The Ultimate Guide to Cradle Cap: Symptoms, Causes and What to Do About It

The Ultimate Guide To Cradle Cap: Symptoms, Causes And What To Do About It

Seborrheic dermatitis, also known as cradle cap, affects 70% of babies by 3 months of age. Cradle cap most often occurs in babies between ages 3 weeks and 12 months old.

The good news is that the condition isn’t dangerous, or painful, but it can linger, and sometimes it can cause some discomfort. Most instances of cradle cap in babies will go away within the first year. But did you know that cradle cap can impact toddlers and children? And that cradle cap in adults is also common?

Understanding how to prevent cradle cap or reduce the cradle cap symptoms of scaling and flaking can help you feel more confident as you care for your child, or as you work on getting rid of the problem for yourself.In this ultimate guide to cradle cap, which impacts nearly 10% of infants younger than 1 month old, we’ll cover everything you need to know about cradle cap.

From identifying the early cradle cap signs and symptoms, to navigating prevention methods and treatment options, we’ll cover all of the basics to help you mitigate the issue for your baby, toddler, teen, or yourself.


What is Cradle Cap?

Most formally known as seborrheic dermatitis , you may also hear of this condition referred to in many other ways. Other terms you might hear interchangeably for cradle cap include crusta lacteal, honeycomb disease, milk crust, or pityriasis capitis. It all signifies the same thing.

Cradle cap is that dry, flaky skin you may see on babies that appears at the earliest around 3 to 4 weeks of age, and commonly is present by 2 months of age, and can persist into the toddler years. This flaky, scaly skin seems to cover their tender little heads like a crusty, scaly head cap.

For parents – especially first-time parents – cradle cap can look concerning. Thankfully, cradle cap isn’t known to be painful or uncomfortable for young children, and it’s not contagious either. At its core, cradle cap looks more irritating than it actually is. And, with patience and a strong hygiene plan in place, you can treat the issue, get rid of white or yellow scales, and create a clear foundation for baby’s hair to grow and thrive.

Causes of Cradle Cap

Technically, there is no specific cause of cradle cap.

While the cause of cradle cap isn’t clear, doctors think it may stem from overactive sebaceous glands, which are found in the skin and produce an oil-like substance known as sebum.

Overactive sebaceous glands will produce too much sebum. Naturally occurring yeasts on the skin consume the sebum and make an irritating byproduct that irritates the skin and causes excess flaking. The natural skin barrier is disrupted and then the skin becomes dry which allows for more irritation. A theory for why those glands are overactive is that the mom’s hormones stay in the baby’s body for several months after birth.

Cradle cap isn’t caused by anything within your control; it is not something you can prevent. But you can use certain products to gently care for your baby’s skin, soften the scales of seborrheic dermatitis scalp, and possibly prevent future scales from developing, improving the affected skin’s appearance.

In short, there are no causes of cradle cap. There isn’t enough evidence to prove that there’s a specific diet, habit, or underlying issue that leads to cradle cap. Understanding that the causation is essentially out of your control can help you learn to cope with the condition and find the best way to mitigate the problem.

Common Symptoms of Cradle Cap

The most common symptoms of cradle cap, according to the Mayo Clinic, include:

  • Scaling patches or thick, crusty-like substances forming on the scalp, eyebrows, eyelids, or forehead
  • Yellow scales on top of extremely dry skin, or even severely oily skin
  • Mild redness in areas with scaly patches, most commonly on the head

On your baby’s scalp you may notice thickened yellow, white, or brown patches of skin. (The color of the patches depends on the color of your baby’s skin.) The patches may be greasy, and some parents may even detect a smell around their baby’s rash. A yellow/brown crust can also develop on baby’s eyebrows or behind the ears. Pink moist skin also pops up around the diaper area or armpits.

Clinically known as infantile seborrheic dermatitis, cradle cap is common. In fact, seborrheic dermatitis scalp in babies is a younger, crustier relative of dandruff in adults. There’s nothing contagious or infected or wrong with your baby. It isn’t caused by inadequate care, and it isn’t an allergy. You haven’t done anything to trigger this in your infant and there is a safe and effective way to treat the symptoms.

