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Updated: Jul 12, 2021


"Cradle cap" refers to a common rash that often appears in babies' scalps. And, almost all of us have had some experience with dandruff at some point throughout our lives. However, many people may not know that cradle cap and dandruff are one in the same. And, even moreso, most people have some difficulty getting rid of cradle cap and dandruff. So here we will break down everything about cradle cap and dandruff, what it is, what causes it, and how to treat it most effectively.

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What is cradle cap?

Cradle cap, also known by many other names, including seborrhea capitis, seborrheic dermatitis, seborrhea, or dandruff, is a common skin condition that affects oily parts of the body, most commonly, the scalp. However, it can also involve the eyebrows, face, ears, eyelids, sides of the nose, and chest. Seborrhea typically consists of white to yellow flakes, scaly patches, and sometimes, red or inflamed skin.

What causes cradle cap and dandruff?

Seborrhea is caused by naturally oily skin and/or the buildup of oil, grease, and dirt over time on the surface of the skin. There is also some suggestion that a fungus, called Malassezia furfur, that resides in the oil secretions of your skin, can contribute to seborrhea.

Why are cradle cap and dandruff so hard to treat?

Those sneaky little flakes that cause seborrhea have a dry appearance and typically trick us into washing less and applying more products to the hair to try to combat what seems like dryness. But it's exactly the opposite! Those flakes (or sebum) are actually due to buildup of oils and grease in the scalp. And the trick to getting rid of it all? WASH! WASH! WASH!

How do I treat cradle cap in my baby's scalp?

Infant hair should be washed at least twice a week, or more if possible. You can use a soft brush to help loosen the flakes and scale while you wash your baby's hair. Then, avoid putting any products in their hair after washing. You may have heard advice to use different types of oils to help loosen the flakes. This is okay as long as you wash the hair after this loosening process and don't leave the oil sitting in the hair to create more buildup. Any oil will do (baby oil, coconut oil, olive oil, etc), since you don't leave it in the hair anyways.

For more severe cases of cradle cap, using a pea-sized amount of a selenium sulfide-containing shampoo, such as Selsun Blue or Head & Shoulders, twice a week can work wonders. However, keep in mind that most of these shampoos are not tear-free, so be careful not to get in your baby's eyes.

How do I treat dandruff in my older child's scalp or my scalp?

For older children and adults, you may not be able to wash this frequently, depending on hair texture and hairstyle, and you will likely need to use some product in the hair. Regardless of how long you go between washes, the best rule-of-thumb is to apply only the necessary amount of product needed for styling or moisturization IMMEDIATELY after the wash and to NOT re-apply products between washes.

It is also important to apply product ONLY TO THE HAIR, not to the scalp. Our scalps already naturally create oil and do not typically need to be moisturized (even if you grew up getting your scalp "greased"; unfortunately, this has led to the continuation of severe dandruff). You should also lean more toward leave-in conditioners or hair lotions for moisturization and less toward heavy greases, oils, and gels.

And if those pesky flakes pop up before you can wash the hair again, you can use a small spray bottle of water or even a tiny amount of shampoo to "spot wash" the hair in the flaky areas. However, all hair textures should be washed at least every two weeks, especially if seborrhea or dandruff is a concern.

If regular washing and avoiding overuse of products doesn't clear up your baby's cradle cap or you or your child's dandruff, or if the skin has become red and inflamed, you should consult you or your child's doctor. Sometimes an antifungal shampoo or a mild strength steroid cream can help to calm inflammation while you are working on clearing the buildup in the hair to rid of cradle cap and/or dandruff for good.

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All content on this website, including medical opinion and any other health-related information is for informational purposes only and should not be considered a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this website and the information contained does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor before starting any specific treatment plan.

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