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Life with a newborn can be nerve-wracking. If your little one develops cradle cap, it’s natural to be concerned.
Reassuringly, this scalp condition is both common and generally harmless.
However, you should know how to treat cradle cap to ensure it doesn’t get any worse or spread to other parts of your baby’s body.
Read on to discover what cradle cap is, the symptoms of cradle cap, what causes it, and what to do if your baby has it.
Cradle cap – a type of dermatitis – is a common condition which affects newborn babies.1
This condition causes flaky, scabby patches on an infant’s scalp.
Cradle cap usually occurs in babies between the ages of 3 weeks and 12 months.
It’s very common and thought to affect 1 in 10 newborns.2
If your baby has any of the following on their scalp, it could be cradle cap:3
These signs of cradle cap may be accompanied by mild redness.
Some babies get cradle cap on eyebrows, nose and nappy area. Again, this is completely normal and usually clears up on its own. Cradle cap on face or body areas is known as infantile seborrheic dermatitis.4
Further, cradle cap doesn’t typically cause inflammation, oozing or odour. If your baby has any of these, it could be an infection and medical attention should be promptly sought.5
Good news - cradle cap isn’t itchy, and your baby probably isn’t even aware of it! It’s also worth nothing that cradle cap isn’t infectious, and your baby being near another baby with cradle cap won’t mean your child is any more likely to develop it.6
The medical cause of cradle cap isn’t actually known.
It’s thought to be a result of excess oil made by the glands in your new baby’s scalp. Due to hormonal changes in the mother during pregnancy, the oil glands can be overactive during the first few months of a baby’s life.7
The scalp is particularly affected as it has plenty of oil glands.8 The type of dermatitis which causes cradle cap is also found in other areas where there are oil glands, including the eyebrows, nose, ears and in the nappy region.9
Another theory on the cradle cap cause is the presence of a type of yeast called malassezia which one study found on the scalps of around 80% of babies with cradle cap.10
Cradle cap isn’t caused by poor hygiene, so don’t feel guilty and that you could have prevented it by washing your baby more.
While cradle cap is harmless, there are ways to prevent it and also get rid of it.
Using a mild baby shampoo, gently wash your baby’s hair with your fingertips, rinsing then patting their head dry with a clean towel.
Special cradle cap shampoo is available, but you might not need it unless the cradle cap is persistent, or if your midwife or doctor recommends it.
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After washing, gently brush your baby’s hair and scalp to loosen the scabs. You could use a regular soft baby brush or a cradle cap brush with soft rubber bristles, or even a clean flannel.
Some parents prefer using a fine tooth comb to gently comb loose flakes out.
Don’t worry if washing or brushing doesn’t remove all the scabs. This just means the scabs are still attached to healthy skin and aren’t ready to fall off yet.
After each wash, massage your baby’s scalp with a non-allergenic oil such as baby oil, olive oil, vegetable oil or coconut oil. Leave for a few hours to soften the rough, crusty skin before shampooing out.
You could buy a special cradle cap cream to apply if you prefer. These work by softening the skin and reducing the secretion of the natural oil sebum.
There are certain things to avoid when treating cradle cap - here are 4 of the most important tips.
Anti-dandruff shampoo can contain ingredients – like salicylic acid – which are too harsh for a baby’s delicate skin.11
Don’t use a steroid cream (such as hydrocortisone cream) unless your doctor recommends it. These creams can be strong for a newborn and their use should be monitored by a medical professional.12
Soap is drying on newborn skin, which can make cradle cap worse. Use a mild baby shampoo or special cradle cap baby shampoo instead.13
Never scratch, pick or roughly rub cradle cap.
Scratching or picking cradle cap can introduce infection to your baby’s scalp, which will require further treatment.14
Picking cradle cap also causes sore spots for your baby, and you could end up removing healthy skin along with the dried scabs.
Picking cradle cap scabs can also pull out your baby’s hair. Cradle cap hair loss isn’t permanent, so don’t worry if you do see any hair loss when gently washing your baby’s scalp.
Cradle cap should clear up on its own after your baby’s first birthday, or in a few weeks with home treatment. If it persists, speak to your midwife or doctor to discuss further treatment.15
This might include an antifungal cream such as ketoconazole 2%, or a topical steroid cream such as hydrocortisone 1% for approximately 1-2 weeks.16
Be aware that it’s not uncommon for a baby to experience recurrent cradle cap during their first year, even after initial successful treatment.
Last updated: 05 May 2021
Joined Holland & Barrett: Apr 2019
Masters Degree in Toxicology and BSc Hons in Medical Biochemistry
Bhupesh started his career as a Clinical Toxicologist for Public Health England, advising healthcare professionals all around the country on how to manage clinical cases of adverse exposure to supplements, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and agricultural products.
After 7 years in this role and a further year working as a drug safety officer in the pharmaceutical industry, Bhupesh joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.