Seborrheic Dermatitis

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on September 07, 2023
7 min read

Seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin disease that causes an itchy rash with flaky scales. It causes redness on light skin and light patches on darker skin. It’s also called dandruff, cradle cap, seborrhea, seborrheic eczema, and seborrheic psoriasis.

It might look similar to psoriasis, eczema, or an allergic 


reaction. It usually happens on your scalp, but you can get it anywhere on your body.

Seborrheic dermatitis vs. dandruff

Seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff both cause scales that be itchy and either dry or greasy. Dandruff may be considered the mildest form of seborrheic dermatitis. Both conditions can be treated the same way, but your doctor may suggest additional treatments if you have seborrheic dermatitis. 

Unlike seborrheic dermatitis, dandruff happens only on your scalp. Another difference is that seborrheic dermatitis causes swelling and discolored skin, but dandruff doesn't.

Scalp psoriasis vs. scalp seborrheic dermatitis

Both are common conditions that can affect your scalp. They share some symptoms, such as inflamed, scaly skin. Scalp psoriasis has patches of thicker and drier scales, while scalp seborrheic dermatitis has skin flakes. Your doctor can tell which condition you have by looking at your skin, scalp, and nails.

Treatments for both include medicated shampoos and corticosteroid lotions. Scalp psoriasis, which is more persistent and difficult to treat than seborrheic dermatitis, may also require other treatments like light therapy.

Seborrheic dermatitis may be due to the yeast Malassezia, excess oil in your skin, or issues with your immune system. It doesn't come from an allergy or from being unclean. It's not contagious. But experts don't know what exactly causes it. 

Some seborrheic dermatitis triggers include:

  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Change of seasons, or weather that's cold and dry
  • Certain medical conditions and medicines


Newborns and adults ages 30 to 60 are most likely to get seborrheic dermatitis. It's more common in men than women and in people with oily skin. These conditions can also raise your risk:

  • Acne
  • Alcoholism
  • Having a mental health condition such as depression
  • Immune system disorders such as HIV infection
  • Being an organ transplant recipient 
  • Recovery from a stressful medical condition like a heart attack or stroke
  • Nervous system conditions such as Parkinson's disease

Your symptoms may include:

  • Flaking skin 
  • Flakes of skin in your mustache or beard
  • Patches of greasy skin covered with flaky white or yellow scales or crust 
  • A rash that may look darker or lighter in people with brown or Black skin -- and redder in those with white skin
  • Ring-shaped (annular) rash (this is called petaloid seborrheic dermatitis)
  • Itchiness (pruritus)

Seborrheic dermatitis can look like other skin conditions. See your doctor to get a diagnosis and a treatment plan. 

Locations of seborrheic dermatitis

Babies 3 months and younger often get cradle cap: crusty yellow or brown scales on their scalp. It usually goes away before they're a year old, although it can come back when they reach puberty. Parents might mistake seborrheic dermatitis for diaper rash.

As an adult, you can get seborrheic dermatitis on your face, especially around your nose, in your eyebrows, on your eyelids, or behind your ears. You might develop it on your skin under your beard or mustache. It can show up on other parts of your body, too:

  • In the middle part of your chest
  • Around your navel
  • On your buttocks
  • In skin folds under your arms and on your legs
  • In your groin
  • Below your breasts

Your doctor will ask about your medical history and look at your skin. They might scrape off a bit of skin and look at it under a microscope to rule out conditions that affect your skin, including:

  • Psoriasis. This causes a lot of silvery white scales, often on your elbows and knees. It can also change how your fingernails look. You might have this at the same time as seborrheic dermatitis.
  • Eczema (atopic dermatitis). This usually causes inflamed skin on your head, elbows, or knees.
  • Rosacea. This can also happen along with dermatitis. It causes a red rash with few or no scales, often on your face. Rosacea can go away and come back several times.
  • Allergic reaction. If your rash is itchy and doesn’t clear up with treatment, an allergy could be causing it.
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Some stages of this condition can cause a butterfly-shaped rash across the middle of your face.

Seborrheic dermatitis will sometimes clear up by itself. But often, it's a lifelong issue that clears and flares. You can usually control it with good skin care.

Talk with your doctor about a treatment plan. They’ll probably tell you to start with over-the-counter medicines and home remedies.

