the baby’s scalp at night to soften the scales.

You can also use an emollient — such as petrolatum, mineral oil, or baby oil — either overnight or before shampooing to break up the scales. In the morning, you can use a soft toothbrush or cradle cap comb to gently remove loose particles and follow that by washing the hair with baby shampoo. You should shampoo the infant’s scalp daily.

Mild dandruff is treatable with over-the-counter (OTC) anti-dandruff shampoos and topical treatments. Look for product labels that claim to treat dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis. Such shampoos may contain:

  • zinc pyrithione
  • salicylic acid
  • sulfur

If your seborrheic dermatitis does not respond to OTC products, contact your doctor, as you may require a prescription. These can include a stronger topical antifungal solution, gel, or cream. Your doctor may also prescribe a prescription shampoo or topical steroid to decrease the itching and inflammation.

If your seborrheic dermatitis is extensive, your doctor may recommend an oral medication.

Another possible treatment for seborrheic dermatitis is phototherapy, which is a medical treatment that carefully exposes your skin to UV light. The condition may also improve on its own during the summer, especially after moderate and safe exposure to sunlight.

When should you contact a doctor for seborrheic dermatitis?

If you think you have seborrheic dermatitis and it is not responding to OTC treatments, it is worth contacting your doctor.

Skin conditions that may appear similar to seborrheic dermatitis include psoriasis, Darier disease, parapsoriasis, and eczema, among many others. Getting a correct diagnosis is important for moving forward.

If the area of skin with seborrheic dermatitis becomes more red, warm, or painful or starts oozing pus, be sure to contact your doctor, as a secondary infection could be forming. It may require treatment with antibiotics.

Get tips on choosing a dermatologist here.

Summary

Seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin condition. It is what causes dandruff.

In infants, this condition is known as cradle cap. It typically occurs within the first few months of an infant’s life and resolves on its own.

Although there is currently no cure for seborrheic dermatitis, adults can treat it with shampoos and other topical medications.

If you believe you may have seborrheic dermatitis, contact your doctor. They can provide you with an accurate diagnosis.

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Medical Reviewer: Clare Wightman MS, PAC
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 31
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