Cradle Cap (Seborrheic Dermatitis in Infants)
What is cradle cap (infant seborrheic dermatitis)?
Cradle cap (infant seborrheic dermatitis, or ISD) is a harmless skin condition that appears as yellow scaly patches surrounded by a red rash on the scalp of babies. About 7 out of 10 babies develop cradle cap between two and six weeks of birth.
Your baby is not in any danger. Cradle cap has no negative effects on your baby’s general health and doesn’t affect sleep or feeding. It usually disappears over a period of weeks or months and typically isn’t seen after 12 months of age.
Is cradle cap (infant seborrheic dermatitis) contagious?
Cradle cap is not contagious to others. It is rarely itchy or uncomfortable for your baby. Cradle cap is not due to an allergy or poor hygiene, or to an infection or fungus, and will not leave scars.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes cradle cap (infant seborrheic dermatitis)?
The exact cause of infant seborrheic dermatitis is unknown. Overproduction of your baby’s oil-producing sebaceous glands or a type of yeast in the oil may contribute to your baby’s condition. The glands are on the baby’s scalp. Scientists think the changing hormone levels in the mother’s body during pregnancy may cause a baby’s sebaceous glands to overproduce. Normal skin cells are naturally shed in a process called desquamation. However, the cells will remain stuck to the scalp if there is an abundance of oil. This causes no harm to your baby.
Are certain babies more likely to get cradle cap (infant seborrheic dermatitis)?
Infants are more likely to have cradle cap if they have a family member with eczema or asthma. The rate of occurrence is equal between males and females, and it doesn’t affect one ethnicity more often than another.
What are the signs of cradle cap (infant seborrheic dermatitis)?
- Redness, and crusty brown or yellow scales on the scalp that resemble fish scales.
- Scales feel fragile and flaky, or waxy and greasy, to the touch.
Note: Cradle cap is seborrheic dermatitis that is limited to your baby’s scalp. If your baby has redness and scaling on their eyelids, in the folds of their neck and armpits, behind their ears, and on their face and diaper areas, this is called seborrheic dermatitis or seborrhea and should be brought to the attention of your healthcare provider.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is cradle cap (infant seborrheic dermatitis) diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider can make the diagnosis of cradle cap simply by looking at your baby’s scalp. The redness and the flaky scales and where the patches occur are easy clues to identifying the condition. No laboratory studies or biopsies are needed.
Management and Treatment
How is cradle cap (infant seborrheic dermatitis) treated?
If your baby’s seborrheic dermatitis is limited to the scalp as cradle cap, you can treat it yourself. Here’s what you need to do:
- Wash your baby’s scalp daily with mild baby shampoo.
- Massage lathered hair gently with your fingers or a washcloth.
- Softly brush your baby’s hair to help remove the scales. There are combs designed specifically for cradle cap, but a soft toothbrush also works. Do not pick at the scales with your fingernails or sharp tools as this may cause bleeding or lead to possible infection. (Alternative approach: Apply a small amount of petroleum jelly or mineral oil to help loosen the scales on your baby’s scalp. Leave on for several hours or overnight. Use a soft brush to remove the scales and wash your baby’s hair afterward.)
- Over-the-counter cradle cap lotions are available. The lotion should be applied to your baby’s scalp at least 15 minutes before shampooing. Rinse it off well before shampooing.
- After scales disappear, shampoo your baby’s hair two to three times a week to help prevent cradle cap from returning. Afterward, decrease shampoos to twice weekly.
Your pediatrician may also prescribe topical steroids, local antifungals, or anti-seborrheic shampoos if your baby’s condition persists.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Call your healthcare provider if:
- If the rash is not resolving or improving within one week after the start of prescription treatment.
- If the rash is affecting the neck, the armpit, the diaper area, or other areas beyond the scalp.
- If the cradle cap continues beyond 12 months of age.
Rarely, the area may become infected. Signs of infection include:
- Draining liquid.
- Looks very red or painful.
- Forms larger crusts or scabs.
- Foul odor.
- Pimples or blisters.
Can cradle cap (infant seborrheic dermatitis) be prevented?
Initial cradle cap symptoms can’t be prevented. Most babies develop it. Breast feeding and vitamins are not helpful in preventing cradle cap.
Outlook / Prognosis
What should I expect if my baby has cradle cap (infant seborrheic dermatitis)?
Cradle cap is a scalp condition that happens in most babies. It’s generally a harmless condition that doesn’t cause pain, itching or discomfort. It appears within the first weeks to months of life and is rarely seen after 12 months of age in most babies.
The good news is that your baby’s cradle cap can be easily managed with simple at-home care. Apply petroleum jelly or mineral oil to your baby’s scalp to loosen scales, use a soft brush to gently remove scales, and, finally, wash your baby’s hair every day with a mild baby shampoo. If your baby’s cradle cap doesn’t improve with these measures, other products can be tried. Contact your healthcare provider to discuss your baby’s condition and treatment options.
Once cradle cap has cleared up, shampooing your baby’s hair with mild baby shampoo two or three times a week should prevent it from returning.
Can my baby go to daycare?
Because this condition is not contagious, your child can go to daycare or join in on play dates However, if there is also an infection present (sometimes a bacterial infection can result from scratching), avoid exposing other children to your baby just to be safe.
How will cradle cap (infant seborrheic dermatitis) affect my child’s hair?
Cradle cap will not prevent your baby’s hair from growing or cause baldness. Only in very rare cases will it cause temporary hair loss.
Seborrheic dermatitis is not limited to infants. Dandruff, flaky scales that build up on the scalps of individuals of teen age or older, is known as adult seborrheic dermatitis (ASD).
Is cradle cap (infant seborrheic dermatitis) the same as eczema?
Like cradle cap, eczema consists of red, flaky skin. Unlike cradle cap, eczema is very uncomfortable for an infant. It is often itchy, and can hurt if scratching opens a wound. Eczema can occur in the same places on the body as seborrheic dermatitis (underneath the scales), but it is a different condition. There is no direct link between eczema and cradle cap. An infant could have one or the other, or both, or neither.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Cradle cap is a very common, temporary condition that rarely causes problems beyond looking like an unpleasant or irritating skin condition. Just remember to not hesitate to contact your physician if you suspect something abnormal.