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General Information

DEFINITION--A skin condition characterized by greasy or dry, white scales. Dandruff and cradle cap are both forms of seborrheic dermatitis. This is not contagious.

BODY PARTS INVOLVED--Skin of the scalp, eyebrows, forehead, face, folds around the nose, behind ears, external ear canal or skin of the trunk, especially over the breastbone (sternum) or in skin folds.

SEX OR AGE MOST AFFECTED--Both sexes; all ages.

SIGNS & SYMPTOMS--Flaking, white scales over reddish patches on the skin. Scales anchor to hair shafts. They may itch, but they are usually painless unless complicated by infection.

CAUSES--Unknown. May be genetic and environmental factors.


  • Stress and fatigue.
  • Hot, humid weather or cold, dry weather.
  • Infrequent shampoos.
  • Oily skin.
  • Other skin disorders, such as acne rosacea, acne or psoriasis.
  • Obesity.
  • Parkinson's disease.
  • AIDS.
  • Use of drying lotions that contain alcohol.


    Cannot be prevented. To minimize severity or frequency of flare-ups:

  • Shampoo frequently.
  • Dry skin folds thoroughly after bathing.
  • Wear loose, ventilating clothing.

What To Expect


  • Your own observation of symptoms.
  • Medical history and physical exam by a doctor (sometimes).


  • Self-care after diagnosis.
  • Doctor's treatment with medication.


  • Embarrassment and social discomfort.
  • Secondary bacterial infection in affected areas.
  • Reactions to topical medications used in treatment.

PROBABLE OUTCOME--This is a chronic condition, but it is often characterized by long periods of inactivity. During active phases, symptoms can be controlled with treatment. It does not cause hair loss.

How To Treat


  • Shampoo vigorously and as often as once a day. The shampoo you use is not as important as the way you scrub your scalp. Loosen scales with your fingernails while shampooing and scrub at least 5 minutes.
  • Exposure to sunlight in moderate doses may help.


  • For minor dandruff, you may use non-prescription dandruff shampoos with selenium sulfide or zinc pyrithione and lubricating skin lotion.
  • Your doctor may prescribe: For severe problems, shampoos that contain coal tar or scalp creams that contain cortisone. To apply medication to the scalp, part the hair a few strands at a time and rub the ointment or lotion vigorously into the scalp. Topical steroids for other affected parts.

ACTIVITY--No restrictions. Outdoor activities in summer may help.

DIET--No special diet. Avoid foods that seem to worsen your condition.

Call Your Doctor If

  • You have symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis that don't respond to self-care.
  • Patches of seborrheic dermatitis ooze, form crusts or drain pus.
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