Seborrheic dermatitis is a common inflammatory skin condition. It causes flaky, white to yellowish scales to form on oily areas such as the scalp, face, or inside the ear. It can occur with or without reddened skin.
Cradle cap is the term used when seborrheic dermatitis affects the scalp of infants.
Dandruff; Seborrheic eczema; Cradle cap
The exact cause of seborrheic dermatitis is unknown. It may be due to a combination of factors:
- Oil gland activity
- Yeasts, called malassezia, which live on the skin, mainly in areas with more oil glands
- Changes in skin barrier function
- Your genes
Risk factors include:
Seborrheic dermatitis can occur on different body areas. It often forms where the skin is oily or greasy. Common areas include the scalp, eyebrows, eyelids, creases of the nose, lips, behind the ears, in the outer ear, and middle of the chest.
In general, symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis include:
Exams and Tests
Diagnosis is based on appearance and location of the skin lesions. Further tests, such as skin biopsy, are rarely needed.
Flaking and dryness can be treated with over-the-counter dandruff or medicated shampoos. You can buy these at the drugstore without a prescription. Look for a product that says on the label it treats seborrheic dermatitis or dandruff. Such products contain ingredients such as salicylic acid, coal tar, zinc, resorcinol, ketoconazole, or selenium sulfide. Use the shampoo according to label instructions.
For severe cases, your health care provider will likely prescribe a shampoo, cream, ointment, or lotion containing either a stronger dose of the above medicines, or contain any of the following medicines:
- Sodium sulfacetamide
- A corticosteroid
- Tacrolimus or pimecrolimus (medicines that suppress the immune system)
Phototherapy, a medical procedure in which your skin is carefully exposed to ultraviolet light, may be needed.
Sunlight may improve seborrheic dermatitis. In some people, the condition gets better in the summer, especially after outdoor activities.
Seborrheic dermatitis is a chronic (life-long) condition that comes and goes, and it can be controlled with treatment.
Severity of seborrheic dermatitis can be lessened by controlling risk factors and paying careful attention to skin care.
The condition may result in:
- Psychological distress, low self-esteem, embarrassment
- Secondary bacterial or fungal infections
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call for an appointment with your provider if your symptoms don't respond to self-care or over-the-counter treatments.
Also call if patches of seborrheic dermatitis drain fluid or pus, form crusts, or become very red or painful.
Borda LJ, Wikramanayake TC. Seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff: a comprehensive review. J Clin Investig Dermatol. 2015;3(2):10.13188/2373-1044.1000019. PMCID: 4852869 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4852869.
James WD, Elston DM, Treat JR, Rosenbach MA, Neuhaus IM. Seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, recalcitrant palmoplantar eruptions, pustular dermatitis, and erythroderma. In: James WD, Elston DM, Treat JR, Rosenbach MA, Neuhaus IM, eds. Andrews' Diseases of the Skin. 13th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 10.
Paller AS, Mancini AJ. Eczematous eruptions in childhood. In: Paller AS, Mancini AJ, eds. Hurwitz Clinical Pediatric Dermatology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 3.
Reviewed By: Michael Lehrer, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Dermatology, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.