Seborrheic dermatitis

Red patches of skin with oily flakes on the scalp and face are typical of seborrheic dermatitis. The severity of these symptoms can vary during each recurrence. Men are more often affected by this condition than women. Seborrheic dermatitis is a non-contagious inflammation of the skin. Special creams and shampoos are available to relieve the symptoms.

At a glance

  • Seborrheic dermatitis is a non-contagious inflammation of the skin.
  • It is considered a chronic form of eczema.
  • It causes red patches with oily flakes to form on the face and scalp in particular. These patches are rarely itchy.
  • Medical practitioners assume that this type of eczema is caused by factors such as seborrhea, i.e., increased production of sebum (skin oil), microorganisms on the skin (e.g., fungi), or a weakened immune system.
  • If an individual develops seborrheic dermatitis for the first time during puberty or as an adult, it usually becomes a recurring condition.
  • In many cases, it is helpful to apply anti-fungal agents or creams containing cortisone to the affected skin areas.

Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.

Seborrhoic dermatitis: baby with its eyes closed sitting on a cushion. The skin above its eyebrows is yellowish and flaky. Someone wearing a surgical glove is applying ointment to the inflamed skin.

What is seborrheic dermatitis?

Seborrheic dermatitis is sometimes also called seborrheic eczema or seborrheic psoriasis. This non-contagious skin inflammation causes the formation of red patches of skin with oily flakes, especially on the scalp and face. These patches are not normally itchy. Medical practitioners assume that, in addition to seborrhea, i.e., increased production of sebum (skin oil), this type of eczema is also caused by factors such as microorganisms on the skin (e.g., fungi) or a weakened immune system.

If seborrheic dermatitis first develops in an individual during puberty or in adulthood, it usually becomes a recurring condition. It is often helpful to treat the affected skin areas with anti-fungal agents or creams containing cortisone. On the other hand, if the eczema develops during the first few months of life, it usually disappears permanently by itself within a year.

In infants, seborrheic dermatitis is known as “cradle cap” or sometimes also “milk crust” or “honeycomb disease”. This condition is not to be confused with infantile eczema (atopic dermatitis), which causes inflammatory changes in the skin that are very itchy and can develop into neurodermatitis.

What are the symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis?

Red skin patches covered in yellowish, shiny, oily flakes are typical of seborrheic dermatitis. Itching is rare.

In most cases, these patches develop on areas of the skin that have a large number of sebaceous (oil-producing) glands, such as:

  • the scalp and hairline
  • on and between the eyebrows
  • on the cheeks, especially in the folds of skin between the sides of the nose and the corners of the mouth
The following symptoms are indications of seborrheic dermatitis: red spots with yellowish, oily, shiny flakes between the eyebrows, on the scalp and hairline, on the cheeks, sides of the nose and corner of the mouth.

However, this type of eczema may also spread to other parts of the body. In such cases, it most commonly develops above the breastbone and on the back close to the thoracic spine. It can also affect skin folds, for example, under the breasts, in the armpits, or in the groin. In men, the patches may occasionally occur in the genital area.

In infants, the yellowish oily scales that are difficult to remove typically occur on the scalp. However, the condition can also spread to other parts of the baby’s body, including the face, diaper area, or skin folds.

What causes seborrheic dermatitis?

Seborrheic dermatitis is likely to be caused by multiple factors. These include increased production of sebum (skin oil) by the sebaceous glands and growth of a normally harmless yeast called Malassezia furfur on the skin.

Other possible factors include bacteria, stress, genetic predisposition, and hormones. Nervous system disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and a weakened immune system may also play a role. People with a weakened immune system are also at a higher risk of developing a more severe form of seborrheic dermatitis, in which the skin on the entire body is affected. This form, which is harder to treat, may affect those whose immune system is compromised due to having AIDS, for example.

How common is seborrheic dermatitis?

Around 3 - 10% of people are affected by seborrheic dermatitis.

Seborrheic dermatitis is common, affecting between 3% and 10% of the population. Men are more commonly affected than women. In most people, this form of eczema occurs for the first time when they are young adults or after the age of 50.

Seborrheic dermatitis is a chronic condition, and the severity of the symptoms may vary with each recurrence. The eczema may also clear up entirely for a while – often during the summer months. However, it eventually returns – for example, in winter or during a period of stress.

If seborrheic dermatitis develops in infants, it usually clears up completely and permanently within the first year of life.

How is seborrheic dermatitis diagnosed?

A doctor can usually diagnose this condition without difficultly if flaky, red patches that don’t itch appear on the typical sites on the body. In this case, a diagnosis is usually reached after taking the patient’s medical history and performing a physical examination. The doctor will first seek to exclude any other skin illnesses with similar symptoms to seborrheic dermatitis, such as neurodermatitis (atopic dermatitis) or psoriasis. However, these conditions usually cause skin changes in other parts of the body. With neurodermatitis, the inflamed areas are itchy and consist of red patches without clearly defined edges and, occasionally, small blisters.

Further testing is only required in rare cases. For example, a swab can be taken and sent to a lab to determine whether the patient has a bacterial skin infection such as impetigo. It is not normally necessary to take a biopsy (a sample of tissue).

How is seborrheic dermatitis treated?

Adolescents and adults can apply medicated treatments to the affected areas of the skin. The following are some examples of treatments to relieve the symptoms:

  • shampoos containing tar
  • creams containing salicylic acid
  • anti-fungal creams or shampoos
  • anti-inflammatory creams
  • gels containing cortisone

It is not usually necessary to take any oral medication. Some people with seborrheic dermatitis try phototherapy with UVB light, as sunlight can relieve the symptoms.

To date, no treatment to permanently cure seborrheic dermatitis has been found.

Most infants require no treatment, as the condition tends to resolve by itself without any lasting effects. To loosen the scaly crusts on the scalp of an infant, a little olive oil can be applied to them and left on overnight, before being washed off with baby shampoo. In case of oozing from skin folds, e.g., in the diaper area, zinc paste may help.

For more detailed information, for example about treatments for seborrheic dermatitis, see

What is it like to live with seborrheic dermatitis?

Although seborrheic dermatitis is harmless, adolescents and adults may find it difficult to live with. It often causes flaky patches to appear on the face, where they are visible to others. In addition, seborrheic dermatitis can be a life-long condition. People who find it very distressing to live with seborrheic dermatitis can ask their doctor for advice about how to deal better with their condition and reduce their stress, e.g., by attending behavioral therapy.

It is not advisable to try to hide the inflamed areas of skin under a thick layer of make-up, as this causes the pores to become clogged. However, wearing some light make-up now and again won’t do any harm. Mild, non-greasy skin-care products are most suitable for people with this skin condition.

No special sun protection is required – it’s sufficient to use regular, appropriate UV protection based on skin type. Symptoms may also be relieved by exposing the skin to sunlight and fresh air, for example, at the beach. Non-greasy sunscreen is best.

In cooperation with the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (Institut für Qualität und Wirtschaftlichkeit im Gesundheitswesen) (IQWiG).

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