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Seborrheic dermatitis: Self-care

Are you looking for dermatologists’ tips to treat cradle cap, a type of seborrheic dermatitis that babies get?

Baby’s scalp covered with cradle cap

If you’re a teenager or adult with seborrheic dermatitis, it’s important to know that skin with seborrheic dermatitis is easily irritated. Irritating this skin can cause seborrheic dermatitis to flare. To reduce flare-ups, dermatologists give their patients the following self-care tips:

  1. Be gentle when washing your skin: You want to wash your face twice a day and bathe or shower as needed. When you wash your face, shower, or take a bath, follow these steps, which can also help reduce the scale on your skin:

    • Wet your skin thoroughly.
    • Gently wash with the medicated soap that your dermatologist recommends, a fragrance-free cleanser, or a cleanser that contains pyrithione zinc. Skip the deodorant soaps and skin care products that contain fragrance, as these can irritate your skin.
    • Rinse thoroughly. If you leave cleanser or soap on your skin, it can irritate your skin and lead to a flare-up.
    • Apply a fragrance-free moisturizer after washing. Hydrated skin is less likely to flare.

  2. Shampoo as often as your dermatologist recommends. Seborrheic dermatitis usually develops on the scalp. Using the medicated shampoo(s) that your dermatologist recommends can prevent the white flakes and dry, itchy scalp.

    Tar shampoos

    If you have light-colored, bleached, or tinted hair, know that tar shampoos can discolor your hair.

  3. Control seborrheic dermatitis under your mustache or beard by washing these areas with a medicated soap or shaving. Seborrheic dermatitis often develops under a beard or mustache. To reduce flare-ups, wash these areas with a shampoo that contains 1% ketoconazole or a product that your dermatologist recommends.

    Another way to reduce flare-ups is to shave off your beard and mustache and continue shaving so that you can keep the skin hair-free.

  4. Use alcohol-free skin and hair care products. If a skin or hair care product contains alcohol, it can cause a flare-up. That’s why dermatologists recommend products labeled “alcohol-free.”

    This applies to everything you put on your skin or hair, including moisturizer, shaving cream, conditioner, sunscreen, and makeup.

  5. Reduce stress. For most people, flare-ups are more common when their stress increases. While we cannot get rid of stress, finding ways to manage it can help. Meditation, exercise, and other techniques for managing stress can be effective.

  6. Protect your skin from cold, dry weather. Flare-ups are common when the weather turns cold and dry. The dryness often causes seborrheic dermatitis to flare. To reduce winter flare-ups, dress for the weather. This includes wearing a hat when outdoors.

  7. Learn (and avoid) what triggers your flare-ups. A trigger is something that causes a disease to flare. Common triggers for seborrheic dermatitis include:

    • Stress
    • Cold, dry weather
    • Taking hot showers and baths, especially during cold, dry weather. Hot water can dry your skin and your scalp.
    • Getting a harsh detergent, strong soap, solvent, or chemical on your skin.
    • Becoming sweaty. Sweat cools your body. In doing so, it also dries out your skin. The salt from sweat can trigger a flare-up.
    • Being around harsh chemicals. The fumes from drying paint, new carpeting, and cleaning products trigger a flare-up in some people.
    • Developing an infection. If the infection irritates your skin, it can trigger a flare-up.
    What triggers seborrheic dermatitis in one person may not trigger it for someone else. That’s why you need to find out what triggers your flare-ups.

    If you’re unsure what triggers your seborrheic dermatitis, try keeping a journal. Note when you get a flare-up and what you were doing before the flare-up started.

    A board-certified dermatologist can also help you find your triggers.

  8. Wear loose-fitting, soft cotton clothing where you have seborrheic dermatitis. Tight-fitting clothing and fabrics like wool or polyester can irritate your skin.

  9. If you use hair spray, hair gel, or pomade, apply it sparingly. Using these products can lead to flare-ups.

  10. Protect your skin with sunscreen that contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Heat and sun can also trigger seborrheic dermatitis, so you want to protect your skin from these. These sunscreen ingredients listed above are less likely to irritate your skin.

  11. Treat a flare-up as soon as it starts. Early treatment helps prevent a flare-up from worsening. When you have a treatment plan from a dermatologist, your treatment plan will include information about what to do when seborrheic dermatitis flares.

    Treatment for a flare-up tends to differ by patient. Your dermatologist knows how to tailor the treatment to your age, where the seborrheic dermatitis appears on your skin, and other considerations.

  12. Partner with a board-certified dermatologist. Getting a treatment plan from a board-certified dermatologist can help you get seborrheic dermatitis under control, take steps to avoid flare-ups, and treat a flare-up as soon as it happens.

    To find a dermatologist near you, go to Find A Dermatologist.

    If you’re looking for a dermatologist who specializes in treating people who have darker skin tones, click on Filters, then choose "Skin of color" from the "Any Practice Focus" area.

Getty Images

Borda LJ, Wikramanayake TC. “Seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff: A comprehensive review.” J Clin Investig Dermatol. 2015 Dec;3(2):10.13188/2373-1044.

Handler, MZ (author), James WD (chief editor). “Seborrheic dermatitis.” Medscape. Last updated 11/30/2020. Last accessed 10/6/2022.

Written by:
Paula Ludmann, MS

Reviewed by:
Dara D. Spearman, MD, FAAD
Elaine T. Kaye, MD, FAAD
J. Klint Peebles, MD, FAAD

Last updated: 12/6/22