Cradle cap, sometimes also called crib cap, is the baby version of seborrheic dermatitis. Seborrheic dermatitis causes dandruff in adults. In babies, it causes extremely thick and flaky skin on a baby’s scalp.
Cradle cap is common, mostly harmless, and should go away eventually. It’s most common in babies up to 3 months old, but it can last up to a year or longer. Most cases of cradle cap go away by a child’s first birthday, and cases continue to drastically decrease as a child approaches 4 years of age.
Cradle cap is usually located on the head and may concentrate behind the ears. Sometimes, it also affects the skin under the eyebrows or on the nose, armpits, or groin. The flakes may be either dry or greasy, and they are usually white or yellow.
Cradle cap is harmless and it’s not medically necessary to get rid of it. But if you want to try removing it, there are a few safe methods you can use at home. Most remedies are not scientifically proven to work and results will likely be temporary. Someday your child will simply grow out of developing cradle cap.
Always be gentle with baby skin. If you irritate the scalp too much you could cause tiny cuts, which might get infected.
1. Brush your baby’s scalp
Gently brushing your baby’s scalp is a good way to move some flakes off their head, but be careful not to pick or scrape at the flakes. You can find special brushes made just for cradle cap. Sometimes hospitals send you home with a brush following delivery of your baby. A new toothbrush with gentle bristles also works.
To use this method:
- Moving in one direction, slowly brush the affected area of scalp to loosen flakes.
- Continue brushing through the hair to remove flakes from each hair strand.
- You can do this on wet or dry hair.
Brush once a day. If the scalp becomes red or agitated, brush less often.
Brushing will remove some flakes and may promote overall scalp health. This is a safe method.
2. Hydrate the scalp
Hydrating the scalp is good for loosening flakes, and some people feel it nourishes the scalp underneath. You’ll need a pure plant oil, such as olive, coconut, jojoba, or almond oil. Baby oil also works. Whichever you choose, try a small amount on your baby’s scalp first to see if it causes any irritation.
To use this method:
- Apply a thin layer of oil to the scalp.
- Gently massage the oil in for about a minute. If your baby still has a soft spot on their head, use extra caution around this area.
- Leave oil to soak in for about 15 minutes.
- Wash the oil out with a gentle baby shampoo.
You can use this method once a day. Anecdotally, people find this method to be effective, but there’s no research to support it. As long as your child isn’t allergic to the oil, this is a safe method.
3. Wash baby’s hair
Proper hair hygiene can go a long way toward diminishing the appearance of cradle cap. A baby shampoo may be enough to help treat the cradle cap. Only use dandruff shampoo with your doctor’s permission because it might not be safe for your baby.
To use this method:
- Wet the hair and scalp.
- Massage shampoo into the scalp.
- Use a baby towel to lather shampoo and gently rub the affected areas. You may also try brushing your baby’s scalp while you shampoo.
- Rinse baby’s hair to remove all of the shampoo.
Ask your pediatrician how often they recommend you wash your baby’s hair. Too much shampooing might dry out the scalp and make cradle cap worse.
Shampooing is very effective for temporarily removing cradle cap flakes, and it’s very safe when using baby shampoo. Just be careful not to get soap in your baby’s eyes.
4. Apply prescription creams
In extreme cases, your doctor may recommend an antifungal, hydrocortisone, or zinc cream. Follow the instructions of your care provider while using them.
5. Try essential oils, if OK’d by your pediatrician
These highly concentrated oils are herbal remedies that contain the essence (active ingredient) of various plants. Using antimicrobial essential oils may help fight cradle cap caused by yeast (though this is an uncommon cause of cradle cap in babies). Anti-inflammatory essential oils may soothe the scalp.
When choosing an oil, consider lemon or geranium essential oil and a carrier oil such as jojoba or coconut oil. Some people also recommend tea tree oil, but this oil may not be safe for young babies and should be avoided on babies younger than 6 months.
- Dilute 2 drops of essential oil in 2 tablespoons of carrier oil.
- Apply oils to the affected area.
- Leave on for a few minutes.
- Comb or brush flakes off.
- Wash all oils off with shampoo.
This method should be used sparingly. It’s also unclear if it’s actually safe to apply any essential oils directly on a baby’s skin. Ask your doctor first and only follow the advice of a certified aromatherapist when using essential oils.
Not all babies get cradle cap. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), about 10 percent of baby boys and 9.5 percent of baby girls have it.
Cradle cap is very common, but little is known about what exactly causes it. This is one reason it may be hard to remove or prevent. In adults, there appears to be a link between seborrheic dermatitis and the Malassezia species of yeast, but the association is less clear in infants. It’s estimated that half of the population has some level of dandruff, which is also strongly linked to Malassezia yeasts.
Some scientists believe there’s a hormonal link since it appears at birth, goes away, and then often returns around puberty.
Sometimes — though very rarely — generalized cradle cap may be linked to immunodeficiency. If this is the case, there will be other symptoms in addition to just cradle cap, and your doctor can diagnose and treat your child.
When to seek help
Cradle cap is usually not urgent but it’s worth mentioning to your doctor at your child’s next check-up.
If the skin looks very red, infected, or agitated, call your doctor. You should also call if the cradle cap spreads to the baby’s face or body.
Cradle cap vs. infantile eczema
Cradle cap looks similar to infantile eczema, but a doctor will easily be able to tell the difference. Infantile eczema is usually itchy and cradle cap is not. If you’re worried about your baby’s cradle cap or want to learn more, ask your pediatrician at your next appointment.
Cradle cap is mostly harmless and usually clears up on its own. Often it goes away by baby’s first birthday, though in some children it may not clear up until they are between 2 and 4 years old.
You can try some safe methods of cradle cap removal at home, but always be careful with products and when handling baby skin.
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