Cradle cap, also known as infantile seborrheic dermatitis, is a noninflammatory skin condition of the scalp. In some cases, it can also affect the eyes, eyebrows, nose, and ears.
Cradle cap commonly affects infants and generally appears within the first 3 months of life. A 2003 study suggests that 10.4 percent of boys and 9.5 percent of girls will get cradle cap, and about 70 percent of those infants have it at 3 months of age. As children age, the risk of cradle cap decreases.
Similar to dandruff, this condition causes scale-like patches to appear on the scalp. These scales can be yellow, off-white, or white in color. Although the patches are not painful, they are thick and oily, which makes them difficult to remove.
Cradle cap is a short-term condition that will generally clear up on its own within a few months. Still, if you are looking for ways to keep your child’s scalp healthy and free of cradle cap, here are 12 ways to prevent and treat it.
Prior to washing the scalp, use an emollient. The role of an emollient in skin care is to soften, soothe, and heal dry, flaky skin. Applying an emollient to your infant’s scalp can help break down the scales. It’s recommended that you leave the emollient on the scalp for as long as possible.
Common emollients include:
- petroleum jelly
- mineral oil
- baby oil
- olive oil
These oils can be massaged in small amounts directly onto the scaly patches on the scalp. Don’t forget to wash the oil off after use.
Daily scalp washing is one of the most important steps in getting rid of the dry patches. It can also help to prevent future outbreaks. During this step, you can use a gentle baby shampoo to wash the hair and scalp.
Massaging the scalp while washing will help to break up the patches so they fall off.
Using an oil on the scalp before washing can help the scales come off more easily. However, if the scales don’t come off during the first washing session, don’t rub or scratch them too hard.
Instead, continue to alternate between an emollient and scalp washing daily until the patches fall off.
Everything from the weather outside to the bath water inside can be harsh on the fragile, sensitive skin of a newborn. Because of this, it’s important to rinse your infant’s scalp thoroughly of any treatments, chemicals, or shampoos being used.
When not washing the scalp or using an emollient, the scalp should be kept clean and clear. This can help to prevent further irritation of the scalp during treatment.
Although it may be tempting to scratch away the patchy scales on your baby’s scalp, avoid doing so. Scratching the skin over a period of time may lead to complications, including:
- injuries, such as cuts and scrapes from the nails
- scarring, if you scratch too hard or deep
- infection, from the bacteria under the nails
Also, remember that cradle cap does not itch, so scratching the patches is not necessary.
Massaging the scalp can help to remove cradle cap. Massaging the area is a gentler way of breaking up the patchy skin than using fingernails.
Both emollients and shampoo should be massaged into the scalp when applied. This can help to ensure that the treatment is fully dispersed throughout.
Another benefit of a scalp massage is that it can help your baby feel relaxed during treatment. Because stress may be a trigger for flare-ups, keeping your infant comfortable is just as important.
Brushing your infant’s scalp gently is another way to break down the scales and get them to fall off. Three common tools can be used to help gently remove cradle cap patches:
- A standard soft toothbrush. A toothbrush is small and soft enough to be used as a brush on your baby’s scalp.
- A rubber cradle cap brush. This type of brush is made with small rubber teeth as opposed to the hard plastic that is found in regular brushes.
- A fine-toothed comb. After brushing, a fine-toothed comb can catch the small broken-down flakes as it is passed through the hair.
Remember, daily emollient use and a scalp-washing routine are the best ways to soften and loosen the scales for brushing.
Mild cradle cap symptoms can be alleviated using an over-the-counter dandruff shampoo. Many of these shampoos contain tar, selenium sulfide, or zinc pyrithione, which are used to help break down the rough, patchy skin.
An important note: Shampoos not formulated for babies run the risk of irritating your infant’s skin and eyes. Therefore, dandruff shampoo should be left on for no longer than five minutes, and the scalp washing should be done with special care.
For more stubborn cases of cradle cap, your child’s pediatrician might prescribe a prescription-strength shampoo. These medicated shampoos are often formulated with 2 percent salicylic acid and sulfur, both of which are keratolytics.
Keratolytics are compounds that help the outer layer of the skin to soften and shed. For infants with cradle cap, this can help to break down and shed the scaly patches on the scalp.
When cradle cap does not respond to at-home treatments, a topical cream may be prescribed. Topical antifungals or steroids are commonly used:
- ketoconazole 2 percent, an antifungal cream used to fight fungal infections
- hydrocortisone 1 percent, a topical steroid cream used to reduce any swelling and inflammation
Therapy should be continued for roughly 1 to 2 weeks, at which point symptoms should improve.
Everybody experiences stress, especially infants. Stress may be a trigger for cradle cap, so reducing your baby’s stress is important. If your baby is stressed, they may exhibit cues such as yawning, frowning, squirming, or arm and leg flailing.
Paying attention to and fulfilling your infant’s needs can help them feel relaxed, comforted, and safe.
Sleep deprivation is another potential trigger for a cradle cap outbreak. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that newborns get at least 14 to 17 hours of sleep per day, and infants at least 12 to 15 hours per day.
Ensuring that your baby has been taken care of and is comfortable can help them sleep better and longer.
According to the World Health Organization, micronutrient deficiencies are a public health concern, especially in children.
Some literature suggests that seborrheic dermatitis may develop due to certain nutrient deficiencies. However, the current research is limited.
If nutrition is at the root of your child’s cradle cap outbreak, speaking with a doctor can help to ensure that your child is getting the early nutrition they need.
Cradle cap is generally a harmless, painless condition that clears up over time. However, you should reach out to a doctor if you notice the following symptoms:
- The scales and patches get worse or spread to other parts of the face or body.
- The area in and around the patches look inflamed or infected.
- The scales or patches crust over, weep, or secrete liquid.
- The infant exhibits signs of pain or discomfort.
Cradle cap is not a serious condition, and with at-home treatments and time, it typically clears up on its own in a few months. Preventing and treating cradle cap is possible with special care for the scalp, such as daily washing, special shampoos, and topical creams.
As always, if you’re concerned about your baby’s symptoms or see no improvement, reach out to your doctor for more help.
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