Cradle Cap and Dandruff: What Truly Causes It & How to Treat

Updated: 9 hours ago

Cradle cap. The great deceiver.

As a pediatrician, I see parents regularly who are concerned about cradle cap and all different levels of flaky scalps. Those sneaky little flakes that cause seborrhea (aka cradle cap or dandruff) have a dry appearance and typically trick us into washing less and applying more oils and greases. So almost always, when asked about frequency of hair washing and product use, I find not enough washing and/or overuse of products. And even worse yet, those products seems to do the trick, for a few hours or even for a day. But the next morning, there go those pesky flakes again.

Why is this? Seborrhea likes to disguise itself as a dry skin problem but those flakes (or sebum) are actually due to buildup of oils and grease in your child's scalp. And the trick to getting rid of it all? WASH! WASH! WASH!

Now, some hair textures can't handle excessive washing. But infant hair should be washed at least twice a week, more if possible. 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, 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 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.

For older children, you may not be able to wash this frequently, depending on hair texture, and you may have to use some product in their hair. But 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. You should also lean more toward conditioners or hair lotions for moisturization and less toward heavy greases or oils.

And if those pesky flakes pop up between washes, 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 your child's dandruff, or if your child's skin has become red and inflamed, you should consult your child's doctor. Sometimes a mild strength steroid cream is needed to calm inflammation while you are working on clearing the buildup in your child's hair to rid them of cradle cap and/or dandruff for good.

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