10 Ways to Prevent and Treat Cradle Cap

Baby smiling in crib
Cradle cap normally affects infants, but even toddlers have been known to get it. See more pictures of skin problems.
Joshua Zuckerman/Workbook Stock/Getty Images

To many people, there's nothing as precious, innocent or defenseless as a baby. That's why it may be more than a little alarming when babies develop discolored, scaly, crusty patches over their soft new skin. This condition is known to doctors as seborrheic dermatitis, and to the rest of us as cradle cap. Despite the name, it can involve not only the scalp, but also the face and other parts of the body. And it can affect toddlers as well as infants.

As unsightly as the condition may appear, rest assured that cradle cap is both completely harmless and temporary. It's basically the infant form of dandruff. Nevertheless, it may be hard to look at such a skin condition on your baby without wanting to do something about it.


If you'd like your baby's skin to be clear for the next set of family pictures, read on to learn how to combat cradle cap.

10: Rinse and Repeat

Because it's so common, it's not a bad idea to try to prevent cradle cap before it even starts. It turns out that regular shampooing of your baby's scalp is a simple but effective way to stave off the scales.

Doctors aren't exactly sure what causes cradle cap, but they do have several theories. What is known is that the condition thrives on oily skin. This is thought to originate from hormones the baby gets from his or her mother before birth. Perhaps cradle cap is simply caused by dead skin sticking to oily skin rather than falling off. But another theory says that it has to do with oily skin's reaction to Malassezia furfur, a kind of yeast.


Regardless, shampooing your baby's scalp or washing the skin with gentle soap can help prevent the condition by mitigating the amount of oil on the skin. Two or three shampoo sessions a week should be plenty. Although parents may be tempted to shampoo the baby daily, some doctors advise against this because it can backfire: Overwashing can cause the skin to significantly increase its oil production and boost your baby's chances of developing cradle cap.

9: Pop Some Biotin (Maybe)

B-complex vitamins are superstars, even though some other celebrity vitamins tend to overshadow them (we're looking at you, vitamin D). Without them, you'd have an awfully hard time getting energy from carbs, your nervous system would be all out of whack, and your hair, eyes and liver would be sickly.

Biotin, a B vitamin that's confusingly also referred to as vitamin H, is also important for healthy skin -- and embryonic development [source: University of Maryland Medical Center].


Unless you have certain medical conditions, you get plenty of biotin from your diet and your own intestines, where a bacteria factory produces it. But pregnant women do sometimes have a biotin deficiency. This fact, taken with the vitamin's importance in maintaining healthy skin, has led some to believe that giving supplements to a nursing mom can help treat cradle cap.

A big "however," though -- there's next to no evidence that it works [source: NYU Langone Medical Center]. But if you're desperate for remedies, you can discuss it with your doctor and see if there's any harm in popping a few pills.

8: Try Shampoo with a Kick to It

Soapy baby in bath
If your baby's cradle cap is bad enough for you to try a medicated shampoo, be sure you don't use an adult-strength formula.
Johannes Kroemer/Taxi/Getty Images

So what to do when cradle cap has already started to plague that tender baby skin? If baby shampoo doesn't do the trick, you may want to move on to the medicated kind. Even though cradle cap is basically the dandruff, it's not the best idea to buy an adult anti-dandruff shampoo to use on a baby -- it will be too harsh on an infant's sensitive skin. The good news is that shampoos for cradle cap do exist, although you should probably consult a doctor before using one. If you can't find any in your local drugstore, you can order them online.

These shampoos are effective against cradle cap because they use one or more of these active ingredients [source: National Institutes of Health]:


  • Salicylic acid
  • Coal tar
  • Zinc
  • Resocin
  • Ketoconazole
  • Selenium
  • Corticosteroids

Those last three ingredients pack a powerful punch, and you might need a prescription to get them. (We'll talk more about them later.)

7: Get Ready for a Rubdown

It isn't enough to just shampoo your baby's delicate scalp. You also need to help him or her get rid of the flakes.

Think of the rubdown as a very gentle exfoliation. Baby hair brushes have soft, natural bristles that, to an adult, feel like barely anything at all. There are several hair tools marketed as "cradle cap brushes," but there isn't much of a difference, if any.


Just like you'll want to be shampooing more frequently, you should also be brushing more frequently. Gently massage the baby's scalp and use the brush while shampooing to help remove scales. (If you pick at them, you can irritate the skin, which can lead to infection.)

Another option, if you don't have a brush handy or your baby isn't fond of it, is to use a terrycloth towel. (Following up the whole process by swaddling your infant in an adorable hooded robe is optional.)

6: Bring On the Oil

Although the shampooing covered on the previous few pages has proven effective, there is no perfect or single cure for cradle cap. The good news is that throughout the generations of dealing with this skin condition, parents have discovered several other remedies that appear to work for many babies.

For instance, some oils, such as mineral oil, olive oil, or petroleum jelly, may help get rid of cradle cap. If you're worried about using medicated shampoo on a baby's sensitive skin, this might be a good alternative. And, incidentally, many adults similarly treat their hair with olive oil to make it softer and silkier, so this isn't that out of the ordinary.


