Cradle cap

  • Cradle cap is a common skin condition that affects young babies. It is extremely uncommon in babies aged over three months. It appears as thick, waxy, yellow crusts on the baby's scalp.

    Cradle cap is neither painful nor itchy and usually clears by itself after a few months. It is not contagious and it is not caused by poor hygiene. Babies with cradle cap are otherwise well, but many parents prefer to remove the crusts because they do not like how it looks.

    Cradle cap may appear in your baby's eyebrows. Scaly patches on other parts of the face or body are not cradle cap and should be checked by your GP or paediatrician. If the cradle cap starts to ooze or smell, the area may be infected and you should have your baby assessed.

    Signs and symptoms of cradle cap

    If your baby has cradle cap, they may have:

    • yellow, greasy, waxy scales or flakes on the scalp, or sometimes the eyebrows
    • reddening of the skin, which sometimes occurs due to eczema developing underneath the cradle cap.

    What causes cradle cap?

    Cradle cap is a form of dermatitis that causes inflammation of the oil glands in the skin, which are called the sebaceous (seb-ay-shus) glands. The type of dermatitis is called seborrhoeic (seb-uh-ray-ic) dermatitis. Sebaceous glands help ‘waterproof’ the skin by making a slightly greasy substance called sebum. Babies are born with active sebaceous glands because they have been living in their mother's womb. Once a baby is about three months old, the sebaceous glands become inactive until puberty.

    Care at home

    Cradle cap usually gets better on its own without treatment. However, the following steps may help it improve faster:

    • Loosen the crusts by applying a light moisturising cream or lotion to the scalp. The next morning, wash your baby's hair with a baby shampoo, gently lifting the crusts off with a soft brush (an unused soft toothbrush can be good for this) or comb. Try this each day until your baby's scalp looks clearer.
    • Use a mild anti-dandruff shampoo (only use for one to two weeks) if the other treatment is not working. Be careful, as these shampoos are drying and can irritate a baby's skin. Take care not to get the shampoo in your baby’s eyes.

    The cradle cap may come back, even when treated properly, because the glands can keep making too much sebum for a few months. If this happens, repeat the treatment.

    When to see a doctor

    Sometimes the skin under the crusts of cradle cap can become infected. The skin can become inflamed and may weep. This is caused by the staphylococcus aureus bacteria – the same germ that causes impetigo (school sores). If this infection spreads or your baby becomes unwell, take your baby to be checked by a doctor. Your baby may need antibiotics to clear the infection. Unlike cradle cap, impetigo is contagious.

    If the cradle cap continues after your baby is three months old or it is very itchy for your baby, it may be eczema of the scalp and will need different treatment. Some shampoos and moisturising creams can make it worse. If your baby's cradle cap isn't getting better or seems to be spreading to other areas of the body – including the face – take your baby to see your GP, paediatrician or Maternal and Child Health Nurse.

    Key points to remember

    • Cradle cap is a form of dermatitis that affects some babies in their first few months of life.
    • Symptoms include greasy, waxy, yellow crusts on the scalp or eyebrows.
    • It may be helpful to apply a moisturising cream the scalp at night, followed by washing the hair and scalp next morning and lifting the crusts with a soft brush.

    For more information

    Common questions our doctors are asked

    Will my baby be more likely to have dandruff in the future? 

    Most babies will have cradle cap, but only a smaller number go on to have dandruff in the future. Other types of seborrhoeic dermatitis can include persistent dandruff. Adolescence can be a peak time for seborrhoeic dermatitis because of increased production of hormones.

    I’ve heard that a good treatment for cradle cap is rubbing olive oil onto my baby’s scalp? Do you recommend this?

    Olive oil can help to lift the crusts from the scalp, which can then be removed using a soft toothbrush or gentle comb. This is safe to do.

    Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital General Medicine and Dermatology departments. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.

    Reviewed March 2018.

    This information is awaiting routine review. Please always seek the most recent advice from a registered and practising clinician.

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