Causes and Risk Factors of Seborrheic Dermatitis

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While there is no specific cause of seborrheic dermatitis, a variety of risk factors have been identified.

Specifically, it's possible that age and gender, preexisting medical conditions, drug regimes, or even a person's genetics may play a role in developing the condition.

Additionally, a factor frequently linked to seborrheic dermatitis is a yeast species called Malassezia.

This article will highlight the causes and risk factors behind seborrheic dermatitis.

Man with seborrheic dermatitis in the beard area
doble-d / Getty Images

Common Causes

Most experts theorize that there are likely multiple factors working together that ultimately make a person vulnerable to manifesting this inflammatory skin condition. 

Malassezia Yeast

One factor frequently linked to the pathogenesis behind seborrheic dermatitis involves a yeast species called Malassezia. This organism normally lives on the skin, but experts suspect that for some reason, those with seborrheic dermatitis mount an abnormal inflammatory or irritative response to its presence.

More specifically, experts propose that Malassezia yeast invades the outer layer of the skin (called the stratum corneum) and releases enzymes (called lipases) that result in free fatty acid formation. These fatty acids then induce the inflammatory process by reacting with triglycerides produces by the sebaceous (oil-producing) glands in the skin.

Despite the scientific evidence pointing towards a connection between seborrheic dermatitis and Malassezia, experts still debate about the strength of the link, and whether it's a direct or indirect one.

In the end, it's possible that the link between Malassezia and seborrheic dermatitis may simply be an incidental finding. Regardless, the fact that seborrheic dermatitis responds to antifungal drugs, suggests some sort of connection.

Age and Gender

Besides the presence of or a person's reaction to the Malassezia organism on their skin, research has found that age and gender may affect who is more susceptible to developing seborrheic dermatitis.

Seborrheic dermatitis is slightly more common in men, which suggests a possible association with sex hormones, like androgens. Seborrheic dermatitis is also more common in people within these two age groups:

  • Infants that are three months of age or younger
  • Adults between the ages of 30 and 60 years old

Medical Conditions

While seborrheic dermatitis generally affects healthy individuals, people with certain underlying medical conditions are more prone to manifesting the rash.

Examples of these medical conditions include:


Similar to having a certain medical condition, people who take these medications are also more susceptible to developing seborrheic dermatitis:

  • Interferon
  • Lithium
  • Psoralen and ultraviolet A (PUVA) therapy


Interestingly, the connection between genetics and the development of seborrheic dermatitis is receiving more and more attention.

In fact, scientists have found 11 gene mutations or protein deficiencies linked to seborrheic dermatitis. The majority of these genes or proteins play a role in the functioning of the immune system or how cells in the outer layer of the skin mature (called epidermal differentiation).

By understanding how genes play a role in the development of seborrheic dermatitis, researchers can better target therapies to ultimately treat this benign, yet potentially burdensome, skin disease.

Lifestyle Risk Factors

Besides your genes, age, gender, and health-related factors, various lifestyle-related factors have been linked to seborrheic dermatitis. These factors include:

  • Living in a cold, dry climate
  • Emotional stress
  • Sleep deprivation
  • How often you wash your hair (less frequent hair washing is more likely to lead to seborrheic dermatitis)

A Word From Verywell

Seborrheic dermatitis, while harmless, can be a frustrating, if not a distressing disease for some people. In adults, particularly, seborrheic dermatitis tends to be chronic and relapsing. This means that having a good treatment plan in place is key to keeping the disease at bay.

If you think you have seborrheic dermatitis, be sure to make an appointment with your primary care physician or dermatologist.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can seborrheic dermatitis spread from person to person?

    Seborrheic dermatitis is not contagious and cannot be spread from person to person. While its exact cause is still unknown, it does appear to run in families.

  • What foods trigger seborrheic dermatitis?

    Seborrheic dermatitis is not caused by a food allergy, but your diet may play a factor. A 2019 study found eating a Western-style diet that is high in processed foods may increase the risk of seborrheic dermatitis. The researchers also found that people who ate more fruit had a lower risk of seborrheic dermatitis.

8 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.
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  3. Clark GW, Pope SM, Jaboori KA. Diagnosis and treatment of seborrheic dermatitis. Am Fam Physician. 2015;1;91(3):185-90.

  4. Dessinioti C, Katsambas A. Seborrheic dermatitis: etiology, risk factors, and treatments: facts and controversies. Clin Dermatol. 2013 Jul-Aug;31(4):343-51. doi: 10.1016/j.clindermatol.2013.01.001

  5. Berk T, Scheinfeld N. Seborrheic Dermatitis. P T. 2010 Jun;35(6):348-52.

  6. Karakadze MA, Hirt PA, Wikramanayake TC. The genetic basis of seborrhoeic dermatitis: a review. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2018 Apr;32(4):529-36. doi: 10.1111/jdv.14704

  7. University of Rochester Medical Center. Seborrheic dermatitis.

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Additional Reading

By Colleen Doherty, MD
 Colleen Doherty, MD, is a board-certified internist living with multiple sclerosis.