How Seborrheic Dermatitis Is Diagnosed

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A seborrheic dermatitis diagnosis is primarily made by a healthcare provider's trained eye and through a thorough medical history and skin examination.

While the precise cause behind this skin disease remains unknown, experts suspect that a yeast species called Malassezia is involved.

Healthcare providers may look to identify seborrheic dermatitis by identifying scaly, greasy-appearing patches that form on oily parts of the skin, such as the scalp, face, and in ear canals. Additionally, they will check for the appearance of a cradle cap in infants and dandruff in adults.

This article will highlight the process of diagnosing seborrheic dermatitis.

Gloved hands inspect newborn's face

delectus / Getty Images


Before your appointment, make notes about your rash symptoms (or that of your child). Your healthcare provider will ask you several questions about your rash, such as the location of your lesions ("spots or patches"), what makes your rash better or worse, if there are any associated symptoms like itching or burning, and if the rash is constant or comes and goes.

While you may be tempted to self-diagnose, this condition mimics several others. A primary care provider or dermatologist will be able to provide the best diagnosis and rule out other causes and recommend the correct treatment.

In adults, seborrheic dermatitis is often a chronic skin condition that comes and goes, often relapsing with specific triggers like stress or in cold, dry climates.

Labs and Tests

During your skin exam, in addition to examining the characteristics of your rash (e.g., presence of scaling), your healthcare provider will make note of precisely where your rash is located.

With seborrheic dermatitis, the rash will be located only on certain parts of the body—those that contain a large amount of sebaceous or oil-producing glands, such as the scalp, center of the face, ears, eyebrows, upper chest and back, armpits, and genitals.

If the diagnosis of seborrheic dermatitis is still uncertain, a dermatologist may perform a skin biopsy. With a biopsy, a small area of the affected skin is removed and examined under a microscope.

Other tests may be performed if alternative diagnoses are being considered. For example, a KOH prep test may be done to rule out a fungal infection, which can mimic seborrheic dermatitis. Likewise, sometimes blood or other tests are ordered if your healthcare provider suspects your seborrheic dermatitis is a sign of an underlying health conditon.

In the end, a good history and exam by your or your child's primary care healthcare provider or dermatologist will not only help clinch the diagnosis of seborrheic dermatitis but also rule out alternative diagnoses.

Differential Diagnoses

There are several skin conditions that can resemble that of seborrheic dermatitis. This is why it's best to see a healthcare provider for proper evaluation before engaging in any self-treatment.

To provide an example—one skin disease that may be easily confused for seborrheic dermatitis and yet requires a wholly unique treatment plan is psoriasis. Both psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis cause a scaling skin rash, which may be present on the scalp. However, there are some key differences that a healthcare provider can tease out during a skin exam.

The scales of psoriasis of silvery-white and often bleed when scratched off. On the other hand, the scales of seborrheic dermatitis are yellow-white in color, appear greasy and moist, and are usually fairly easy to remove. In addition, while both rashes can itch, psoriasis scales tend to feel more tender.

Besides psoriasis, other common skin conditions that may be confused for seborrheic dermatitis include:

A Word From Verywell

The diagnosis of seborrheic dermatitis is relatively straightforward and based on the appearance of the rash. Uncommonly, a biopsy may be utilized, mostly to rule out other skin conditions. The good news is that once diagnosed, you can move forward with a treatment plan that improves the appearance of the rash and eases any itching associated with it.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the more common term for seborrheic dermatitis?

    Seborrheic dermatitis is also known as dandruff, seborrheic eczema, and seborrheic psoriasis. In babies, seborrheic dermatitis can occur on the scalp and is known as cradle cap. 

  • Can you get seborrheic dermatitis on your hands?

    Not usually, unless your hands are very hairy. Seborrheic dermatitis grows along areas that contain sebaceous oil glands. These are commonly found on the scalp, the T-zone on your face, eyebrows, the beard area in men, armpits, and other places where hair grows.

  • Is seborrheic dermatitis the same as scalp psoriasis?

    No. Scalp psoriasis is different than seborrheic dermatitis. Scalp psoriasis tends to have silvery scales and be itchy or sore, while seborrheic dermatitis causes greasy-looking white or yellow scales and may or may not itch. 

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. Clark GW, Pope SM, Jaboori KA. Diagnosis and Treatment of Seborrheic Dermatitis. Am Fam Physician. 2015;91(3):185-90.

  2. Borda LJ, Wikramanayake TC. Seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff: a comprehensive review. J Clin Investig Dermatol. 2015;3(2). doi:10.13188/2373-1044.1000019

  3. American Academy of Dermatology. Seborrheic dermatitis.

  4. Cleveland Clinic. Seborrheic dermatitis.

Additional Reading

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