Cradle cap

Cradle cap is the yellowish, greasy scaly patches that sometimes appear on the scalp of young babies.

Information written and reviewed by Certified Doctors.

Contents

Introduction

Cradle cap is the yellowish, greasy scaly patches that sometimes appear on the scalp of young babies.

It's a common, harmless condition that does not usually itch or cause discomfort to the baby.

The medical name for cradle cap is seborrhoeic dermatitis. It usually occurs on the scalp, but can also appear on the face, ears and neck, or in skin folds, such as at the back of the knees and armpits.

Cradle cap usually appears in babies in the first two months and tends to clear up by itself after a few weeks or months, although in rare cases it can last much longer.

What does cradle cap look like?

Cradle cap is easy to recognise by the large, greasy, yellow or brown scales on your baby’s scalp. The scales will eventually start to flake and may make the affected skin appear red. Sometimes, the hair may come away with the flakes.

Read more about the signs of cradle cap.

What causes cradle cap?

Exactly what causes cradle cap is not clear, although it may be linked to overactive sebaceous glands. These are glands in the skin that produce an oily substance called sebum.

Cradle cap is not contagious and it is not due to poor hygiene or an allergy.

Read more about the causes of cradle cap.

Does cradle cap need treatment?

Most cases of cradle cap will clear up on their own in time. Gently washing your baby's hair and scalp can help prevent a build-up of scales, and massaging baby oil or natural oil – such as almond or olive oil – into their scalp at night can help loosen the crust.

There is usually no need to see your doctor if your baby has cradle cap. However, you may want to ask them for advice if your baby’s scalp becomes inflamed or if the cradle cap spreads to other parts of their body.

It's important not to pick at the scales as this may cause an infection.

Read more about treating cradle cap.

Symptoms

The signs of cradle cap are greasy, yellow or brown patches on top of a baby's head.

If you notice your child is itching or there is swelling, speak to your doctor because it may be another condition, such as atopic eczema.

The signs of cradle cap are:

  • greasy yellow or brown patches on the scalp
  • the affected area of skin appears red
  • scales and flakes on the scalp
  • yellow crusts on the scalp

It's possible that your baby's hair may also come away when the flakes fall off or are removed. However, it will grow back.

Cradle cap is not a serious condition and should not cause your child any problems or irritation. However, it is important not to scratch or pick at cradle cap, in case an infection develops.

As well as appearing on the scalp, cradle cap can sometimes spread behind the ears. The patches may also appear in other areas, such as the groin (nappy area), the nose, armpits and the backs of the knees.

When cradle cap appears on a part of the body other than the scalp, it is known as seborrhoeic dermatitis.

Causes

The cause of cradle cap is not clear, but may be linked to overactive sebaceous glands.

These are glands in the skin that produce an oily substance called sebum.

Some babies are thought to retain some of their mother's hormones in their bodies for several weeks or months after the birth. These hormones may make the baby's glands more active and produce more sebum.

The excess sebum causes old skin cells to stick to the scalp, instead of drying up and falling off as they would normally do.

Cradle cap is not contagious and not caused by a lack of cleanliness. If a baby has cradle cap, it does not mean they have an infection or that they are not being looked after properly.

It is thought that a child with cradle cap may be more likely to have other types of seborrhoeic dermatitis, such as dandruff, when they are older.

Treatment

Cradle cap requires no specific treatment and usually clears up on its own after a number of weeks or months.

However, gently washing your baby's hair and scalp with baby shampoo may help prevent a build-up of flakes.

Gently massaging a small amount of baby oil or natural oil, such as almond or olive oil, into the scalp at night can help to soften and loosen the scales. In the morning use a soft baby brush or cloth to gently remove any loose particles and then wash the hair with a baby shampoo.

You could also try washing their hair more frequently than usual (up to once a day) and brushing the scalp using a soft brush to remove any loose flakes.

It's important not to pick at the scales because it may cause an infection.

Stronger shampoos

If regularly washing your baby's hair has not helped, shampoos to help loosen cradle cap are available over the counter at pharmacies. Check the patient information leaflet before using these for any ingredients your child is allergic to and follow the instructions carefully.

Avoid getting any shampoo in your baby's eyes because they are stronger than ordinary baby shampoo. If you are unsure, speak to your pharmacist for advice.

Shampoos that contain groundnut oil or peanut oil should be avoided in children under five years of age.

See your doctor if your baby's cradle cap is severe, there is swelling or bleeding, or if there are signs of cradle cap on their face or body (seborrhoeic dermatitis).

Treating infection

If your baby's cradle cap becomes inflamed or infected, a course of antibiotics, or an antifungal cream or shampoo, such as ketoconazole, may be prescribed by a doctor. A mild steroid cream, such as hydrocortisone, may also be recommended for an inflamed rash.

Content supplied by NHS Choices