Seborrheic Dermatitis in Babies: 10 Ways To Treat Cradle Cap

As your baby’s skin adjusts to the outside world, it’s common for them to develop newborn skin conditions. While typically benign and fleeting, conditions like baby acne, milia, erythema toxicum, and cradle cap (also known as seborrheic dermatitis) can look concerning. It may feel impossible to ignore cradle cap and let it resolve on its own, so many people wonder about safe and effective treatments. If you notice scales on baby’s scalp, you might wonder what you’re looking at and worry about its cause. Cradle cap can look unpleasant, but is it bothering your baby? Here, we will tackle cradle cap and address some of the easiest and most effective treatments for how to get rid of it.

Cradle cap refers to red, white, or yellow oily scales on the scalp. The medical name for cradle cap is “seborrheic dermatitis.” It can sometimes also appear on the forehead, the bridge of the nose, behind the ears, or the diaper area and skin folds.1,2,3 Although it may look uncomfortable, it usually bothers parents more than the baby.2 Over ⅔ of babies are affected by cradle cap at some point in their first three months, and if left untreated, it will usually resolve on its own.2

Baby with seborrheic dermatitis on face.

Experts have not identified an exact cause of seborrheic dermatitis. There are a few different theories about its causes, but it’s most likely a combination of factors. Similar to how hormones can cause skin issues like acne during puberty and pregnancy, your baby’s skin may react to your lingering pregnancy and postpartum hormones. These hormones can cause overactive oil glands. This increased oil may cause old skin cells to stick to the scalp instead of simply falling off, causing the appearance of flakes. An overgrowth of a specific species of yeast on a baby’s scalp may also play a role in cradle cap.2

So, how do you get rid of cradle cap? Although seborrheic dermatitis often goes away on its own over time, you may want to help speed the process along. As always, consult your pediatrician before starting a new treatment for cradle cap. Here are 10 treatment methods to try at home:

If you’re unsure how to treat your baby’s cradle cap, it’s okay to leave it alone. Even if you do nothing, most babies outgrow it by 1 year of age, but you will likely see improvement within two to eight weeks.1,4 It’s not thought to be itchy, so it shouldn’t bother your baby.1 Cradle cap is considered benign, meaning it isn’t harmful.5 It can be tempting, but do not scratch or pick at the scales.6

Smearing a seborrheic crust with baby oil on a child's head. Combing and removal of seborrheic crust.

There isn’t a single best oil for cradle cap — many oils and lotions like Vaseline, Aquaphor, mineral oil, baby oil, or even coconut oil can help dissolve the excess oils that are causing the skin to stick to a scaly scalp. However, be sure to wash away the oil after treatment, as they may worsen cradle cap buildup if left in place.7

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The ingredients in baby shampoo can break up and wash away scalp oils, decreasing the skin flakes that stick to the head in cradle cap. As mentioned above, baby shampoo should also be used after an oil treatment or application.7 Use a gentle or hypoallergenic shampoo, such as one without fragrance or added chemicals, so it doesn’t irritate your baby’s skin.

A newborn baby is getting a bath. Adult hands are holding the baby and pour water over baby's head with a washcloth.

Another way to help get rid of cradle cap is to massage their head with a washcloth. While you can wash your baby’s head just using your fingers, you can try to apply their shampoo to a washcloth for a better massage of their scalp. This may help further agitate the oils while being gentle enough on their soft spots.7

Frida Baby The 3-Step Cradle Cap System

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While you shouldn’t pick or scratch, if your baby’s stubborn cradle cap isn’t responding to normal hair washing and the application of over-the-counter oils and lotions, you can try to manually remove some of the flakes with a soft cradle cap brush, comb, or toothbrush. If you try to use your fingernail to pick the scales, you risk scratching the scalp, irritating the skin more, and introducing infection.3

After applying an emollient such as petroleum jelly (Vaseline), let it sit for five to 10 minutes. Then, scrub the area gently with a washcloth or cradle cap brush. Next, wash away the emollient and the scales and dry. Lastly, reapply the emollient.7

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Aloe vera gel or cream has demonstrated the ability to reduce cradle cap. Apply aloe twice daily to the affected areas for four to six weeks to see a significant improvement in scaliness.4 Again, choose a gel without fragrance or added ingredients that might irritate your baby’s skin.

