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Seborrheic dermatitis is a chronic skin condition that causes a red, scaly, itchy rash. It can appear as a mild, white scaling or a yellowish greasy or reddish scaly rash. Most commonly affected areas are along the hairline, in and behind the ears, on the eyebrows, around the nose, and on the chest.

Dandruff is a type of seborrheic dermatitis where there is a scaling of the skin on the scalp. The area can be dry or oily and is sometimes itchy.

Seborrheic Dermatitis

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The exact cause of seborrheic dermatitis is unknown. Common skin yeast organisms may play a role in some people.

Risk Factors

Risk factors include having:

  • Oily skin or hair
  • Family members who have seborrheic dermatitis
  • Chronic conditions, including disorders of the immune system such as HIV infection
  • Neurological conditions, such as Parkinson disease or, less commonly, stroke

The symptoms can vary from mild to severe. They include:

  • Dry or greasy scaling of the scalp
  • Itchy scalp
  • Itchy, scaly rash with small pimples
  • Thickened, flaking skin
  • Reddened skin over the forehead and on either side of the nose

In babies less than 1 month old, seborrheic dermatitis may cause a thick, yellow, crusted scalp rash known as cradle cap.


You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The diagnosis is made by the appearance of the rash.You may be referred to a doctor who specializes in skin disorders (a dermatologist).


Treatments for seborrheic dermatitis are usually applied directly to the skin in the form of shampoo or lotion. Treatment depends on the severity of your symptoms.

There are many products to treat dandruff. Examples include:

Medicated Products

A variety of treatments are used for seborrheic dermatitis, such as:

  • Prescription or over-the-counter shampoos containing one or more of the following ingredients:
    • Zinc pyrithione
    • Hydrocortisone or other cortisone (steroid) preparations
    • Selenium sulfide
    • Salicylic acid
    • Coal tar
    • Antifungal medications
  • Prescription or over-the-counter creams or lotions containing:
    • Hydrocortisone or other cortisone (steroid) preparations
    • Antifungal medications
    • Antibiotic medication
    • Pimecrolimus
    • Nonsteroidal creams that are anti-inflammatory and antifungal
    • Calcineurin inhibitor
    • Lithium salt

Treatment can take several weeks or months and may need to be repeated if the condition returns.


There are no guidelines for preventing seborrheic dermatitis because the cause is unknown.


American Academy of Dermatology

Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians


Canadian Dermatology Association

Health Canada


Cunha PR. Pimecrolimus cream 1% is effective in seborrhoeic dermatitis refractory to treatment with topical corticosteroids. Acta Derm Venereol. 2006;86:69-70.

Schwartz RA, Janusz CA, Janniger CK. Seborrheic dermatitis: an overview. Am Fam Physician. 2006;74:125-130.

Seborrheic dermatitis. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: Accessed January 22, 2015.

6/17/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance Kastarinen H, Oksanen T, et al. Topicxal anti-inflammatory agents for seborrhoeic dermatitis of the face or scalp. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014 May 19;5.

Last reviewed January 2015 by Purvee S. Shah, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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