What is seborrheic dermatitis?
Seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin condition that mainly affects your scalp. It causes scaly patches, red skin and stubborn dandruff. Seborrheic dermatitis can also affect oily areas of the body, such as the face, sides of the nose, eyebrows, ears, eyelids and chest.
Seborrheic dermatitis may go away without treatment. Or you may need many repeated treatments before the symptoms go away. And they may return later. Daily cleansing with a gentle soap and shampoo can help reduce oiliness and dead skin buildup.
Seborrheic dermatitis is also called dandruff, seborrheic eczema and seborrheic psoriasis. For infants, the condition is known as cradle cap and causes crusty, scaly patches on the scalp.
How common is seborrheic dermatitis?
Seborrheic dermatitis is probably the single most common inflammatory skin condition affecting humans aside from acne vulgaris. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis?
The common symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis are:
- Skin flakes (dandruff) on your scalp, hair, eyebrows, beard or mustache
- Patches of greasy skin covered with flaky white or yellow scales or crust on the scalp, face, sides of the nose, eyebrows, ears, eyelids, chest, armpits, groin area or under the breasts
- Red skin
The signs and symptoms may be more severe if you’re stressed, and they tend to flare in cold, dry seasons.
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
You should contact your doctor if you have any of the following:
- You’re so uncomfortable that you’re losing sleep or being distracted from your daily routines
- Your condition is causing embarrassment and anxiety
- You suspect your skin is infected
- You’ve tried self-care steps without success
What causes seborrheic dermatitis?
Doctors don’t yet know the exact cause of seborrheic dermatitis. It may be related to:
- A yeast (fungus) called malassezia that is in the oil secretion on the skin
- An irregular response of the immune system
What increases my risk for seborrheic dermatitis?
There are many risk factors for seborrheic dermatitis, such as:
- Neurologic and psychiatric conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease and depression
- A weakened immune system, such as seen in organ transplant recipients and people with HIV/AIDS, alcoholic pancreatitis and some cancers
- Recovery from stressful medical conditions, such as a heart attack
- Some medications
Diagnosis & treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is seborrheic dermatitis diagnosed?
Your doctor will likely be able to determine whether you have seborrheic dermatitis by examining your skin. He or she may scrape off skin cells for examination (biopsy) to rule out conditions with symptoms similar to seborrheic dermatitis, including:
- This disorder also causes dandruff and red skin covered with flakes and scales. With psoriasis, usually you’ll have more scales, and they’ll be silvery white.
- Atopic dermatitis (eczema). This skin reaction causes itchy, inflamed skin in the folds of the elbows, on the backs of the knees or on the front of the neck. It often recurs.
- Tinea versicolor. This rash appears on the trunk but usually isn’t red like seborrheic dermatitis patches.
- This condition usually occurs on the face and has very little scaliness.
How is seborrheic dermatitis treated?
Sometimes, seborrheic dermatitis will clear up by itself. More often, it’s a lifelong issue that clears and flares. It can last for years at a time, but you can usually control it with good skin care.
Adults with seborrheic dermatitis on their scalp can use an over-the-counter dandruff shampoo that contains one of these key ingredients:
- Coal tar
- Salicylic acid
- Selenium sulfide
- Zinc pyrithione
For infants with cradle cap, shampoo their scalp daily with warm water and baby shampoo. If that doesn’t help, talk to your pediatrician about medicated shampoos before you try one. A dandruff shampoo could irritate your baby’s scalp. To soften thick patches first, rub mineral oil onto the area and brush gently with a baby hairbrush to help peel the scales off.
On the face and body, keep the affected areas clean — wash with soap and water every day. Sunlight may stop the growth of the yeast organisms that inflame the skin, so being outdoors and outdoor exercise could help make the rash go away. Always be sure to wear sunscreen.
Other treatments include:
- Antifungal products
- Corticosteroid lotions
- Prescription-strength medicated shampoos
- Sulfur products
Often the best results come from a combination of treatments, both medication and lifestyle.
Work with your doctor or pediatrician if you’re using a treatment other than shampoo, since there could be side effects, especially if you use it for longer or more often than prescribed.
If your seborrheic dermatitis doesn’t get better, or if the area becomes painful, red, swollen, or starts to drain pus, see your doctor.
Lifestyle changes & home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage seborrheic dermatitis?
The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with seborrheic dermatitis:
Wash your scalp regularly
If regular shampoo doesn’t help with dandruff, try over-the-counter dandruff shampoos. They are classified according to the active ingredient they contain:
- Pyrithione zinc (Dermazinc, Head & Shoulders)
- Selenium sulfide (Selsun Blue)
- Ketoconazole (Nizoral A-D)
- Tar (Neutrogena T/Gel, DHS Tar)
- Salicylic acid (Neutrogena T/Sal)
Use a product daily until your signs and symptoms begin to subside, and then use it one to three times a week as needed. Shampoo that contains tar can discolor light-colored hair, so you may want to use other products.
If one type of shampoo works for a time and then seems to lose its effectiveness, try alternating between two or more types. Be sure to leave your shampoo on for the full recommended time — this allows its ingredients to work. These shampoos may be rubbed gently on the face, ears and chest and rinsed off completely.
Other home remedies
The following over-the-counter treatments and self-care tips may help you control seborrheic dermatitis:
- Soften and remove scales from your hair. Apply mineral oil or olive oil to your scalp. Leave it in for an hour or so. Then comb or brush your hair and wash it.
- Wash your skin regularly. Rinse the soap completely off your body and scalp. Avoid harsh soaps and use a moisturizer.
- Apply a medicated cream. First try a mild corticosteroid cream on affected areas, keeping it away from the eyes. If that doesn’t work, try the antifungal cream ketoconazole.
- Avoid styling products. Stop using hair sprays, gels and other styling products while you’re treating the condition.
- Avoid skin and hair products that contain alcohol. These can cause the disease to flare up.
- Wear smooth-textured cotton clothing. This helps keep air circulating around your skin and reduces irritation.
- If you have a beard or mustache, shampoo facial hair regularly. Seborrheic dermatitis can be worse under mustaches and beards. Shampoo with 1 percent ketoconazole daily until your symptoms improve. Then switch to shampooing once a week. Or shaving might ease your symptoms.
- Gently clean your eyelids. If your eyelids show signs of redness or scaling, wash them each night with baby shampoo and wipe away scales with a cotton swab. Warm or hot compresses also may help.
- Gently wash your baby’s scalp. If your infant has cradle cap, wash the scalp with nonmedicated baby shampoo once a day. Gently loosen the scales with a small, soft-bristled brush before rinsing out the shampoo. If scaling persists, first apply mineral oil to the scalp for a couple of hours.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Seborrheic dermatitis. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seborrheic-dermatitis/home/ovc-20324026. Accessed July 18, 2017.
What Is Seborrheic Dermatitis? http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/seborrheic-dermatitis-medref#1-4. Accessed July 18, 2017.
Seborrheic Dermatitis. http://www.medicinenet.com/seborrheic_dermatitis/article.htm. Accessed July 18, 2017.
Review Date: July 20, 2017 | Last Modified: September 13, 2019