All three of Shelley McLagan’s children had cradle cap. “With my first two, my paediatrician said to just leave it alone,” says McLagan. But Nyah, her third, had such a bad case, the doctor recommended she do something about it.
“I poured about a tablespoon of olive oil onto the top of her head and massaged it in a bit. After a while, I combed through her hair with a fine-tooth comb and the flakes literally just lifted off. It was cool and disgusting at the same time. I kept going until most of it was off and then gave her a bath. The oil didn’t fully come out until a few more baths, but the cradle cap was gone for weeks.”
Cradle cap is a very common and harmless condition, says Montreal paediatrician Shirley Blaichman. “It will often appear in the first one to two months of life and can persist throughout the first year or longer,” she explains. “Quite often it bothers the parents more than the baby.”
Read on for answers to common cradle cap questions.
What is it? Cradle cap, or seborrheic dermatitis, is a harmless skin condition that usually appears as crusty patches of greasy, yellowish scale on the scalp. It can show up all over the scalp or just in a few patches. Some babies also have scales on their eyebrows or behind their ears, and redness on the forehead or cheeks may be associated with it.
What causes it? “We don’t really know the cause,” says Blaichman, “but it tends to occur when there’s an excess of sebum, the waxy substance produced by the sebaceous glands. We see this in adolescents as well, which suggests it’s related to hormonal activity.”
How should it be treated? Often, the best thing is to leave it alone. It usually doesn’t bother the baby, produces no uncomfortable symptoms and resolves on its own.
If the cradle cap covers a large area or begins to encroach on the skin of the face, Blaichman’s advice is to rub in a little bit of olive or mineral oil to loosen the scales and leave it on through the day or overnight. Wash the baby’s hair with a mild perfume-free shampoo and brush very gently with a soft brush. “The scales should come off quite easily,” she says. In some cases, Blaichman says, just shampooing daily will take care of the problem, without using the oil. Be careful though; excessive shampooing can dry your baby’s skin.
Even though it’s tempting, don’t pick at it, says Blaichman. “Scraping at the scales can irritate baby’s scalp.”
Can it get infected? If your baby seems uncomfortable, or if the area around the face seems inflamed, see the doctor. Cradle cap that’s not responding to home treatment or is spreading onto the face may be exacerbated by a fungal infection, says Blaichman. An over-the-counter antifungal shampoo will likely be recommended—but don’t use one unless your doctor advises you to do so.
Originally published in 2010.