After all, cradle cap is common, harmless, and no reflection of the care you are providing your newborn. It will go away.

Who Can Get Cradle Cap?

Cradle cap isn’t just for babies. Anyone can get cradle cap:

While cradle cap most commonly begins in the first three months of life, up to a third of babies will continue to have symptoms in their toddler years. Cradle cap can even occur in teenagers and adults. In other words, cradle cap can impact nearly anyone, no matter the age, but it’s most common in babies during the first year of life.

Toddlers that are still dealing with cradle cap may have an underlying skin condition, but there isn’t a known cause of cradle cap in toddlers. In a toddler case of cradle cap, it could be that treatment effectively removed the scales but the glands are still making too much oil. Simply resume the treatment that worked before.

Adults can get cradle cap as well, but for this older age group, this flaking condition is generally referred to as seborrheic dermatitis. Just like the other age groups, there isn’t a known cause of cradle cap in adults, but it’s likely related to the overproduction of oil in both the skin and hair follicles, according to Healthline. In an adult cradle cap, the scalp turns red, and may form yellow scales or flakes similar to dandruff. It can also occur in facial hair like the mustache or beard.

Where Does Cradle Cap Occur?

Cradle cap can show up in different places, such as:

Cradle cap mostly occurs on the scalp, creating thick patchy flakes across the top of the head that would otherwise be bare or full of small strands of hair. But cradle cap doesn’t only exist on the head.

Cradle cap can work its way down to the forehead and eyebrows, and potentially even work its way down to the ears and the back of the neck. In some cases, your baby’s cradle cap may even spread down to the rest of the body, manifesting as pink or red spots, showing up along the chest, back and in areas where the skin folds.

In these instances, you may be more inclined to seek treatment options because it seems like these occurrences would cause irritation for your baby. However, cradle cap that exists on the back and chest doesn’t cause more harm than scales and flakes that exist on the scalp.

Newborn Skin Peeling vs Cradle Cap

Many babies have dry, peeling skin soon after birth, particularly if they’re born close to 40 weeks. Bathing too often and using soaps with scents and added colors can be drying or make already-dry skin worse because soap removes the skin’s natural oils.

Unlike babies with cradle cap, newborns who simply have dry skin will not have crusting, discoloration, or rough patches. Washing with a gentle, pure body wash and following up with non-irritating baby lotion, ointment or moisturizer will take care of typical newborn skin peeling.

Is Cradle Cap the Same as Dandruff?

Technically speaking, cradle cap and dandruff are different things – cradle cap occurs when an irritated, dry scalp progresses to yellow flakes and red rashes. Dandruff is mild skin flaking that also likely has the same root cause–the yeast Malassezia. When we most commonly refer to the red patches and scaling skin on the scalp of babies, we call it cradle cap. When adults notice dry skin and flakes on their heads, we call it dandruff.

Cradle Cap Treatment Options

Traditionally, cradle cap doesn’t require medical treatment. Of course, you can gauge with your pediatrician or doctor if the issue becomes too severe. Cradle cap treatment options include:

  • Washing the hair with a mild shampoo
  • Using a soft-bristled brush to scrub away the scales
  • Massaging the scalp with a moisturizing cream
  • Seeking medical assistance/prescription topical steroid if the issue becomes severe

Infantile seborrheic dermatitis and its attendant symptoms of newborn skin peeling, flaking, dryness, and scaliness is rarely serious and can clear up on its own without the need for treatment. This usually happens between 6-12 months of age.

There are steps you can take to ease the symptoms of cradle cap, scaling and potentially stop future scaling. A gentle medicated baby shampoo for cradle cap containing Pyrithione Zinc is an excellent way to quickly remedy cradle cap.

In fact, Yale-trained pediatric dermatologist Dr. Britt Craiglow says a 2-in-1 combo with pyrithione zinc is the way to go.​ She said she’s a big fan of 2-in-1 because “there’s no real need for separate products,” according to an article by Scary Mommy. “Many regular baby shampoos can be useful for cradle cap, but some contain ingredients specifically targeted to treat it, such as zinc pyrithione.”

