Cradle cap is characterized by scaly white to yellow patches with thick crusts on the scalp of infants. It can be treated easily and effectively. Sebum-producing glands in the skin secrete a waxy substance called sebum, which lubricates and waterproofs the skin. An excess of sebum results in greasy skin and the condition is known as seborrheic dermatitis. When present on an infant’s scalp, it is referred to as infantile seborrheic dermatitis or cradle cap.
Cradle cap is frequently seen in newborns. The condition is not known to be contagious and cannot spread through touch. In most cases, the flakes and crusts do not present any complaints of itching in infants. Cradle cap is often harmless. It is not a skin manifestation of any underlying disease, whether of the skin or or the other organs and systems. It is the infantile form of seborrheic dermatitis and a similar condition can occur in adults. The common term dandruff is often used to described the condition in adults.
The common signs and symptoms of cradle cap are:
- Patchy scales and/or thick crusts on infant’s scalp
- Greasy and oily skin coated with white flakes or yellowish scales
- Dandruff or skin flakes
- Mild redness indicating inflammation of the skin
Apart from the scalp, the scales may sometimes appear on the eyelids, ears, nose, and groin of infants. The thick crusts that form are due to sebum (natural skin oil) and not pus as is sometimes thought. Excessive scratching and improper care can however, lead to a secondary bacterial infection of the skin although this is uncommon.
The exact causes of cradle cap is not fully known. The composition of sebum in this condition is usually found to be normal. These maternal hormones can pass via the bloodstream from the mother to the baby during pregnancy may be one of the factors contributing to cradle cap. It is possible that the hormones then cause excessive production of sebum in the oil glands which with inflammation can lead to cradle cap.
A yeast called Malassezia or Pityrosporum is naturally found on the skin. An overgrowth of Malassezia may result in infection of the sebum, which clears up after treating with an antifungal treatment. However, cradle cap and seborrheic dermatitis is not a fungal infection of the skin. With regards to skin fungi, it is more likely that these fungi elicit an immune response when in large numbers on the skin surface.
Cradle cap usually clears up on its own within a few months and does not require any medical treatment. Supportive measures are sufficient to control and even prevent cradle cap :
- Daily massage of the infant’s scalp with oil an hour before bathing.
- Lightly brush the hair and the scalp with a small, soft-bristled hair brush to loosen the flakes and scales from the skin.
- Wash infant’s hair with a mild baby shampoo.
A persistent cradle cap condition is treated with a stronger shampoo containing anti-fungal medication like ketoconazole. The inflammation can be controlled using hydrocortisone cream, applied daily or on alternate days.