Updated on February 2nd, 2024 // by Katie Griffin
Cradle cap, or seborrheic dermatitis, is a very common skin condition in newborns and infants. It appears as scaly, greasy patches on the scalp, and sometimes on the eyebrows, eyelids, nose, and behind the ears. It’s not painful or itchy for the baby, is generally harmless, and often clears up on its own.
What Causes Cradle Cap?
While the exact cradle cap causes aren’t known, we do know that it’s not caused by poor hygiene or allergies. Here are some of the current theories:
- Overactive Sebaceous Glands: Sebaceous glands in the skin produce an oil called sebum. In babies, these glands can be particularly active, partly due to the influence of mom’s hormones. This excess oil can cause skin cells to stick together, forming the characteristic scaly patches of cradle cap.
- Yeast Growth: A yeast called Malassezia, which naturally lives on the skin, thrives in sebum-rich areas like the scalp. This overgrowth may contribute to the development of cradle cap by irritating the skin and causing scaling.
- Immature Skin Barrier: A newborn’s skin is still developing and is less practiced at regulating moisture and protecting against infections. This immaturity could contribute to conditions like cradle cap.
- Genetic Factors: There may be a genetic link to seborrheic dermatitis, as it tends to occur more regularly in families with a history of this cradle cap or other skin conditions like eczema.
- Environmental Factors: External factors like weather (especially cold and dry conditions) can also contribute to the development of cradle cap.
How Do You Treat Cradle Cap?
As a new parent gazing down at your beautiful newborn, it’s easy to feel impatient for the unsightly scales to go away. So here are some simple tips to help manage cradle cap and hopefully make it go away:
Things To Do:
- Gentle Washing: Regularly wash your baby’s scalp with a mild baby shampoo. This can help prevent the build-up of scales. Be gentle and avoid scrubbing the scalp too hard.
- Soft Brushing or Fine Comb: After washing and while the hair is still wet, use a soft brush or a fine-tooth comb to gently remove the scales. Do not pick at the scales, as this can irritate the skin and may cause an infection.
- Oil Treatment: If the scales are thick, applying a small amount of mineral oil, baby oil, or coconut oil to the scalp several hours before bathing can help loosen them. Be sure to wash the oil out thoroughly to avoid making the cradle cap worse. As a mom, I’ve personally had good success with coconut oil on my babies’ cradle cap.
Things NOT To Do
- Avoid Overwashing: Overwashing can irritate the skin and make the cradle cap worse. Washing the baby’s scalp once a day or every other day with a mild shampoo is plenty.
- Avoid Harsh Products: Avoid using harsh or adult shampoos, as these can be too strong for a baby’s delicate skin.
- Irritating Hydration: Keeping the baby’s skin moisturized can help, but avoid heavy or perfumed lotions which might further irritate the skin.
- Avoid Scratching or Picking: Believe me, it’s tempting. But never scratch or pick at the scales, as this can cause infection and irritation.
- Consult a Pediatrician: If the cradle cap is severe, won’t go away, or spreads to other areas of the body, reach out to your pediatrician. They may be that your baby could benefit from a medicated shampoo or cream or even a low-potency anti-inflammatory.
Remember, while cradle cap can be unsightly, it’s usually harmless and temporary. Your pediatrician is your best resource for advice tailored to your baby’s specific needs. The goal is to treat the condition gently and effectively, exercising patience so that you ensure the comfort and health of your baby.
American Academy of Dermatology (2022). How to treat cradle cap. Retrieved at https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/hair-scalp-care/scalp/treat-cradle-cap
Wilson, David and Hockenberry, Marilyn (2011). Wong’s Nursing Cre of Infants and Children, 9th edition, pgs 539-540.