Seborrheic dermatitis is an inflammation of the upper layers of the skin that causes scales on the scalp, face, and other parts of the body. When it affects newborns, it's called cradle cap.
Seborrheic dermatitis starts gradually. In adults, it often first appears as a condition similar to dandruff, but involving more inflammation of the scalp; itching, burning, or hair loss may occur. Seborrhea may also affect the skin behind the ears, on the eyebrows, on the bridge of the nose, around the nose, or on the trunk.
Besides inflammation of the scalp, newborns with cradle cap might get red bumps on their faces, scaling behind the ears, or a persistent diaper rash. Older children with seborrheic dermatitis may develop a thick, flaky rash.
Seborrhea tends to run in families and often worsens during cold weather. Researchers don't know what causes it and they haven't found a cure, but there are ways to control the condition. Special shampoos containing selenium sulfide, pyrithione zinc, salicylic acid, sulfur, or tar may be helpful for adult dandruff associated with seborrhea.
Corticosteroids may be used for intensely inflammatory lesions. Milder treatments, such as salicylic acid in mineral oil or medicated baby shampoo, are used to treat young children and infants who have scalp rashes.
There is some evidence that the herb aloe might offer some relief to people with seborrheic dermatitis.
The gel inside the cactus-like leaves of the aloe plant ( Aloe vera) has traditionally been used to treat burns and cuts. While it may not be effective for this purpose, a recent study indicates that aloe may help relieve the symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis.
In this double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 44 adults with seborrheic dermatitis applied either an aloe ointment or a placebo cream to affected areas 2 times daily for 4 to 6 weeks. Compared to the placebo group, those who used aloe reported that their symptoms improved significantly (62% versus 25%). Doctors who examined the participants also concluded that those using aloe had a significant decrease in scaliness, itching, and number of affected areas.1
For more information, including dosage and safety issues, see the full Aloe article.
In a 4-week, placebo-controlled study of 126 people with mild to moderate dandruff, use of 5% tea tree oil shampoo significantly reduced dandruff symptoms.5 Unfortunately, this study was not double-blind: the researchers knew which participants were receiving tea tree oil and which were receiving placebo. For this reason, its results can’t be taken as completely reliable. (For more information on why double-blinding matters, see Why Does This Database Rely on Double-blind Studies?)
One small double-blind study found benefit for dandruff with an extract made from the traditional Mexican herb Solanum chrysotrichum.6
1. Vardy DA, Cohen AD, Tchetov T, et al. A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of an Aloe vera (A. barbadensis) emulsion in the treatment of seborrheic dermatitis. J Dermatol Treat. 1999;10:7-11.
2. Callaghan TJ. The effect of folic acid on seborrheic dermatitis. Cutis. 1967;3:583-588.
3. Effersoe H. The effect of topical application of pyridoxine ointment on the rate of sebaceous secretion in patients with seborrheic dermatitis. Acta Derm Venereol. 1954;3:272-278.
4. Brenner S, Horwitz C. Possible nutrient mediators in psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis. II. Nutrient mediators: essential fatty acids; vitamins A, E and D; vitamins B1, B2, B6, niacin and biotin; vitamin C selenium; zinc; iron. World Rev Nutr Diet. 1988;55:165-182.
5. Satchell AC, Saurajen A, Bell C, et al. Treatment of dandruff with 5% tea tree oil shampoo. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2002;47:852-855.
6. Herrera-Arellano A, Jimenez-Ferrer E, Vega-Pimentel AM, et al. Clinical and mycological evaluation of therapeutic effectiveness of Solanum chrysotrichum standardized extract on patients with Pityriasis capitis (dandruff). A double blind and randomized clinical trial controlled with ketoconazole. Planta Med. 2004;70:483-488.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
Last Updated: 12/15/2015