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What is Seborrheic Dermatitis?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Seborrheic dermatitis is a skin condition in which the skin becomes red and inflamed before developing scaly flakes of white, gray, or yellow skin. This condition is most common on areas of the body where sweat glands are abundant, such as the scalp and groin, and it can also appear in the folds of the skin, in areas such as the neck and armpits. This condition is not harmful, but it can be unsightly, and many people choose to seek treatment for it for this reason.

The cause of seborrheic dermatitis is not understood. It has been linked with some conditions like Parkinson's disease, and also with oily or dirty skin. The condition is extremely common, especially in the mild forms known as dandruff in adults and cradle cap in babies. One of the issues with this type of dermatitis is that it looks like many other skin conditions, making diagnosis important to ensure that the condition is addressed appropriately.

When a patient presents with a condition which looks like seborrheic dermatitis, the doctor may decide to take a scraping to examine it under the microscope. This can reveal clues to other skin conditions which might be causing the outbreak. If the samples do not provide additional information, the doctor may proceed with treatment for the condition and recommend a follow up visit to confirm that the diagnosis was correct.

Some cases of seborrheic dermatitis have been linked with colonies of yeast or bacteria. In these patients, antibiotics and antifungals can be used to kill the organisms. Other patients may be given steroids to help them cope with the inflammation. Keeping the skin clean and dry with a mild soap and gentle toweling after cleaning is also important to keep the dermatitis under control.

Outbreaks seem to get worse in the winter, and the condition can also manifest in response to physical or emotional stress. People who are prone to developing this condition generally need to exercise stringent hygiene recommendations to keep the skin condition from flaring up. These recommendations include keeping the skin clean and dry, and they may be supplemented with dietary recommendations to cut down on natural oils in the skin.

In addition to being unsightly, seborrheic dermatitis can also be very itchy. Patients can expose themselves to the risk of infection by repeatedly scratching and creating wounds which can be used as access points to the body by bacteria and other organisms. Slapping, rather than scratching, can address really irritating itches, and drugs can also be prescribed to help alleviate the itching.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon274493 — On Jun 12, 2012

Apple cider vinegar is good. Dilute it, though, and wash the scalp often. Also, too much steroid cream will end up not working. I have Seborrheic Dermatitis. It is very depressing.

By burcidi — On Apr 27, 2012

@ddljohn-- I personally don't think that it's hereditary or that it's a fungal infection. Of course, I'm no expert but this has been my experience.

No one else in my family has this condition and I only developed it in my 30s. So I don't think it's genetic. It developed pretty suddenly for me and it's my face that's mainly affected. I hear people talking about scalp seborrheic dermatitis, and believe me that is way better than having it on your face.

I also don't think it's fungal because I've used three different types of fungal creams and none of them have worked. I hadn't heard of tea tree oil as a seborrheic dermatitis treatment. I'll definitely give that a try, thanks for the suggestion. I hope it works.

By ddljohn — On Apr 26, 2012

I have seborrheic dermatitis on my scalp. I wish it was just itching and flakes, but I actually get scabs all over my scalp from this condition.

I've tried all sorts of different products and the only thing that works is tea tree oil. I don't use tea tree oil straight but I do use shampoos with tea tree oil. It reduces the flakes and scabs.

The fact that tea tree oil works for seborrheic dermatitis pretty much confirms to me that this is a fungal or bacterial infection. Because tea trea oil is known for its anti-bacterial properties.

I'm also wondering if this condition is hereditary. Because both my brother and dad have it, as well as my grandfather on my dad's side.

By turquoise — On Apr 26, 2012

Wow, I had no idea that dandruff is a type of seborrheic dermatitis. We learn something new every day!

My daughter had cradle cap for several months as an infant. It was so bothersome for her, her scalp would itch and flake and she would cry from the irritation. I was able to relieve her seborrheic dermatitis with natural, mild soap in the bath. Any kind of chemical ingredient on her skin would aggravate the dermatitis and make it much worse.

I also removed the flakes once in a while by rubbing some Vaseline on her scalp and gently brushing them out. Thankfully she didn't have cradle cap for very long, it resolved itself in several months.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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