By Dr. Eddie Valenzuela

Infantile seborrheic dermatitis is that dry, flaky skin you see on newborns that seems to cover their tender little heads like a crusty, scaly head cap.  It’s often referred to as “Baby Cradle Cap” and it can be a real nuisance for parents and babies.

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. 

For parents – especially first-time parents – cradle cap can look alarming.  That’s why it’s important for you to know that cradle cap is ugly but harmless.  

Clinically known as Infantile Seborrheic Dermatitis, cradle cap is a common and temporary condition. In fact, infantile 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.

Other terms you might hear interchangeably for infantile seborrheic dermatitis include cradle cap, crusta lacteal, honeycomb disease, milk crust or pityriasis capitis. It all signifies the same thing.

While seborrheic dermatitis in adults is associated with bothersome itchiness and dry scalp, cradle cap usually does not bother the baby.  It can be confused with another skin condition, atopic dermatitis. A major difference between these conditions is that atopic dermatitis usually causes significant itching.  

How can I treat my baby’s infantile seborrheic dermatitis?

Infantile seborrheic dermatitis (“Cradle Cap”) and its attending symptoms of newborn skin peeling, flaking, dryness, scaliness is rarely serious and will clear up on its own without the need for treatment. But it’s much easier to grab a safe medicated baby shampoo for cradle cap containing an ingredient called Pyrithione Zinc.

But there are steps you can take to ease scaling and potentially stop future scaling.  

Gently wash the infant’s head every day with a mild baby shampoo.  Mild is the key word here.  Look for a baby shampoo for cradle cap with words like: 

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

Gentle body shampoos and body washes for cradle cap like Dr. Eddie’s Happy Cappy cleanse thoroughly without irritating the baby’s delicate skin.  Before rinsing the shampoo off the scalp, loosen the scales by massaging with your fingertips, a washcloth, or alternatively, you can use a small, soft-bristled brush or a fine-toothed comb. After the scales disappear, the gentle washing process should be repeated every 2-3 days to prevent scales from building up again.

Although it looks hydrating, don’t be tempted to leave shampoo, oil, or lotions on the scalp, 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.

Avoid using over-the-counter cortisone or antifungal creams without speaking with your baby’s doctor.  Some of the products mentioned can be toxic for an infant.  Same goes for dandruff shampoo containing salicylic acid.  Apply a medicated baby shampoo like our medicated shampoo for infantile seborrheic dermatitis to give your baby relief quickly.

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