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While not serious, cradle cap in adults is a long-term skin condition that requires constant treatment. Some treatment options include dandruff shampoos, anti-fungal shampoos, tea tree oil, or prescription medications.

Cradle cap is a skin condition that causes redness, white or yellow scaly patches, and dandruff on the scalp. It sometimes also affects the face, upper chest, and back.

Cradle crap gets its name because it’s a lot more common in infants than adults, especially during the first few weeks of life. In adults, cradle cap is more commonly referred to as seborrheic dermatitis.

Cradle cap usually develops in oilier areas of your skin. It most often affects the scalp, but it can also occur on the eyebrows, nose, back, chest, and ears.

The symptoms of cradle cap in adults can be similar to other skin conditions, such as:

Symptoms may differ from person to person. Most often they include:

  • white or yellow scaly patches on the scalp, hair, eyebrows, or beard that flake off, commonly called dandruff
  • greasy and oily skin
  • affected areas becoming red and itchy
  • hair loss in affected areas

The symptoms may be exacerbated by stress, cold and dry climates, and heavy alcohol use.

The exact cause of cradle cap in adults isn’t known. It’s believed to be related to the overproduction of oil in the skin and hair follicles. It isn’t caused by poor hygiene and it tends to be more common in males.

A fungus called Malassezia may also play a role. Malassezia is a yeast naturally found in your skin’s oil, but it can sometimes grow abnormally and lead to an inflammatory response. The inflammation impairs the function of the outermost layer of the skin and causes scaling.

Other possible risk factors for cradle cap in adults include:

  • obesity
  • stress
  • environmental factors, such as pollution
  • other skin issues, such as acne
  • use of alcohol-based skin care products
  • certain medical conditions, including HIV, stroke, epilepsy, or Parkinson’s disease

Treatment for cradle cap in adults depends on the severity of the condition. Mild cases can typically be managed with special soaps and shampoos and by avoiding things that trigger a flare-up. More severe cases might require prescription medications.

Dandruff shampoos

For mild cases, your doctor will likely suggest trying home remedies before considering medical intervention.

Most often, this will include over-the-counter (OTC) dandruff shampoos containing selenium sulfide, salicylic acid, zinc pyrithione, or coal tar to reduce flaking and ease itching.

Examples include:

At first, the dandruff shampoo should be used every day. Make sure to follow all instructions on the bottle. Rub the shampoo into your hair thoroughly and let it sit for five minutes before rinsing completely.

Once your symptoms are controlled, you might be able to reduce the number of times you use the shampoo to two or three times per week. Alternating between the different types of dandruff shampoos every few weeks may be even more effective.

Antifungal shampoos

Antifungal shampoos are often recommended as home treatment if your cradle cap is caused by Malassezia fungus. The most well-known brand of antifungal shampoo is Nizoral, which you can purchase online.

These shampoos contain an antifungal treatment known as ketoconazole.

Tea tree oil

Tea tree oil is an essential oil available at health food stores and online. Tea tree oil is well known for its antimicrobial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory effects.

For cradle cap, try adding 10 or so drops of tea tree oil to your shampoo.


Men may also find relief by shaving off their mustache or beard.

Prescription medications

If OTC shampoos and medications aren’t working, see your doctor to discuss prescription medications and shampoos.

Prescription antifungal shampoos contain a higher percentage of antifungal medications than OTC brands. Ketozal (ketoconazole) or Loprox (ciclopirox) are two options to discuss with your doctor.

Topical corticosteroids can also help reduce inflammation on the skin. They’re typically available as a shampoo or foam, but require a prescription.

Examples include:

  • betamethasone valerate 0.12 percent foam (Luxiq)
  • clobetasol 0.05 percent shampoo (Clobex)
  • fluocinolone 0.01 percent shampoo (Capex)
  • fluocinolone 0.01 percent solution (Synalar)

If corticosteroids have already been used for a prolonged period of time, your doctor may prescribe a nonsteroidal medication such as pimecrolimus (Elidel) or tacrolimus (Protopic). However, these medications cost much more than corticosteroids.

Avoiding triggers

Over time, you’ll probably learn what situations and actions trigger a flare-up. Your triggers likely won’t be the same as someone else’s, but the most commonly reported triggers include:

  • cold and dry climates
  • changing seasons
  • periods of increased stress
  • too much sun exposure
  • illness
  • hormonal changes
  • harsh detergents or soaps

Try your best not to scratch the affected areas. Scratching increases your risk for bleeding or infection and will increase irritation, leading to a vicious cycle.

Cradle cap is considered a long-term condition and will require lifetime treatment. But if you develop a good skin care routine and learn to recognize what triggers a flare-up, cradle cap is relatively easy to manage. Cradle cap isn’t contagious, so you don’t have to worry about spreading it to others.

Symptoms of cradle cap can come and go. You may even experience complete remission at some point. Remission isn’t a cure, however. During this time, you should continue to use your dandruff shampoo and antifungal treatments a couple times a week.