If you have seborrheic dermatitis on your scalp, use an over-the-counter dandruff shampoo with one of these ingredients:

  • Coal tar
  • Ketoconazole
  • Salicylic acid
  • Selenium sulfide
  • Zinc pyrithione

If your baby has cradle cap, shampoo their scalp daily with warm water and baby shampoo. A dandruff shampoo could irritate their skin, so talk to your pediatrician about medicated shampoos before you try one. To soften thick patches, rub mineral oil onto the area and brush gently with a baby hairbrush to help peel the scales off.

If you have seborrheic dermatitis on your 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 are causing the problem, so being outdoors could help make the rash go away. Make sure to wear sunscreen.

Other treatments include:

  • Antifungal products
  • Corticosteroid lotions
  • Sulfur products

These medicines can have side effects, especially if you use them for a long time. 

Seborrheic dermatitis shampoo. Your doctor might suggest you use a medicated shampoo with 2% ketoconazole or 1% ciclopirox (Loprox). But be aware that ketoconazole can make your hair more dry if it's tightly coiled or chemically treated. In that case, use the shampoo no more than once a week and use a moisturizing conditioner. You can use other medicated shampoos once a day, or two to three times a week, for several weeks. Let it sit on your scalp for a few minutes before rinsing. When your symptoms go away, you can use it every week or two to help prevent a relapse.

Whatever treatments you use, follow your doctor’s advice. The best results often come from a mix of treatments

Contact your doctor if your affected areas:

  • Don't get better
  • Become painful, red, or swollen
  • Start draining pus

Can seborrheic dermatitis heal on its own? 

For babies, seborrheic dermatitis (cradle cap) goes away on its own within a few months. For teens and adults,  it might go away on its own, but you'll likely need treatment. It's possible to have flares of seborrheic dermatitis throughout your life. 

Complications from seborrheic dermatitis are very rare. In some cases, you might develop secondary bacterial infections in areas of your body affected by this skin disease. These include eyelids in adults and diaper areas in babies. 

You might have some hair loss, but that's caused by itching and rubbing your scalp and other areas affected by seborrheic dermatitis, not by the condition itself. Intense itching can damage your hair follicles, which can interrupt your natural hair growth and cause your hair to fall out.

Lifestyle changes and home remedies may help you control seborrheic dermatitis. Your best treatment depends on your skin type, grooming practices, and symptoms. But before usingdietary supplements or other alternative therapies, talk with your doctor.  

Some home remedies you might try are:

  • Use oil to remove scales. Use mineral oil, peanut oil, or olive oil on your scalp for 1 to 3 hours. Then comb or brush your hair and wash it.
  • Wash your skin. Use warm, not hot, water and a gentle soap or non-soap cleanser. Rinse thoroughly. Pat dry and apply a moisturizer while your skin is still damp.
  • Avoid hair-styling products. Don't use hair sprays, gels, or other styling products.
  • Avoid skin and hair products with alcohol. These can make your condition worse.
  • Clean your eyelids. If your eyelids are scaly, wash them daily. Mix a few drops of baby shampoo with two capfuls of warm water. Wipe away scales with a cotton swab. Warm, damp cloths pressed to your eyelids also may help.
  • Use aloe. Apply aloe gel to your affected area. You can choose a skin product that contains aloe or use aloe directly from the leaf of an aloe plant.
  • Seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin disease that causes an itchy rash with flaky scales.
  • It usually happens on your scalp, but you can get it anywhere on your body.
  • Seborrheic dermatitis is not curable.
  • It'll sometimes clear up by itself. But often, it's a lifelong issue that clears and flares. 
  • Complications from seborrheic dermatitis are very rare. 
  • Lifestyle changes and home remedies may help you control seborrheic dermatitis. 
  • The main treatments for seborrheic dermatitis are medicated shampoos, creams, and lotions.

What are some triggers of seborrheic dermatitis? 

  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Change of seasons
  • Weather that's cold and dry
  • Certain medical conditions and medicines

How do you get rid of seborrheic dermatitis? It may go away on its own, but the main treatments for seborrheic dermatitis are medicated shampoos, creams, and lotions. Home remedies might also help. 

Can you fix seborrheic dermatitis? Treatment can't cure seborrheic dermatitis, but it can relieve symptoms like itching and swelling.