However, recommendations for how long to soak the baby's scalp with such oils before washing it out vary widely. The Mayo Clinic, for instance, recommends only a few minutes, and the National Institutes of Health say up to an hour, while the South Australian Children, Youth and Women's Health Service says to leave it on as long as several hours -- even overnight [sources: Mayo Clinic; National Institutes of Health; Children, Youth and Women's Health Service].

However long you choose, wipe the oils off with a washcloth and gently brush the scales. This may be all you need to do, but some sources also recommend shampooing the baby's scalp after treating it with oil.

5: Go Natural

Mother bathing infant
Some experts suggest treating cradle cap by rubbing mineral oil on your baby's scalp and rinsing it off.
Cristian Baitg/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

If you ask enough parents for their cradle cap advice, you'll come across some who swear by certain lesser-known natural remedies. For instance, some suggest washing a baby's skin with such things as tea, chamomile, burdock or comfrey root [source: Kemper].

Kathi Kemper, author of the book "The Holistic Pediatrician," suggests using cocoa butter to soften the crusting dead skin, making it easier to brush off [source: Kemper].


Other supposed remedies include almond oil or products containing viola (the herb, not the instrument) or marigold. If you're a fan of aromatherapy, you may be interested in adding essential oil of lavender to vegetable oil to massage the baby's skin. There is no proof that this is effective, but should you decide to use essential oils, do so with caution -- they can cause allergic reactions in some people.

4: Stop by the Pharmacy

If the affected skin doesn't improve or gets worse, it's time to call the pediatrician. He or she might simply suggest one of the medicated shampoos mentioned earlier, which are available over the counter. If you remember, products using ketoconazole, selenium and corticosteroids are used for severe cases, and some of them require an RX.

Another medicinal option the doctor might recommend is hydrocortisone cream. This is usually prescribed when the skin is inflamed or reddened. For cradle cap, a cream with just 0.5 to 1 percent hydrocortisone should work fine -- you can pick it up at the drugstore without a doctor visit. Hydrocortisone cream is the topical answer to all kinds of skin irritation from poison ivy to hemorrhoids, so you know it does an itch good. You can apply it a few times day to soothe discomfort and keep baby from scratching with those surprisingly sharp nails.


3: Fight Fungus

Remember the yeast-as-agent-of-cradle-cap theory from a few pages back? Some of the support for that idea comes from the fact that some cradle cap infections respond to antifungal medications.

Topical antifungal drugs you might encounter in your quest to end cradle cap include miconazole (Micatin), clotrimazole (Lotrimin), ketoconazole (Nizarol) and terbinafine solution (Lamisil) [source: Johnson and Nunley].


For adults, there are some medicated shampoos that contain antifungal ingredients such as selenium sulfide, which we mentioned earlier (found in Selsun, Selsun Blue and Exsel). Pyrithione zinc is another preparation that's fungus-unfriendly and also ubiquitous in the dandruff care section of the drugstore. Again, this isn't the kind of step you can (or should) take without a doctor's advice, so make the call.

2: Give It Time

All babies are beautiful, but they can look a little funny in the beginning. Some of them, for example, have oddly shaped heads from their journey through the vaginal canal. Others have milia (little bumps on their face), thrush (a yeast infection in the mouth) or acne. (Babies get pimples, too!) Others, of course, have the crusty, scaly head that comes with cradle cap.

The thing is, you have to cut their little bodies some slack. They only recently arrived in the world. Mom's hormones are still in effect and their immune systems aren't up to speed. Most rashes go away with time. In the meantime, we suggest plenty of snuggles -- and maybe a soft hat for photo ops.


1: Get a New Diagnosis

If none of your remedies seem to help and what you thought was cradle cap doesn't clear up, it's time for a visit to your pediatrician. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, other skin conditions can easily be confused with seborrheic dermatitis [source: Johnson].

Different forms of eczema can affect babies, showing up as oozy bumps and dry, itchy skin. Infants may scratch their skin in their sleep, resulting in lesions and thickened skin. There are plenty of treatment options for stubborn eczema, so get thee to a doctor.

Psoriasis can also target little ones, and while it doesn't usually show up on a baby's head, it can cause what looks like a rash combined with flakes or scales. It isn't very common in infants, so you may want a dermatologist's opinion.

Still scratching your head over how to combat cradle crap? Read on for lots more information on this and other skin conditions.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • BabyCenter. "Cradle cap." BabyCenter.com. Last reviewed November 2011. (March 19, 2012) http://www.babycenter.com/0_cradle-cap_80.bc
  • BabyCenter. "Psoriasis." BabyCenter.com. (March 19, 2012) http://www.babycenter.com/0_psoriasis_1134884.bc?page=1
  • Children, Youth and Women's Health Service. "Cradle cap." Children, Youth and Women's Health Service. Last updated April 12, 2010. Government of South Australia. (Apr. 29, 2010) http://www.cyh.com/HealthTopics/HealthTopicDetails.aspx?p=114&np=304&id=2614
  • Johnson, Betty Anne, M.D. Ph.D.; and Julia R. Nunley, M.D. "Treatment of Seborrheic Dermatitis." American Academy of Family Physicians. May 1, 2000 (Apr. 29, 2010) http://www.aafp.org/afp/20000501/2703.html
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