Cradle cap is the greasy, yellow scaly patches that sometimes appear on the scalps of young babies.

It's a common harmless condition that doesn't usually itch or cause discomfort to the baby. If your baby is scratching their head or there is swelling, speak to your GP as it may be a sign of another condition, such as atopic eczema.

The medical name for cradle cap is seborrhoeic dermatitis. It usually occurs on the scalp, but can also appear on the face, ears, neck, nappy area or in skin folds, such as at the back of the knees and armpits.

Cradle cap usually appears in babies in the first two months and tends to clear up by itself after a few weeks or months. In most cases, it will clear by the time your baby is one year old.

What does cradle cap look like?

Cradle cap is easy to recognise by the large, greasy, yellow or brown scales on your baby's scalp. The scales will start to flake and may make the affected skin look red. Sometimes the hair will come away with the flakes, but it will grow back.

What causes cradle cap?

It's not clear what causes cradle cap, although it may be linked to overactive sebaceous glands. These are glands in the skin that produce an oily substance called sebum.

Some babies are thought to retain some of their mother's hormones in their bodies for several weeks or months after their birth. These hormones may make the baby's glands produce more sebum.

Cradle cap isn't contagious and it isn't caused by poor hygiene or an allergy. It doesn't mean the baby isn't being looked after properly or has an infection.

Babies with cradle cap may be more likely to develop dandruff, which is another type of seborrhoeic dermatitis, when they're older.

Does cradle cap need treatment?

Most cases of cradle cap will clear up on their own in time. Gently washing your baby's hair and scalp with baby shampoo can help prevent a build-up of scales. Massaging baby oil or natural oil, such as almond or olive oil, into their scalp at night can help loosen the crust.

There is usually no need to see your GP if your baby has cradle cap. However, you may want to ask them for advice if your baby's scalp becomes inflamed or if the cradle cap spreads to other parts of their body. 

It's important not to pick at the scales as this can cause an infection.

Special shampoos

You can buy special shampoo for cradle cap from your local pharmacy. Always read the instruction leaflet to check it's safe to use on your child.

Avoid getting the shampoo in your baby's eyes. If you're unsure about using it, speak to a pharmacist for advice.

Generally, don't use shampoos that contain groundnut oil or peanut oil on children under five years of age.

See your GP if your baby's cradle cap is severe, if there is swelling or bleeding, or if there are signs of cradle cap on their face or body.

Treating an infection

If your baby's cradle cap becomes inflamed or infected, a course of antibiotics or an antifungal cream or shampoo such as ketoconazole may be prescribed by a doctor. A mild steroid cream such as hydrocortisone may also be recommended for an inflamed rash.

Cradle cap is a common harmless skin condition that often affects young babies 

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Page last reviewed: 11/03/2015

Next review due: 11/03/2017