Graphic of essential oils to help with cradle cap

Essential oils like tea tree oil might help decrease the presence of yeast on the skin, which may be contributing to your baby’s cradle cap.4 Other essential oils, such as geranium and lemon, may reduce inflammation if applied topically.8 Conversely, the fragrance of these oils is very strong. In a baby’s sensitive skin, a strong scent may further irritate the skin.

If you try essential oil treatment for cradle cap, they should always be diluted in a carrier oil, such as coconut oil. Alternatively, you can add a few drops of the essential oil to your favorite baby shampoo. Be sure to avoid baby’s eyes when rinsing the oil out of their hair, as it can cause stinging and burning in the eyes. Some essential oils are not considered safe for infants, so consult your provider or another expert before attempting this treatment.9

8. Dandruff Shampoo

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Dandruff shampoo containing zinc, selenium, or coal tar and antifungal shampoos (such as ketoconazole/Nizoral) may be useful for treating cradle cap. Because some of these shampoos contain drugs or medications, be sure to consult your pediatrician. If you get the go-ahead to use dandruff shampoo to treat cradle cap, you can apply, lather, and leave it in place for five minutes before rinsing. Rinse well to prevent buildup, and keep the suds out of baby’s face and eyes. You can use it every day or every other day until symptoms resolve. After that, use it weekly to prevent the return of symptoms.10

Treatment of seborrheic dermatitis with a healing ointment.

If your baby’s cradle cap is severe and not improving, your doctor may prescribe a steroid shampoo or steroid cream such as fluocinolone or betamethasone. These are not available over the counter, so you would need to talk to your provider. While these treatments can be effective at improving cradle cap, you should only use them for a short time. They can cause thinning of the skin and spider veins if used for a prolonged period.10

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Studies have shown that biotin supplementation can improve cradle cap symptoms. If you’re breastfeeding, consider supplementing your own diet with biotin. You can also talk to your pediatrician about adding a biotin supplement to your baby’s diet. Biotin is made in the gut, and babies have immature guts, so many babies have a biotin deficiency that may be linked to cradle cap symptoms.4

The best way to prevent seborrheic dermatitis is to prevent the buildup of excess oils on the scalp. However, skin oils do serve a purpose, so we don’t want to use anything too harsh or abrasive and completely strip the scalp of oils. To prevent cradle cap, wash baby’s hair often with a mild shampoo, then scrub gently with a washcloth or soft-bristled brush. After bath time, apply baby lotion or oil to replenish the stripped oils and keep their skin moisturized.11

Most of the time, you do not need to make a separate call or trip to the pediatrician about cradle cap. You can always mention it at a routine check-up, but it usually resolves on its own or with the help of some at-home treatments. However, if it doesn’t get better or continues to worsen, you can call your child’s doctor. They may prescribe a cream or shampoo to help get rid of cradle cap. If it still doesn’t improve after using that prescription, you should let your provider know.11 A dermatologist may also be able to help.

Other situations in which you may want to call your doctor include:6

  • A bleeding or oozing scalp
  • Cradle cap that’s spreading to multiple other parts of the body
  • An odorous or infectious smell from the scalp
  • Swelling of the skin on the scalp
  • Baby is in obvious discomfort or irritation, and you suspect that it’s related to cradle cap

Cradle cap can be tough to ignore or leave alone. The little flakes look so easy to pick at and remove. Most of the time, they will go away on their own if left alone. Despite the temptation to pick, they are better off ignored because of the risk of infection. If your baby’s cradle cap is severe, there are many simple at-home remedies to try to help get rid of it. Most of the time, a separate doctor’s visit for seborrheic dermatitis isn’t warranted, but you can check with your provider about the safety of various treatments if it seems to be getting worse. For most babies, cradle cap will disappear as quickly as it came, and you will look back on just another fleeting memory from infancy.