If going the route of using a mild baby shampoo, gently wash the infant’s head every day. Mild, the key word here, means you should avoid shampoos with harsh ingredients. Look for products with words like:

  • Hypoallergenic
  • Non-comedogenic
  • Fragrance-free
  • Paraben-free
  • Dye-free
  • Non-irritating

Gentle non-medicated body shampoos and body washes like Dr. Eddie’s Happy Cappy Daily Shampoo & Body Wash were designed for sensitive skin so they cleanse thoroughly without irritating baby’s delicate skin.

Before rinsing the shampoo off the scalp, loosen the scales by massaging with your fingertips, or a washcloth, or alternatively, you can use a small, soft-bristled brush or a fine-toothed comb. The time frame it takes to return the scalp to a smooth surface varies for everyone – it can take weeks to reap the benefits of a mild shampoo for cradle cap.

After the scales disappear, the gentle washing process should be repeated every 2-3 days to prevent scales from building up again.

Do’s and Dont’s: Things to Avoid During Cradle Cap Treatment

When it comes to treating cradle cap, make sure to never:

  • Leave oils soaking on the scalp, eye area, or other places where cradle cap may exist
  • Pick, scratch or peel the scales
  • Use topical steroid or another medical ointment before consulting the doctor or pediatrician
  • Bathing/washing the scalp more than once a day

Although it looks hydrating, don’t be tempted to leave shampoo, oil, or lotions on the scalp to soak, as it will likely worsen the scales. Always rinse thoroughly.

If your child’s scales are stubborn and won’t gently loosen, resist the temptation to scratch or peel them off with your fingers because it could open the door to infection. Some family members, friends, and doctors may recommend rubbing petroleum jelly or a few drops of mineral oil into the affected areas, once again thoroughly rinsing afterward. There are conflicting opinions about the benefit of using oils on baby scalps, so it’s best to consult a doctor if you plan to use anything beyond a gentle baby wash.

Do not use over-the-counter cortisone or anti-fungal creams without talking to your baby’s doctor. Some of these products can be toxic for an infant. The same goes for dandruff shampoos that contain salicylic acid. Better to consult a doctor for stubborn cradle cap cases or simply do your best, keep it gentle, and let the condition run its course.

Are There Any Long-Term Effects After Having Cradle Cap as an Infant?

There are many instances where the pigmentation of the skin can change after an injury to the skin. Examples of injury can be something as simple as:

  • Insect bites
  • Annoying pimples
  • Minor abrasions
  • Cradle cap

After any of these skin irritations there can be a temporary darkening or lightening of the skin after the injury. If the skin gets darker after the skin injury it is called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. If the skin gets lighter after the skin injury it is called post-inflammatory hypopigmentation.

It is noteworthy that in infants with darker skin types, there can be post-inflammatory hypopigmentation (skin lightening) in those areas that were previously affected by cradle cap. It is not harmful and with time (typically several weeks) the pigment will return. This alteration in skin color can be frustrating and frightening for parents, so we wanted to point this out as it is not a commonly discussed issue in many other articles on cradle cap.

Furthermore, this temporary lightening of the skin after cradle cap has nothing to do with the autoimmune condition called vitiligo which causes a loss of pigment.

Is There Any Worry Over Hair Loss in Cradle Cap in Infants?

Hair loss is a common theme throughout life. One of the earliest times hair loss occurs is in early infancy. Many babies, even those who get ample tummy time when awake, will develop a small bald spot on the back of their head.

Another extremely common cause of hair loss is with cradle cap. As the baby’s hair is washed and flakes and scales are washed away, hair can and will come out with those pesky scales. Picking at cradle cap can also accelerate the loss of the hair.

Even babies who don’t have cradle cap will experience hair loss around 3 to 4 months of age.

The hair cycle is complex, and is intertwined with life events like severe stress from emotional or physical illness. Telogen effluvium is the proper name for substantial hair loss that occurs 3-4 months after severe stress on the body.

Alopecia is focal hair loss typically of autoimmune origin, but can also occur for other reasons–like after hair is kept in tight braids. That is called traction alopecia.

How Do I Know if My Baby’s Dry, Flaky Skin Needs Medical Attention?

