Cradle cap causes crusty or oily scaly patches on a baby's scalp. The condition isn't painful or itchy. But it can cause thick white or yellow scales that aren't easy to remove.

Cradle cap usually clears up on its own in a few months. Home-care measures include washing your baby's scalp daily with a mild shampoo. This can help loosen and remove the scales. Don't scratch cradle cap.

If cradle cap persists or seems severe, your doctor may suggest a medicated shampoo, lotion or other treatment.

Common signs of cradle cap include:

  • Patchy scaling or thick crusts on the scalp
  • Oily or dry skin covered with flaky white or yellow scales
  • Skin flakes
  • Possibly mild redness

Similar scales may also be present on the ears, eyelids, nose and groin.

Cradle cap is common in newborns. It usually isn't itchy.

Cradle cap is the common term for infantile seborrheic dermatitis. It's sometimes confused with another skin condition, infantile eczema. A major difference between these conditions is that eczema usually causes significant itching.

When to see a doctor

See your baby's doctor if:

  • You've tried treating it at home without success
  • The patches spread to your baby's face or body

The cause of cradle cap isn't known. One contributing factor may be hormones that pass from the mother to the baby before birth. These hormones can cause too much production of oil (sebum) in the oil glands and hair follicles.

Another factor may be a yeast (fungus) called malassezia (mal-uh-SEE-zhuh) that grows in the sebum along with bacteria. Antifungal treatments, such as ketoconazole, are often effective, supporting the idea that yeast is a contributing factor.

Cradle cap isn't contagious, and it's not caused by poor hygiene.

Cradle cap usually doesn't require medical treatment. It clears up on its own within a few months. In the meantime, wash your baby's hair once a day with mild baby shampoo and brush the scalp lightly with a soft brush to loosen the scale.

If frequent shampooing doesn't help, consult your baby's doctor. He or she may recommend an adult dandruff shampoo, such as one containing 2 percent antifungal ketoconazole medication. Be sure the shampoo doesn't get in your baby's eyes, as it may cause irritation. Hydrocortisone cream is sometimes helpful to reduce redness and inflammation.

Don't use over-the-counter cortisone or antifungal creams without talking to your baby's doctor, because some of these products can be toxic when absorbed through a baby's skin. Dandruff shampoos that contain salicylic acid aren't recommended for use in babies either, because they can be absorbed through the skin.

If your baby's cradle cap doesn't improve with home-care measures or starts to spread, make an appointment with your baby's pediatrician. Here's some information to help you prepare for your visit.

What you can do

Your baby's doctor will want to know:

  • How long your baby has had cradle cap
  • What you've done to treat it
  • How often you shampoo your baby's hair
  • What products you've tried

The following over-the-counter treatments and home-care tips can help you control and manage cradle cap.

  • Gently rub your baby's scalp with your fingers or a washcloth to loosen the scales. Don't scratch.
  • Wash your baby's hair once a day with mild baby shampoo. Loosen the scales with a small, soft-bristled brush before rinsing off the shampoo.
  • If the scales don't loosen easily, rub petroleum jelly or a few drops of mineral oil onto your baby's scalp. Let it soak into the scales for a few minutes, or hours if needed. Then brush and shampoo your baby's hair as usual. If you leave the oil in your baby's hair, the cradle cap may get worse.
  • Once the scales are gone, wash your baby's hair every few days with a mild shampoo to prevent scale buildup.

Shampooing your baby's hair every few days can help prevent cradle cap. Stick with a mild baby shampoo unless your baby's doctor recommends something stronger.

Last Updated: 2015-11-12
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