What causes cradle cap and how to treat it

by Mother & Baby |

Cradle cap looks worse than it feels for your baby, so mums, don't panic! There are simple ways to help it clear up your little one's itchy, flaky scalp, meaning they will feel right as rain before you know it.

Here is everything you need to know about cradle cap...

What is cradle cap?

Cradle cap, or seborrhoeic eczema, is the name given to the creamy yellow scales that often appear on a newborn’s scalp. ‘The skin can look greasy, flaky and occasionally red,’ says GP Philippa Ridley. ‘Cradle cap can spread behind the ears, onto the eyebrows and sometimes to other parts of the body.’

Read more: Baby skin trouble? How to spot common conditions

The condition is very common and up to 50% of babies get it. But however nasty cradle cap might look, it’s usually harmless, and because it doesn’t itch, your baby won’t really notice it.

Cradle cap tends to affect babies under eight months and is most common at the newborn stage.

Causes of cradle cap:

It’s down to an over-production of sebum, a natural fatty oil that moisturises the skin. Experts suspect some babies have overactive sebaceous glands because they retain maternal hormones in their bloodstream for several weeks or months after the birth.  The condition can also be made worse by too much of the natural skin yeasts on the scalp.

It’s unclear why some babies are more prone than others, but we do know that most cases clear up once the oil glands are better developed.
‘Research has found babies who get cradle cap often have family members with allergy-type conditions, including asthma and eczema,’ says Philippa.

Cradle cap treatment

Mild cases of cradle cap usually clear up on their own. ‘However, many parents find the condition unsightly and prefer to help it along,’ says Philippa. To do this, she suggests rubbing unscented baby oil into your baby’s scalp and leaving it overnight. In the morning, gently loosen the crust with a soft hairbrush and use a baby shampoo to wash the hair and scalp – don’t pick at it as this could lead to it becoming infected. If the scales are thick, they might not come off with just one treatment, so repeat the process over the next few days.

‘Don’t use olive oil on cradle cap,' says Dr David Atherton, paediatric dermatologist at Great Ormond Street. 'It encourages skin yeasts to grow, which can aggravate the condition'. If you find that baby oil and shampoo don’t work, you could try a specialist treatment such as Dentinox shampoo or Metanium cradle cap cream.

Read next: The best cradle cap shampoos for your baby

Should I visit my GP for cradle cap?

The cradle cap becomes infected. If this happens the area will be red and inflamed. Your doctor might prescribe a course of antibiotic or antifungal cream, such as ketoconazole.

A mild steroid cream might also be recommended for an inflamed rash.

What to do if cradle cap doesn't clear up?

If you've tried the oil massages, shampooing and brushing for a couple of weeks with no luck, you may want to ask your chemist for a special cradle cap treatment.

It may be worth visiting your GP to check that no bacteria has crept back into the cracked skin, though this is rare.

Read more: Newborn baby essentials you actually need from day one

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