Do you suffer from an itchy, red scalp that sheds skin flakes into your hair and down onto your shoulders? You might assume you’ve got a case of dandruff, or worse, that you’re suffering from eczema. The first part of that assumption is correct. The second is a bit more complicated.

The short answer to “are there eczema symptoms on the scalp?” is “no.” Atopic dermatitis, the condition most frequently associated with classic eczema, rarely presents on the scalp. It can happen, but far more often, the cause of red, flaky skin beneath your hair is seborrheic dermatitis.

The longer answer is significantly longer, which is why we’ve written this post.

Seborrheic vs. Atopic Dermatitis

All varieties of dermatitis are technically eczema. From that perspective, dandruff, or seborrheic dermatitis, is a type of eczema. Symptoms of eczema include dry, itchy skin, localized inflammation, raised bumps, thick or scaly skin, and red, irritated rashes that appear on the face, hands, feet, outside or inside the elbows, and behind or in front of the knees. These are symptoms of atopic dermatitis, eczema’s classic presentation.

Atopic dermatitis is generally caused by defects in the skin’s protective layer, which let moisture out and pathogens in. Flare-ups can be triggered by abrasion, harsh cleaning products, household chemicals, and allergic reactions.

You can avoid flare-ups by switching to mild cleansers, like an eczema body wash that doesn’t contain harsh chemicals, dyes, preservatives, or fragrances. Both children and adults can also benefit from moisturizing using a baby eczema cream that’s equally free of unwanted and unnecessary chemical additives.

By contrast, seborrheic dermatitis usually causes dry, flaky skin that may or may not be accompanied by redness or itchiness. It can look similar to atopic dermatitis, but it’s caused by an overabundance of yeast growth across the surface of the skin or an improper immune response. Treatments include dandruff shampoos, topical antifungals, and steroid lotions. Only the last of these is recommended for atopic dermatitis as well.

These differences are why doctors don’t generally lump all types of dermatitis into a single eczema category. Their causes and treatments are different and require more specific diagnoses.

So Dandruff is Technically Eczema, But Most Doctors Don’t Treat it That Way

Yes, it’s complicated, we know. Here’s the takeaway. While all types of dermatitis are technically eczema, atopic dermatitis is the variety that doctors most commonly associate with the word “Eczema.” Atopic dermatitis rarely occurs on the scalp. Therefore, doctors don’t generally diagnose eczema on the scalp. They specifically diagnose seborrheic dermatitis instead, which better focuses treatment. In children the most common presentation of seborrheic dermatitis on the scalp is frequently referred to as “cradle cap.”

So are there eczema symptoms on the scalp? Technically yes, but in practice, no. Atopic dermatitis causes classic eczema, while seborrheic dermatitis causes dandruff.

More often than not, seborrheic dermatitis doesn’t require a doctor’s visit and can be treated with simple, over-the-counter dandruff preparations. However, if you’re nervous that there’s more to your dry, flaky scalp than simple dandruff, you should consult with your doctor to get a more specific diagnosis.