As you have seen above, in most cases, you can treat baby’s cradle cap in the comfort of your own home. While cradle cap is rarely serious, there still are cases of severe flaking and mild discomfort.  If you find that the red patches and flakes are consistent and not improving despite using a mild shampoo or pyrithione zinc based shampoo and your little one begins to get irritated, make sure you seek medical attention. Other reasons to seek medical care:

  • Cheeks or other areas of the body are staying dry, red or purple and irritated. This could be a sign of eczema or another skin condition that needs medical treatment.
  • Diaper rash occurs. Diaper rash is another type of skin inflammation that can be treated at home. However, if the condition is not improving, it may cause sores, boils, or other red bumps. Your pediatrician can help mitigate the issue.
  • Signs of thrush appear. Thrush is a fungal infection that can grow in the mouth and other areas of the body. This may happen when the skin is irritated. A pediatrician can also help mitigate the situation.

If you’re worried about the severity of your baby’s cradle cap, call your doctor. He or she may prescribe a topical steroid or other treatment for the problem.

Consider Happy Cappy Shampoo for Mitigating Cradle Cap

Finding the right mild shampoo that works for you or your child shouldn’t be so difficult. Dr Eddie’s Happy Cappy Medicated Shampoo, Face and Body Wash was created by a pediatrician who’s dealt with many cases of cradle cap that inspired him to create a solution that works.

By using time-tested active ingredient zinc pyrithione with gentle plant-derived lathering ingredients, and humectants like apple fruit extract, licorice root extract, and provitamin b5, Dr. Eddie designed a product that can manage cradle cap without causing more issues.

He chose these mild, nature-based compounds to gently soothe the redness, flaking, scaling and irritation associated with seborrheic dermatitis while promoting a healthier scalp and combating the problem with strength. This makes Happy Cappy Shampoo great for all ages; from babies to adults, anyone with cradle cap can benefit from this mild shampoo.

Shop Dr. Eddie’s Happy Cappy Shampoo to mitigate cradle cap today.

Learn More About Cradle Cap

Features you need in a Cradle Cap shampoo and body wash

  • Gentle Formula for young sensitive skin Formulated for Children of All Ages
  • Fragrance Free
  • Dye Free
  • Sulfate Free
  • Dermatologist & Clinically tested
  • Created by a Pediatrician
  • Contains Licorice Root Extract to Soothe Redness
  • Cruelty-Free
  • Vegan
  • 95% natural plant based ingredients
  • Alcohol Free
  • Parabens Free
  • Made in the USA
  • Aloe Vera
  • Contains Provitamin B5 to Moisturize Hair & Skin


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Dr. Eddie Valenzuela is an award winning pediatrician and the founder and CEO of Pediatric Solutions, LLC.

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Does breast milk help cradle cap?

Breast milk is a completely safe natural remedy that some families use to treat cradle cap. Breastmilk has antibacterial properties that help fight against Malassezia and improve skin health. We advise using a medicated shampoo containing pyrithione zinc to address the symptoms of cradle cap as it is more effective.

What happens if you don't treat cradle cap?

In most cases, cradle cap is harmless and fades out within a few weeks or months. However, if you don’t treat cradle cap, it can last longer than a year, it can spread on the body, it may look unsightly, and it may have a smell you would no longer want to endure.

How long can cradle cap last?

It can last more than a year if not treated properly. However, in general, it lasts a few weeks or months. Proper treatment can remove the cradle cap within a few weeks.

What hormone causes cradle cap?

Maternal hormones that are transmitted from mother to baby cause cradle cap. Some hormones remain in the baby for a few months, which enlarges sebaceous glands and increases the production of Sebum, leading to cradle cap.

What is the difference between cradle cap and dry scalp?

Cradle cap is a description of thick flakes and scales on an infant's scalp, forehead, and eyebrows. Cradle cap can be yellow or white in color. Cradle cap is typically accompanied by moist redness behind the ears, in the armpits, and in the groin folds. A dry scalp can be seen on the baby after birth, and moisturizer should be considered. A dry scalp is caused by loss of natural oil and water from the scalp. If there is flaking on the infant’s scalp after the age of 6 weeks old it is much more likely to be cradle cap and not a dry scalp.

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