Anyone can get a dry scalp, including your baby. But it can be difficult to determine the cause of your baby’s dry scalp as well as how to treat it.
Read on to learn about the possible causes of dry scalp in babies and what you can do about it. As a rule of thumb, see your baby’s pediatrician if your baby’s scalp doesn’t improve or if it’s extremely itchy or irritated.
Dry scalp in babies may be linked to underlying conditions of the skin, such as seborrheic dermatitis or eczema. In some cases, you may also notice your baby’s scalp is drier during certain times of the year, or in response to their shampoo.
Below are the possible causes of your baby’s dry scalp, as well as the key symptoms to look for.
Cradle cap causes
One of the most common scalp conditions seen in babies is related to a condition called cradle cap. It’s also called infantile seborrheic dermatitis or “crib cap.”
This condition is not contagious and does not cause discomfort to your baby. It typically resolves on its own, though you can help loosen up the flakes with baby shampoos, mineral oil, and gentle brushing techniques.
Though the exact cause isn’t known, cradle cap is thought to be attributed to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. It’s also sometimes caused by the overgrowth of Malassezia fungi in sebum (oil) underneath the skin.
Cradle cap causes thick, oily patches on the scalp that may range from white to yellow in color. If your baby has cradle cap on the scalp, they may also have these patches in other oily areas of the body, such as their armpits, groin, and ears.
Dandruff can also cause a dry scalp. Unlike the more common appearance of cradle cap, dandruff is white, dry, and sometimes itchy. Dandruff may be genetic. If you have dry skin, your baby could have dry skin, too.
Overwashing your baby’s skin doesn’t cause dandruff. But if your baby has this condition, you may want to shampoo their scalp less frequently. Wash every other day instead of every day to prevent dryness from getting worse. Cold weather and low humidity can also worsen dandruff.
Allergies can also cause your baby to have a dry scalp, though this is less common. If the dry scalp is accompanied by a red, itchy rash, allergies may be the cause.
Eczema refers to a number of conditions that cause inflamed, red, and itchy skin. In babies, the most common type of eczema is seborrheic dermatitis, which tends to develop after 3 months of age.
Other types of eczema in babies may include atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis. While contact dermatitis involves symptoms that develop when the skin encounters an irritating substance, such as fragrances, atopic dermatitis tends to come and go. Atopic dermatitis is also hereditary, and can develop in babies as young as 6 months old.
If contact dermatitis is causing your baby’s scalp eczema, you may notice symptoms of red, inflamed skin after your baby comes into contact with products, such as shampoos or lotions with fragrances in them. Blistering and itching are also possible.
With atopic dermatitis, you may notice that the eczema isn’t confined to your baby’s scalp. You might also see symptoms in other areas of their body, particularly on the face. While eczema is usually red, the scales may have a dry appearance, too.
External causes of dry scalp in children and babies
Weather and environmental elements, lifestyle, and personal care products may also contribute to the underlying causes of dry scalp in babies. Possibilities include:
- cold weather
- low humidity
- overheating and sweating from warm temperatures or sun exposure
- baby shampoos and other personal care products that have fragrances or alcohol
- allergens, such as animal dander
While a dry scalp may be noticeably drier, with white colored scales, cradle cap tends to cause oilier and crusty-looking scales. Cradle cap also tends to be yellowish or red in color.
Also, while cradle cap symptoms may appear on your baby’s face, not all underlying causes of dry scalp will spread to other parts of the body.
Once you’ve identified the cause of your baby’s dry scalp, it’s usually treatable at home.
Adjust your shampoo schedule
Shampooing your baby’s hair not only removes dirt and oil from their delicate strands, but it helps remove excess dirt and oil from their scalp, too. The amount of times you shampoo your baby’s scalp can vary based on their condition, though.
For cradle cap, shampooing daily can help remove oil and loosen the flakes on your baby’s scalp. All other causes of dry scalp may benefit from shampooing every other day to avoid excess dryness.
