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 weeks or a few months. Home care measures include washing your baby's scalp daily with a mild shampoo. This can help you 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, atopic dermatitis. A major difference between these conditions is that atopic dermatitis 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.
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.
Cradle cap usually doesn't require medical treatment, as it usually goes away on its own. In the meantime, wash your baby's hair once a day with mild baby shampoo. If the scaling is heavy, apply mineral oil to the scalp for a couple of hours before shampooing. Then wash the hair as usual and brush the scalp lightly with a soft brush to loosen the scale.
If frequent shampooing doesn't help, talk with your baby's doctor about products that might help, such as a low-potency hydrocortisone cream or a shampoo with 2 percent antifungal ketoconazole medication. Be sure the shampoo doesn't get in your baby's eyes, as it may cause irritation.
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.
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 or fine-toothed comb 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 two to three days with a mild shampoo to prevent scale buildup.
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