(Also Called ‘Dandruff’)

What is seborrheic dermatitis?

Seborrheic dermatitis is a skin condition that causes white-to-yellow greasy scales to form on the scalp, ears, and face. If it occurs on the scalp in babies, it is called “cradle cap.” If it appears on the scalp in adults, it is known as dandruff.

Seborrheic dermatitis can cause various areas of the skin to be flaky or itchy. It usually affects the scalp, but can also affect other parts of the body. Common sites include the sides of the nose, eyebrows, ears, eyelids, and chest. It can also occur in the navel (belly button) and in the creases of the arms, legs, or groin.

What are the symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis?

Seborrhea of the scalp causes dandruff, which appears as loose, white flakes of skin that may itch. Seborrhea on other areas of the body can produce patches of skin that are red and scaly.

Cradle cap in infants appears as crusty yellow or brown scales on the scalp. This scaling can also be found on the eyelids, around the nose, and in the groin, and may itch. Scratching may cause additional inflammation in the area and may cause breaks in the skin, which can lead to mild infections or bleeding.

Who gets seborrheic dermatitis?

Seborrheic dermatitis occurs most often in infants younger than 3 months old and in adults between the ages of 30 and 60. It is more common in men than in women.

What are the causes of seborrheic dermatitis?

Seborrheic dermatitis can have many different causes. Hormones may play a role. A yeast called Malassezia, which is normally present on the skin, may overgrow and cause skin problems.

Other factors that can cause seborrheic dermatitis include:

  • family history (other members of your family have it)
  • stress
  • fatigue
  • extremes in weather
  • oily skin
  • infrequent shampoos or skin cleaning
  • using alcohol-based lotions
  • other skin disorders

Certain conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, stroke, and head injury can cause seborrheic dermatitis.

How is seborrheic dermatitis diagnosed?

For most patients, seborrheic dermatitis is diagnosed based on the appearance of the affected skin and where it appears on the body. There is usually no need for blood, urine, or allergy tests. If the condition does not respond to treatment, a skin biopsy or other test may be performed to rule out another disease.

How is seborrheic dermatitis treated?

Treatment depends on your age and the area of the body that is affected.

  • In adolescents and adults, seborrheic dermatitis may clear up on its own. Dandruff can be treated with an over-the-counter dandruff shampoo that contains tar, salicylic acid, selenium sulfide, zinc pyrithione, or ketoconazole. The scalp and hair should be washed at least every other day. Steroid lotions may be used to treat other affected skin areas.
  • In babies, cradle cap usually clears up without treatment when the child is between 8 and 12 months old. It may be treated with daily cleansing, using a mild baby shampoo. Massage or brush the scalp with a soft brush several times a day and after each shampoo. Be careful not to cause a break in the skin, which can lead to infection. If the problem continues, or the baby seems uncomfortable and scratches the scalp, contact your pediatrician or dermatologist. He or she may prescribe a prescription shampoo or lotion. Other areas of affected skin may be treated with a gentle steroid lotion.

What is the prognosis (outlook) for patients who have seborrheic dermatitis?

In infants, cradle cap usually disappears on its own when the child is between 8 and 12 months old.

In adolescents and adults, dandruff can be a lifelong condition that can be controlled with treatment. The condition improves quickly with regular treatment.

See your health care provider if your condition doesn’t respond to self-treatment, or if the affected area becomes red or painful, forms crusts, or drains fluid or pus.

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