What is Cradle Cap?

Q: I’ve noticed yellow, scaly patches on my baby’s head. What is causing it?

A: Cradle cap is common in babies and easily treated. It usually clears up on its own within a few months. It isn’t contagious and won’t bother your baby. Cradle cap generally isn’t itchy for infants.

Cradle cap causes scaly patches on a baby's scalp. Though not serious, it can cause thick crusting and white or yellow scales.

Cradle cap is the normal buildup of sticky skin oils, scales, and sloughed skin cells. It can be confused with infantile eczema. However, eczema usually causes significant itching.

Common signs of cradle cap include:

  • Patchy scaling or thick crusts on the scalp
  • Greasy skin covered with flaky white or yellow scales
  • Skin flakes
  • Possibly mild redness
  • Similar scales may also be present on the ears, eyelids, nose and groin.

Home treatment is usually all that is needed for cradle cap. Washing your baby’s scalp daily with a mild shampoo can help loosen and remove the cradle cap scales. An hour before shampooing, rub your baby's scalp with baby oil, mineral oil, or petroleum jelly to help lift the crusts and loosen scales.

When ready to shampoo, first get the scalp wet, then gently scrub the scalp with a soft-bristle brush, like a soft toothbrush, for a few minutes to remove the scales. You can also try gently removing the scales with a fine-tooth comb. Then wash the scalp with baby shampoo, rinse well, and gently towel dry. A washcloth can also be used to scrub the scalp while shampooing.

If cradle cap persists or seems severe, your doctor may suggest a medicated shampoo, lotion or other treatment. Hydrocortisone cream is sometimes helpful to reduce redness and inflammation. Don't use over-the-counter cortisone or antifungal creams without talking to your baby's doctor, because some can be toxic when absorbed through a baby's skin. Dandruff shampoos that contain salicylic acid aren't recommended for use in babies either, because they can be absorbed through the skin.

Today’s expert is Subha Rajan, family physician with ThedaCare Physicians-New London.