Cradle cap, the common term for infantile seborrheic dermatitis, causes scaly patches on a baby's scalp. Though cradle cap isn't serious, it can cause thick crusting and white or yellow scales.
Cradle cap usually resolves on its own within a few months. Self-care measures, such as washing your baby's scalp daily with a mild shampoo, can help loosen and remove the cradle cap scales. If cradle cap persists or seems severe, your doctor may suggest a medicated shampoo, lotion or other treatment.
Common signs of cradle cap include:
Patchy scaling or thick crusts on the scalp
Greasy skin covered with flaky white or yellow scales
Possibly mild redness
Similar scales may also be present on the ears, eyelids, nose and groin.
Cradle cap is most common in newborns. It isn't contagious and probably won't bother your baby. Cradle cap generally isn't itchy for infants.
Cradle cap is sometimes confused with another skin condition, infantile eczema. One major difference between these conditions, however, is that eczema usually causes significant itching.
When to see a doctor
See your baby's doctor if:
You've tried self-care steps without success
The patches spread to your baby's face or body
Though the exact cause of cradle cap isn't known, one contributing factor may be hormones that pass from the mother to the baby before birth. These hormones can cause an abnormal production of oil (sebum) in the oil glands and hair follicles.
Another factor may be a yeast (fungus) called malassezia (mal-uh-SEE-zhuh) that grows in the sebum along with bacteria. Antifungal treatments, such as ketoconazole, are often effective, supporting the idea that yeast is a contributing factor.
Shampooing your baby's hair every few days can help prevent cradle cap. Stick with a mild baby shampoo unless your baby's doctor recommends something stronger.
Cradle cap usually doesn't require medical treatment. It clears up on its own within a few weeks to months. In the meantime, wash your baby's hair once a day with mild baby shampoo and brush the scalp lightly with a soft brush to loosen the scales.
If frequent shampooing doesn't help, consult your baby's doctor. He or she may recommend a stronger shampoo — such as an adult dandruff shampoo containing tar, 2 percent of the antifungal medication ketoconazole or 1 percent selenium sulfide — to help dissolve the scales. Be sure these shampoos don't get in your baby's eyes, as they may cause irritation. Hydrocortisone cream is sometimes helpful to reduce redness and inflammation.
Don't use over-the-counter cortisone or antifungal creams without talking to your baby's doctor, because some of these products can be toxic when absorbed through a baby's skin. Dandruff shampoos that contain salicylic acid aren't recommended for use in babies either, because they can be absorbed through the skin.
The following over-the-counter treatments and self-care tips can help you control and manage cradle cap.
Gently rub your baby's scalp with your fingers or washcloth to loosen the scales.
Wash your baby's hair once a day with mild baby shampoo. Loosen the scales with a small, soft-bristled brush before rinsing off the shampoo.
If the scales don't loosen easily, rub petroleum jelly or a few drops of mineral oil onto your baby's scalp. Let it soak into the scales for a few minutes, and then brush and shampoo your baby's hair as usual. If you leave the oil in your baby's hair, the scales may accumulate and worsen the cradle cap.
Once the scales are gone, wash your baby's hair every few days with a mild shampoo to prevent scale buildup.