Both cradle cap and eczema (atopic dermatitis) are two types of skin conditions that can cause skin flakes and rashes.

The term “cradle cap” refers to infantile seborrheic dermatitis that primarily affects the scalp. Adults can also develop seborrheic dermatitis.

While some consider infantile seborrheic dermatitis to be a type of eczema, it’s not the same as atopic dermatitis. Only babies develop cradle cap, whereas people of all ages may develop eczema.

Here’s how you can tell cradle cap and eczema apart in your baby and what next steps you may consider taking.

Cradle cap can cause a rash on the scalp that is:

  • oily or greasy
  • scaly
  • flaky
  • white, yellow, or brown in color

Symptoms may also develop behind the ears, as well as on areas of the face, such as the sides of the nose and eyelids. It can also occasionally cause rashes in the diaper area.

Eczema, on the other hand, can present as a rash that may be:

  • red on lighter skin tones, and red-purplish, brownish, or gray on darker skin tones
  • inflamed
  • itchy
  • flaky

Eczema can also occur on the scalp, but this is not the primary site of development like it is with cradle cap. Eczema rashes can develop anywhere on the body but especially on your face and hands, as well as within skin folds.

Both cradle cap and atopic dermatitis may be considered types of eczema, but they have different causes.

Cradle cap causes

Cradle cap is thought to develop as a result of overactive sebaceous glands, which usually secrete an oil called sebum.

This may be attributed to a number of factors, such as hormones, genetics, or environment. Malassezia fungi may also contribute. However, the exact cause is unclear.

Eczema causes

Eczema is thought to be caused by a leaky skin barrier, which is attributed to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Cradle cap occurs for a few months at a time in younger babies but tends to get better by 6 to 12 months of age.

Atopic dermatitis tends to run in families and can occur alongside hay fever, food allergies, and asthma.

While cradle cap may improve by a baby’s first birthday, some children may develop seborrheic dermatitis as they get older. Adults with seborrheic dermatitis may have lifelong cycles of remission and flares.

Eczema, on the other hand, tends to be a chronic condition that may recur without treatment.

If cradle cap doesn’t improve on its own, you might consider calling your child’s pediatrician for a correct diagnosis and possible treatment.

For seborrheic dermatitis in adults or for eczema in people of all ages, you may consider seeing a doctor if you’re not seeing improvements with home treatments and your symptoms are itchy, uncomfortable, and interfering with your quality of life.

Scratching at your skin can cause it to break and increase your risk of infections. Reach out to a doctor if you think you have signs of a skin infection, such as oozing, swelling, and pain.

Typically, a doctor can easily diagnose cradle cap and eczema based on a physical exam as well as symptom history. In some cases, a skin biopsy may be needed to help confirm eczema.

The goal of eczema and cradle cap treatment is to help clear the skin while also reducing any discomfort.

Cradle cap treatment

Cradle cap doesn’t typically need treatment. However, you can help decrease the number of scales on your infant’s scalp by massaging it with baby oil before shampooing. You can also gently comb or brush out loosened scales.

Eczema treatment

A treatment plan for eczema depends on the severity of the condition and may involve a combination of:

  • skin moisturizers
  • prescription corticosteroid creams
  • crisaborole ointment (for people 3 months and older)
  • JAK inhibitors (for people 12 years and older)
  • biologics or oral medications like immunosuppressants

However, crisaborole ointment may be used only in people 3 months and over, and JAK inhibitors only in people 12 years and over, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association.

Cradle cap and eczema aren’t necessarily preventable, but you may be able to help decrease symptom flare-ups.

How to prevent cradle cap

It’s not clear whether you can prevent cradle cap. However, you can decrease oiliness by shampooing your baby’s head more frequently or every other day.

How to prevent eczema

While you may not be able to prevent eczema, you can take steps to help reduce your risk of flare-ups. This involves keeping your skin moisturized, as well as avoiding possible triggers, such as allergens, fragrances, and irritants. Using gentle skin care products can also help.

Infantile and adult seborrheic dermatitis tends to be oily and scaly. It may appear red along the scalp as well as on the ears, eyelids, and nose on people with lighter skin tones. It may appear red-purplish, brownish, or gray on people with darker skin tones.

Eczema can also affect your scalp. But as these pictures show, it tends to be dry, scaly, and flaky, though skin discoloration can also occur.

Consider the following common questions about cradle cap and eczema:

Why do babies get cradle cap?

It’s not exactly clear why babies get cradle cap. However, overactive sebaceous glands on the scalp are thought to play a role in this condition.

How can you tell the difference between eczema and seborrheic dermatitis (cradle cap)?

Seborrheic dermatitis and eczema can both cause flaky skin rashes. But unlike eczema, which tends to be dry and itchy, seborrheic dermatitis and cradle cap in infants tends to be greasy, oily, and not itchy.

What can be mistaken for cradle cap?

Psoriasis, impetigo, and tinea capitis (ringworm) can cause scales and flakiness that may be mistaken for cradle cap. However, these conditions are uncommon in infants.

Can babies get eczema on their scalp?

Eczema can develop on any part of the body, including the scalp. Atopic dermatitis can also occur at any age, though it typically starts during childhood.

How long does cradle cap last?

Cradle cap tends to improve within 4 to 6 months. If symptoms persist longer or worsen, consider speaking with your child’s pediatrician.

Cradle cap and eczema are two types of skin conditions that can affect a baby’s scalp. While both can cause scalp flakes, the symptoms are different overall. Also, while cradle cap usually resolves on its own, eczema may require treatment.