Cradle Cap: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis And Treatment

check_icon Research-backed

Image: Shutterstock


Cradle cap in babies is common and refers to the appearance of yellowish or whitish build-up on the scalp. These build-ups usually look like circular scales or discs and might be caused due to the over-production of oil by the hair follicles.

The condition is referred to as infantile seborrheic dermatitis in medical terms and resembles a cap on the baby’s head. It is usually a self-limiting condition and resolves within a few days or weeks. Read on to know more about cradle cap, its causes, signs, symptoms, treatments, and preventative measures.

What Is Cradle Cap?

Cradle cap or seborrhea is an accumulation of greasy and scaly patches on an infant’s scalp. The patch can be yellow or red and appear as rashes. The scales are often accompanied by dandruff (1) and may coexist with other skin problems such as eczema.

Age groups affected:

Infants between three weeks and two months are at the highest risk of having cradle cap (2). It often clears once the baby completes the first year (3). Sometimes, the condition can be seen in babies older than 12 months (4). Cradle cap could continue into toddlerhood and has even been observed in three-year-old preschoolers (5) and is common to all skin types.


The cradle cap usually goes away within weeks to months of its first appearance, depending on its severity. If it is accompanied by dandruff or eczema, the condition may take longer to cure and may require treatment with medicated shampoo and scalp lotions.

What Causes Cradle Cap?

Most pediatric experts, including the American Academy of Paediatrics, have a few medical theories that point toward the probable reasons for cradle cap (6).

  1. Overproduction of sebum: Sebum is the oil produced by the sebaceous glands present in the skin. Certain hormones transferred from the mother to the baby in the womb increase the production of sebum (7). This sebum increases the greasiness on the scalp. The hormones subside, as the baby grows and the sebaceous glands return to normal.
  1. Aggregation of dead skin: Babies shed old skin just as adults do. The old dead skin may not fall off and could stick to the oil on the skin surface. Over a period, the accumulation hardens and forms a yellow scaly solidification that leads to a cradle cap.
  1. Infection: A bacterial infection of accumulated dead skin can result in scaly growths visible externally as a cradle cap. Infection of sebaceous glands by a fungus such as yeast is also a cause of seborrhea.

Cradle cap may look to be unpleasant, but it is non-itchy, non-contagious, and not a sign of any allergy. It does not indicate poor hygiene and leaves no scars (8). The condition can be better understood by knowing its symptoms.

What Are The Symptoms Of Cradle Cap?

A baby suffering from cradle cap will show the following symptoms:

  1. Scaly crust on scalp: This is a primary sign of cradle cap. White to yellowish scales appear in circular formations around the head or in one large disc of crusty growth. The crust flakes a lot, sprinkling the baby’s clothes with dead skin. The baby could also have dandruff. In some cases, the scales could turn reddish, but it is nothing to worry about.
  1. Oiliness or dryness on and around cradle cap: The crust appears greasy, and the skin around also feels oily. However, the crust and skin could be completely dry.
  1. Partial hair loss: The infant could lose hair on and around the spot where the cradle cap develops. However, hair loss is temporary.

An infant suffering from a mild cradle cap will display the same symptoms with lesser intensity. Cradle cap may evolve to manifest through other symptoms, which often are not normal and require prompt medical attention.

When To Go To The Doctor?

If your baby shows the following signs then you must take him to a doctor immediately:

  1. Presence of scales on the face (eyebrows, forehead, cheeks, and ears), armpits, and diaper area: The American Academy of Paediatrics recognizes the presence of cradle cap on said areas as seborrheic dermatitis. However, some experts do not consider it normal for a cradle cap to occur anywhere other than the scalp (9) as it could be eczema, and the baby should be checked by a doctor.
  1. Itchiness and irritation in cradle cap: Remember, the cradle cap is not itchy, and the baby will appear comfortable. Skin irritation and itchiness are signs of eczema, a condition that may look like cradle cap, but can be more serious.
  1. Swollen scalp: If the cradle cap swells then it could be an infection in the underlying layers of skin. The swelling is often accompanied by severe hair loss.
  1. Blood or yellowish discharge from cracks in the crust: Babies who already suffer eczema can develop cradle cap complications such as bleeding and yellow fluid discharge from the scales. The serious symptom indicates severe infection and leads to cracks in the skin.

A doctor will look for these symptoms while diagnosing the condition. Treatment is essential.

How Is Cradle Cap Treated?

Treatment of cradle cap is simple but depends on the severity of the condition. You can administer it at home after pediatric consultation.

1. Have a head wash routine:

Most cases of regular cradle cap are resolved by washing the baby’s scalp properly and regularly. Here is how you must wash the scalp when the infant suffers from cradle cap:

  • Loosen scales with a brush: Use a soft, baby hairbrush to comb the infant’s hair gently. Do not use excessive pressure while you brush and do not pick the scales to loosen them. It may lead to an infection in the cracks between the scales.
  • Apply oil to the scalp: You can use regular baby hair oil, coconut, or olive oil. Use a small amount since its purpose is to help bind the flaky scales. Leave the oil for a couple of minutes before brushing the hair again.
  • Wash with baby shampoo: Use regular baby shampoo to wash the baby’s hair thoroughly. Shampooing and rinsing help remove a lot of scales from the baby’s head thus providing relief from the cradle cap.
  • Dry with towel and comb: Dry the scalp by patting a towel and using another brush to comb the infant’s hair.

Maintain different hair brushes for brushing your little one’s hair before and after a wash. You can use specialized cradle cap hairbrushes to get better results.

If the cradle cap is accompanied by any other condition, then you may require a particular type of shampoo.

2. Use medicated shampoos as prescribed:

If cradle cap is accompanied by dandruff or fungal infection, then the doctor will prescribe a pediatric anti-fungal or anti-dandruff shampoo. Such shampoos are recommended for use only a few times a week. For other days, regular baby shampoo can be used. In cases of cradle cap with eczema, use shampoo only after consulting the doctor.

3. Applying scalp ointments and lotions:

The doctor may prescribe a medicated scalp ointment or lotion after hair wash. You should use the ointment as directed and complete the course of treatment. There is no oral medicine required for cradle cap and topical application of medicated lotions will suffice.

Cradle cap is a common condition in babies and usually goes away within a few days or weeks. It can be caused due to overproduction of sebum, accumulation of dead skin, or bacterial infection. You may notice a scaly crust on the scalp or partial hair loss in babies. You may treat the condition at home by regularly washing your baby’s head with medicated shampoo and applying scalp ointments. However, if you notice the scales on the face, armpits, and diaper area, or if your baby has a swollen scalp, consult your doctor for proper treatment.


MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.

Recommended Articles:

Was this information helpful?
The following two tabs change content below.

Rohit Garoo

Rohit Garoo did MBA from Osmania University and holds a certificate in Developmental Psychology from The University of Queensland. The zoologist-botanist turned writer-editor has over 8 years of experience in content writing, content marketing, and copywriting. He has also done an MBA in marketing and human resources and worked in the domains of market research and e-commerce. Rohit writes topics... more

Dr. Wayne Hough

(MBChB, MMed, FC Paeds)
Dr. Wayne Hough is a pediatrician currently based in the Northern Suburbs of Cape Town in South Africa. He got his medical degree from the University of Stellenbosch. He then worked at the Tygerberg Children's Hospital before completing his pediatric training and qualification from the South African College of Medicine. Dr. Hough also holds a MMed degree in pediatrics from... more