Cradle Cap is that dry, flaky skin you see on newborns that seems to cover their tender little heads like a crusty, scaly head cap. 

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, 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 cradle cap include 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.  

You can read more about Atopic Dermatitis.

What causes baby Cradle Cap & can I prevent it?

The cause of Cradle Cap isn’t clear, but 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.  

How can I treat my baby’s cradle cap?

Infantile seborrheic dermatitis 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. This usually happens between 6-12 months of age.

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 products with words like: 

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

Gentle body shampoos and body washes like Dr. Eddie’s Happy Cappy cleanse thoroughly without irritating baby’s delicate skin.  Before rinsing the shampoo off the scalp, loosen the scales by massaging with your fingertips, a wash cloth, or alternatively you can use a small, soft-bristled brush or 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 afterwards.  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. 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.  

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

How do I know if my baby’s dry, flaky skin needs medical attention?

While cradle cap is rarely serious, you should seek help if the skin starts to become red and the patches look irritated.  Other reasons to seek medical care:

  • Affected area spreads to the face or starts to appear on the body
  • Diaper rash occurs
  • Signs of thrush appear.

Newborn Skin Peeling versus 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.

Can a Toddler 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.  The treatment approach is the same for toddlers as for babies.  

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.  

However, some babies with cradle cap go on to develop other rashes like eczema.  If your toddler’s cradle cap doesn’t respond to approaches that worked in the past, best to have a doctor reevaluate.