Cradle cap – or infantile seborrhoeic dermatitis, to give it its medical name – is extremely common in small babies and generally clears up on its own within a few weeks.
What does cradle cap look like?
Cradle cap looks like patches or areas of greasy or scaly skin on your baby' s scalp or face. These patches can look:
- Creamy or yellow
- Flaky or crusty
Under the patches, your baby's skin can look pink or red (if your baby has white skin) or paler/yellower than the surrounding skin (if your baby has brown or black skin).
Sometimes, you may also notice that your baby has some flaky patches in their nappy area and/or a red rash around their eyebrows or around the edges of their nose, or around their neck or armpits.
Does cradle cap hurt my baby?
No. It isn't itchy and doesn't seem to cause distress or concern to babies.
What causes cradle cap?
The exact cause of cradle cap isn’t known but it is thought that it may be related to your baby's skin producing a high amount of sebum or oil and that sebum interacting with a fungus/yeast called malassezia¹, which we all carry on our skin.
You can't 'catch' – or pass on – cradle cap by touching someone else with cradle cap.
It is extremely common in the first few months of life and tends to clear on its own by about 6 months of age.
It doesn't matter if your baby has lots of hair, or none: they can still get cradle cap, however much hair they have.
How do I treat cradle cap?
You don't actually need to treat cradle cap at all, as it isn't itchy or painful for your baby, is often mild and does tend to clear itself up on its own.
However, you may not like how it looks. So, if you do want to help it disappear, you could:
- Soften the scales with an emollient – such as baby oil, petroleum jelly (like Vaseline) or an emulsifying ointment (your pharmacist will be able to recommend one suitable for babies)
- Gently brush the scales with a very soft brush or cloth to encourage them to loosen and fall off
- Wash your baby's hair with a mild baby shampoo
You could also try softening the scaly patches with the emulsifying ointment for longer periods, even overnight, and then gently brushing the area (with a very soft brush or cloth) before washing with baby shampoo.
If you're using an oil to soften the patches, don't use olive oil or peanut oil. And don't wash your baby's hair with soap or an adult shampoo.
What if some hair comes off with the scales?
Don't worry. It will quickly go back.
Can I just pick the scaly bits off?
No, don’t pick or scatch at the scales as this can cause (a small amount of) bleeding and increase the risk of your baby developing an infection. Tempting as it may be to pick them off, please don't!
When should I see a doctor about my baby's cradle cap?
As always, if you are concerned about your child then please seek medical advice. It can be difficult to distinguish cradle cap from other rashes, such as eczema, so if you aren't sure or are worried, see your GP.
If the rash is very inflamed or infected, your doctor may also prescribe an antifungal cream. such as clotrimazole cream, or, less commonly, a steroid cream or a combination of steroid cream and antifungal cream.
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Will it come back again?
It's possible. Cradle cap can come back – but it still tends to go away on its own.
About our expert Dr Philippa Kaye
Dr Philippa Kaye works as a GP in both NHS and private practice. She attended Downing College, Cambridge, then took medical studies at Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’s medical schools in London, training in paediatrics, gynaecology, care of the elderly, acute medicine, psychiatry and general practice. Dr Philippa has also written a number of books, including ones on child health, diabetes in childhood and adolescence. She is a mum of 3.
Last updated: February 2023
- Cradle Cap. Nobles et all. StatPearls, Aug 12 2022. NIH. National Library of Medicine.
Pic: Science Photo Library
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