Use medicated shampoo
If adjusting the frequency of shampooing doesn’t help, you may want to try an over-the-counter medicated shampoo. Look for one that’s specifically formulated for babies.
For dandruff and eczema, look for anti-dandruff shampoos containing pyrithione zinc or selenium sulfide. More stubborn patches related to cradle cap may require stronger anti-dandruff shampoos, such as those containing tar or salicylic acid. Your baby’s doctor or a pharmacist can tell you which shampoo is best.
No matter which medicated shampoo you choose, the key is to leave the shampoo on your baby’s scalp for a minimum of 2 minutes. For cradle cap, you may need to repeat the process.
Use the medicated shampoo 2 to 7 days per week until symptoms improve, or as directed on the packaging. It may take up to 1 month for symptoms to clear up.
Try mineral oil
Mineral oil (“baby oil”) is thought to help loosen stuck-on flakes left on the scalp and help reduce symptoms of cradle cap. Although it’s a common home remedy, mineral oil hasn’t been proven to help.
If you want to try mineral oil, gently massage the oil onto your baby’s scalp before shampooing. For extra benefits, run a comb over the scalp to loosen the flakes. Let the oil soak in for a few minutes before rinsing off.
You can repeat this process for cradle cap before each shampoo session. As the flakes start to improve, you can reduce the frequency.
The key is to make sure you completely wash all the oil away. You can also leave a small amount of oil overnight and wash your baby’s scalp in the morning.
Massage on olive oil
If your baby has dandruff or eczema, you may consider an olive oil scalp massage instead of mineral oil. Use the same process as above, and be sure to rinse thoroughly.
Apply hydrocortisone cream
Hydrocortisone cream is available over the counter. It may help alleviate redness, inflammation, and itchiness. While it can help scalp eczema, it won’t necessarily help cradle cap or everyday dandruff buildup.
Speak with your baby’s doctor before trying this method. Hydrocortisone cream is generally safe for babies if not used in the long term.
Apply hydrocortisone to your baby’s scalp after shampooing and drying their hair. You can reapply one to two times per day as needed, or as recommended by your baby’s pediatrician.
If eczema is causing the dryness, hydrocortisone cream may improve symptoms within a week.
Depending on the cause, it can take several weeks for the dryness to go away.
If you don’t see any improvements at all within 1 week of treatment, it may be time to have a pediatrician look at your baby’s scalp. They might recommend a prescription-strength shampoo or a steroid cream to treat any underlying inflammation. If you don’t already have a pediatrician, the Healthline FindCare tool can help you find a physician in your area.
Also see your baby’s doctor if your baby’s scalp starts:
These could be early signs of an infection.
Cradle cap can occur in babies and toddlers up to 3 years of age. If cradle cap is the cause, your child may continue to have a dry scalp until they’re older. Once cradle cap or dandruff resolves, it usually won’t return.
Some causes of dry scalp are chronic, such as eczema. Your child might need occasional treatments as they age.
Genetic factors, such as dry skin and allergies, may also persist throughout childhood and adulthood. If your baby’s scalp recovers, other skin symptoms may show up later in life, but treatments are available.
Preventing dry scalp in babies ultimately depends on the underlying cause, and it’s important to follow your treatment plan from your child’s pediatrician. As a rule of thumb, you can try the following preventive measures to help keep your baby’s scalp healthy:
- wash and dry your baby’s hair regularly, using lukewarm water
- gently brush your baby’s scalp and hair every day
- use fragrance-free shampoos, lotions, and detergents only
- avoid any known allergens, such as pollen and dander
- keep your baby out of excessively warm or dry weather conditions
- dress your baby in layers so they don’t sweat
Dry scalps in babies are normal and often treatable at home. In most cases, the underlying cause is cradle cap. Dandruff, eczema, and allergies are other possible causes.
If your baby’s scalp doesn’t improve after a couple weeks of treatment or if symptoms get worse, see your baby’s pediatrician.