Seborrheic Dermatitis: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin problem affecting people of all ages. It causes a red, itchy rash with dry whitish scales. Find out how to diagnose seborrheic dermatitis and the types of treatments available.

Seborrheic dermatitis symptoms may show up on the face, upper chest, back, and other oily areas of the body. It is not contagious, but can be uncomfortable and irritating. With the appropriate medication and self-care, the skin condition can be managed and treated successfully.

When it affects the scalp, it is usually called dandruff. In infants, seborrheic dermatitis of the scalp is also known as cradle cap. It may also affect the diaper area and look like a diaper rash.


Exact seborrheic dermatitis causes are unknown and there are no proven prevention methods. 

Some contributing factors may include:
An abnormality of the oil glands and hair follicles in the skin
Malassezia, a fungus which grows in the sebum along with bacteria
Physical stress, fatigue, or illness
Travel or change of season — outbreaks tend to get worse in cold and dry winters
Acne rosacea, an inflammatory skin condition


Common signs and symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis include:
Patchy scaling or crusts on the scalp (skin flakes or dandruff)
Yellow or whitish scales that may stick to the hair shafts or drop on to the clothing
Greasy skin covered with flaky white or yellow scales
Itching, redness and soreness
In infants, the patches may be thick, yellow, crusty, or greasy but are usually not itchy


The diagnosis is made after:
Detailed history taking and physical examination
Skin biopsy to confirm the diagnosis and to rule out other types of dermatitis such as atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, and ringworm of the scalp (tinea capitis)


Immediate professional help is advised if:
The skin is painful or feels too uncomfortable
The skin gets infected by secondary bacterial infection

There is no complete cure for seborrheic dermatitis. The currently available treatments aim to provide relief for its symptoms.

Medicated shampoos containing the following medicinal ingredients are used to reduce dandruff:
Syrithione zinc
Selenium sulfide
Salicylic acid

If symptoms such as an itchy, flaky scalp persist despite regular shampooing, you may need to seek a specialist who may suggest a prescription shampoo or more aggressive treatment with a steroid lotion if necessary.

For non-scalp seborrheic dermatitis, topical corticosteroids, antifungal medications, or a combination is used to treat a stubborn rash.

Cradle cap usually clears up on its own within a few months. Regular washing of the baby’s hair with a mild shampoo helps clear the flakes and scales.

If the scales do not loosen easily, rubbing a few drops of mineral oil onto the baby’s scalp might help.

If cradle cap persists or seems severe, a medicated (antifungal) shampoo, lotion or other treatment may be necessary.

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