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Skin Problems & Treatments Health Center

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Scalp Problems

The scalp hides under cover of hair much of the time, and most people never give their scalp much thought unless there is a problem with it. Several different conditions can affect the scalp, and those conditions can be itchy, irritating, and embarrassing.

This article covers a few of the most common scalp problems, from dandruff to lice, and the best ways to deal with them.


Anyone who has experienced dandruff knows how embarrassing those little white flakes can be -- especially when they fall on dark clothing. The cause of dandruff is an excess of dead skin flakes shedding from the scalp. The cause of the excess skin flakes is unclear but may be due to a reaction to a skin fungus that is present in most of us.

Dandruff isn't dangerous or contagious, but it can be itchy and annoying. There is no redness or scabbing of the scalp. Though it can't be cured, dandruff is fairly easy to control with more frequent shampooing or a medicated shampoo that contains one or more of these ingredients:

  • Coal-tar preparations (Neutrogena T/Gel, Tegrin)
  • Zinc pyrithione (Suave Dandruff Control, Pert Plus Dandruff Control, Head & Shoulders)
  • Salicylic acid (T-Sal, Sebulex)
  • Selenium sulfide (Selsun Blue)
  • Ketoconazole (Nizoral A-D) available as a 1% over-the-counter shampoo and a 2% prescription-strength shampoo

You may need to try two or three different products until your dandruff clears up. If it doesn't go away after a few weeks of using a dandruff shampoo, see a doctor, as you may need a prescription shampoo.

Seborrheic Dermatitis

Dandruff is a mild form of seborrheic dermatitis, but in addition to scaly skin flakes, a person with more severe forms of seborrheic dermatitis of the scalp will have reddening of the skin. Excessive sebum from the oil glands of the skin (particularly the scalp and face) is a key feature, giving the skin a greasy look and feel. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it is common in people with oily skin or hair, acne, or psoriasis.

Cradle Cap

Cradle cap is a form of seborrheic dermatitis that affects infants, typically in the first six months of life. It causes greasy, yellowish scales or crusts to form on the scalp. Although it may look alarming to parents, cradle cap is not a sign of a more serious infection, and it will usually clear up by the baby's first birthday.

To treat cradle cap, try rubbing your baby's scalp softly with baby oil or mineral oil to loosen the scales. After a few minutes, wash your baby's hair with a gentle baby shampoo. Then brush the scalp very gently with a soft brush to loosen the flakes. If a regular shampoo isn't working, ask your pediatrician about trying a medicated shampoo.

WebMD Medical Reference

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