Treating Cradle Cap Rashes in Infants

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Cradle cap (also known as infantile seborrheic dermatitis) is often a very mild condition that simply causes a little flaking on a baby's scalp.

However, some babies can have more extensive cradle cap with thick scaling.

Either way, it can be distressing for some parents. But remember no matter how bad it looks, cradle cap is almost always a harmless condition.

This article will look at the symptoms of cradle cap, its causes, and how it's diagnosed and treated.

Woman's hand rubbing baby oil into baby's scalp, close-up
Ruth Jenkinson / Getty Images

Symptoms

Cradle cap is usually easy to recognize. The primary symptom is a scalp rash that:

  • Is dry and flaky
  • May be itchy
  • Has thick, greasy, yellow or brown scales
  • May have red patches with crust

Symptoms may spread beyond the scalp. In some children, the rash develops behind their ears and in the creases of their neck, arms, face, and diaper area.

When it spreads, it's generally called seborrheic dermatitis. Although this rash can resemble eczema, it's usually not as itchy as eczema.

Causes

Cradle cap is thought to be influenced by maternal hormones during pregnancy, which can overstimulate oil glands.

Some experts think that cradle cap might be a mild yeast infection caused by Malassezia furfur. This is why topical and oral antifungal medications are sometimes used to treat extensive cradle cap.

Cradle cap is not a sign that you, as a parent, have done something wrong. Initial symptoms can't be prevented.

Diagnosis

Cradle cap is easy to diagnose because of the distinctive scales and location of patches. Your pediatrician or other healthcare provider will likely be able to diagnose it on sight.

Your baby shouldn't need any lab tests to confirm the diagnosis. However, if your baby has other symptoms, let the provider know.

Concerning Symptoms

Babies with widespread seborrheic dermatitis and other symptoms, such as failure to thrive or chronic diarrhea, may have other conditions. These include Leiner's disease or Langerhans cell histiocytosis X.

Treatments

For mild cradle cap, time is often the best treatment. Many children get better on their own by the time they're about a year old.

When treatment for cradle cap is necessary, most experts recommend home remedies. These include frequently washing your baby's hair with a mild baby shampoo and using a soft brush to remove the scales.

You can also rub a little baby oil or mineral oil into your baby's scalp to soften the scales. After about 10 to 15 minutes, use a soft brush to remove the scales. Then shampoo to get rid of the oil. Leaving the oil on too long can make cradle cap worse.

Your pediatrician may recommend other treatments for more extensive cases of cradle cap, including:

  • Steroid cream or lotion: Over-the-counter cream such as Cortaid or stronger forms for really tough cases, such as when the scales are very red and irritated.
  • Antiseborrheic or anti-dandruff shampoos: Selsun Blue, Sebulex shampoo, or T-Gel. These are generally used a few times a week.
  • Antibiotics: For secondary scalp infections that may occur with cradle cap.
  • Antifungals: Topical or oral antifungal medication or shampoos.

Even after your child's cradle cap is treated, you may have to continue using an antiseborrheic shampoo to keep it from coming back.

Many children outgrow cradle cap by the time they're a year old. Some children do continue to have some scale until they are much older. It's usually much milder and less noticeable than when they were younger, though.

Summary

Cradle cap is almost always harmless. It causes a rash on a baby's scalp that is dry, flaky, and has greasy, yellowish scales and possibly red crusty patches. Some babies get it in other places, such as the creases of the diaper area.

Cradle cap is believed to be caused by overstimulation of oil glands by the mother's hormones during pregnancy. It can't be prevented and isn't a sign of neglect. Healthcare providers can usually diagnose it on sight.

Home remedies include frequent washing with mild shampoo and removing scales with a soft brush. In more extensive cases, steroid creams, special shampoos, antibiotics, or antifungals may be used.

A Word From Verywell

As a parent, it's stressful to have anything go "wrong" with your new baby. With cradle cap, if your baby is otherwise healthy, it's likely nothing to worry about. You didn't do anything to cause it, and it's usually pretty simple to get rid of.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. KidsHealth. Cradle cap (seborrheic dermatitis) in infants. Updated February 2019.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Cradle cap (seborrheic dermatitis in infants). Updated April 28, 2020.

  3. Sanghvi SY, Schwartz RA. Leiner's disease (erythroderma desquamativum): A review and approach to therapyDermatol Ther. 2021;34(1):e14510. doi:10.1111/dth.14510

  4. National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Langerhans cell histiocytosis. Updated May 28, 2021.