Rough, scaly patches of skin on their newborn's scalp can be alarming to new parents, but usually are nothing to worry about. Most likely, they're due to a harmless condition many babies develop called cradle cap.
It's a relatively common condition in newborns and children as old as 3 and causes thick white or yellow scales on the scalp. Some kids just get scales in a small patch; others have scales all over their heads. Sometimes, cradle cap can even occur on the eyebrows, eyelids, ears, crease of the nose, back of the neck, diaper area, or armpits. In a few cases, such as in babies who have eczema or dry skin, cradle cap can cause cracked skin that itches and oozes a small amount of clear yellow drainage.
Cradle cap is not contagious and it isn't an indication of poor hygiene. Most of the time, it just goes away on its own. In severe or persistent cases, though, a doctor may recommend a medicated shampoo or lotion. Washing your baby's scalp daily with mild shampoo also can help to loosen and remove the scales caused by cradle cap.
Though it might look to be uncomfortable or irritating to the skin, cradle cap generally doesn't bother kids.
The exact cause of cradle cap isn't known, although some researchers believe it's due to an overproduction of skin oil (sebum) in the oil glands and hair follicles. A type of yeast (fungus) called malassezia can grow in the sebum along with bacteria, and this may be another factor in the development of cradle cap.
Seborrhea happens most often in babies and teenagers. In both of these times in a person’s life, hormone levels are high, which also might play a role in the condition.
Certain factors — like weather extremes, oily skin, problems with the immune system, stress, and other skin disorders — can make it more likely that a child will get cradle cap.
Cradle cap looks different on every baby. It can be grouped together in bunches, or crops, or it can be spread far apart on the body. Affected areas will usually have one or more of these symptoms:
In a very few cases, babies with cradle cap will have skin that is a little red or itchy, and some might even have hair loss, though the hair usually grows back after the cradle cap is gone.
In most cases, cradle cap will be easy to identify at home just by looking at it. However, call your child's doctor if:
While most cases of cradle cap don't require any treatment, you may want to loosen and remove the scales on your baby's scalp. This usually can be done by gently massaging your baby's scalp with your fingers or a washcloth and washing your baby's hair once a day with mild baby shampoo while scales are present.
After the scales have disappeared, you can control the seborrhea by shampooing just twice a week. Brush your child's hair with a clean, soft brush before rinsing off the shampoo to loosen the scales.
If the scales don't loosen easily, consider rubbing a small amount of mineral oil (avoid using olive oil) onto your baby's scalp. Allow the oil to soak into the scales for a few minutes, and then brush and shampoo your baby's hair as usual. Be sure to wash the oil away each time — too much oil may cause scales to build up and could make cradle cap worse.
If regular shampooing doesn't help, ask your doctor about nonprescription medicated or dandruff shampoos. These shampoos contain ingredients such as salicylic acid, coal tar, zinc, selenium, and ketoconazole that can help treat dryness and flaking. Some stronger forms of these medicines do require a prescription.
If you use one of these medicated shampoos, rub a little shampoo into your child's scalp and let it soak in for at least 2 minutes. Then wash the shampoo out and repeat the process one more time. You might need to do this daily or twice weekly at first, but after the cradle cap is under control, you may only have to use medicated shampoos once a month.
For seborrhea on other parts of the body, or if your child has irritated skin, steroid creams like hydrocortisone can help. Make sure to ask your baby's doctor before using hydrocortisone.
Cradle cap may disappear for months at a time and then suddenly reappear, but by following the steps above, you should be able to control it.
Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: August 2014
|American Academy of Dermatology Provides up-to-date information on the treatment and management of disorders of the skin, hair, and nails.|
|National Eczema Association This site contains information about eczema, dermatitis, and sensitive skin.|
|American Academy of Family Physicians This site, operated by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), provides information on family physicians and health care, a directory of family physicians, and resources on health conditions.|
|Looking at Your Newborn: What's Normal When you first get to see, touch, and inspect your newborn, you may be surprised by what you see. Here's what to expect.|
|Taking Care of Your Skin What does your skin ask for in return for all the wonderful things it does? Just a little care and consideration, so learn more about taking care of your skin by reading our article for kids.|
|Tinea (Ringworm, Jock Itch, Athlete's Foot) Jock itch, athlete's foot, and ringworm are all types of fungal skin infections known collectively as tinea. Most are easily preventable and treatable.|
|Taking Care of Your Hair It can be your shining glory or the bane of your existence. However you feel about your hair, chances are you want it to be healthy. Find out how to keep hair looking good in this article.|
|A to Z: Acne, Infant Infant acne is common in babies, and usually goes away on its own without treatment or scarring.|
|Diaper Rash Diaper rash is a very common infection that can cause a baby's skin to become sore, red, scaly, and tender. In most cases, it clears up with simple changes in diapering.|
|A Guide for First-Time Parents If you're a first-time parent, put your fears aside and get the basics in this guide about burping, bathing, bonding, and other baby-care concerns.|
|Skin, Hair, and Nails Our skin protects the network of tissues, muscles, bones, nerves, blood vessels, and everything else inside our bodies. Hair and nails are actually modified types of skin.|
|Word! Dandruff Dandruff is flakes of dead skin on your head that come loose all the time, but especially when you scratch your head, brush your hair, or pull a shirt over your head.|
|Dandruff If you're worried about dandruff, you're not alone. Dandruff can start in puberty, and lots of teens and adults live with it. Learn how to control it in this article for teens.|
|Dandruff (Seborrheic Dermatitis) Got flakes? Most cases of dandruff don't require a visit to a doctor's office. Treat them at home with special, over-the-counter dandruff shampoos.|
What to expect when coming to Akron Children's
For healthcare providers and nurses
Residency & Fellowships, Medical Students, Nursing and Allied Health
For prospective employees and career-seekers
Our online community that provides inspirational stories and helpful information.