It is common for a baby to have a dry scalp at some point, particularly in the first year of life. This is usually due to infantile seborrheic dermatitis, known as cradle cap.
Usually, a baby with a dry scalp does not need treatment, and the issue resolves on its own.
Infantile seborrheic dermatitis can cause the scalp to have:
- a yellowish crust
- a greasy appearance
- yellow, brown, or white scales or flakes on red or purple skin
- pink or brown patches around the red or purple skin
- some swelling
A yellow or brown crust and inflammation can also develop around the eyes and nose, behind the ears, in folds of skin, and around the diaper.
Although this condition can look painful, experts say that it does not cause babies any discomfort.
Cradle cap is not contagious and does not mean that the baby needs more bathing.
Researchers have yet to pinpoint a cause, but since the issue tends to occur a few months after birth, it may be linked to hormones from the mother continuing to circulate in the infant.
The symptoms of cradle cap result from overactive sebaceous glands — the glands around hair follicles that provide oil to keep the skin and hair moist.
While cradle cap most commonly causes dryness of a baby’s scalp, the following issues can also lead to dry skin in babies:
These are likely to cause discomfort, and the baby may rub or itch their skin. If the baby’s scalp symptoms do not resemble those of cradle cap, it is a good idea to consult a doctor.
Cradle cap is what physicians call a “self-limiting condition,” meaning that it heals with minimal or no treatment.
The National Eczema Society recommend that when a baby has cradle cap, a helpful approach is less frequent shampooing, such as every few days or every other day.
It may also help to gently loosen the flakes and scales on the baby’s scalp before shampooing, but avoid picking at the area, which can increase the risk of infection.
Other care strategies include:
- using a soft brush to gently loosen scales and flakes and washing the brush with soap and water afterward
- massaging the baby’s scalp with mineral oil, then washing it out
- applying a gentle shampoo to the baby’s scalp and massaging it in before washing
Using a baby brush may cause some hair to come away with the flakes, but experts point out that this hair grows back rapidly.
Also, the type of shampoo can make a difference — choose gentle, scent-free baby shampoo and take care to keep it out of the eyes.
If several days of home care do not improve the dryness and other symptoms, a doctor may diagnose an issue other than cradle cap.
To treat these issues, they may recommend:
- antifungal medication for the skin
- prescription shampoo
- a mild corticosteroid cream
Scientists have not identified specific factors that dry out a baby’s scalp, so there is little reliable information about prevention.
However, softly massaging a very gentle, unscented moisturizer into the scalp may do the trick.
Usually, cradle cap resolves with home care — often by the time the baby is 6–12 months old. However, more severe cases may require medical attention.
Consult a doctor if the affected skin:
- is especially warm to the touch
- is itchy, with skin changes
- is the source of a bad smell
- oozes liquid
- is cracking or bleeding
Also, see a doctor if the baby is not gaining weight.
Generally, it is a good idea to consult a doctor if a baby’s scalp symptoms are concerning or not improving.
And if cradle cap does not seem to be the likely cause of a baby’s symptoms, let a doctor know. Other causes, such as eczema or allergies, require diagnosis and management.
In an infant, scalp dryness usually results from cradle cap, or seborrheic dermatitis, which is very common and tends to occur in the first year of life.
The condition usually resolves without treatment and rarely leads to discomfort. Home care can help reduce visible skin symptoms.