What is Cradle Cap? Treatment, Causes & Symptoms

Approved by Mothercare Parenting and Medical Experts

If you're wondering why your adorable baby's head is suddenly covered in scaly flaky skin, the answer is cradle cap.[1]

The good news is it's really common (about half of babies get it), it doesn't hurt or itch and it's really easy to treat.

But you're probably left with the question: what is cradle cap?[5]



  • 1) What Does Cradle Cap Look Like?
  • 2) What Are the Symptoms of Cradle Cap?
  • 3) What Causes Cradle Cap?
  • 4) Does Cradle Cap Smell?
  • 5) Cradle Cap in Toddlers
  • 6) Cradle Cap Treatment
  • 7) What to Do If Cradle Cap Doesn't Clear Up
  • 8) Can Adults Get Cradle Cap?

  • What Does Cradle Cap Look Like?

    It can be white or yellow, and looks a bit like dried, splattered yoghurt. Sometimes there are red spots on the skin beside it.

    Apart from looking a bit yucky, it doesn't affect your baby. They won't have a fever or show any signs of illness or irritation. Basically, cradle cap looks worse than it actually is.

    What Are the Symptoms of Cradle Cap?

    If you're worried your little one may have cradle cap, look out for the below signs and symptoms:

  • Patchy scaling or thick crusts on the scalp
  • Oily or dry skin covered with white or yellow flaky scales
  • Skin flakes
  • Mild redness or spots next to the affected area

  • What Causes Cradle Cap?

    It's a bit embarrassing, but nobody really knows what causes cradle cap. What we do know is that it's not caused by bacterial infection, allergy or bad hygiene.

    It's not contagious, either. Most doctors think it's either caused by fungus or overactive oil glands.[3]

    As newborns have a lot of mum's hormones still going around their system, this can make their glands produce more oil than they need to. So instead of falling off, old skin sticks to their head and dries out.

    Does Cradle Cap Smell?

    As well as the symptoms we've outlined above, another sign of cradle cap to look out for is a distinctive smell.

    In moderate cases of cradle cap, you may notice a slightly oily scent, which is the result from the build up of oil on your baby's scalp.

    In more severe cases, you may get a stronger smell, similar to that of stale bread.

    If this is the case, you're probably smelling yeast, which is an indication that the cradle cap has turned into a yeast infection and is best treated by a visit to the doctor.

    Cradle Cap in Toddlers

    It's not just babies that can get cradle cap. Toddler's can get it too.[2]

    But don't panic! Just like with baby, cradle cap in toddlers is common, doesn't hurt and is easily treatable.

    So if your toddler does get cradle cap it, don't worry, it isn't a sign of bad parenting or poor hygiene.

    Cradle Cap Treatment

    Although cradle cap is pretty harmless, you might want to help it on its way, as it doesn't tend to go on its own.

    It can start to weep a bit of fluid and sometimes spreads to baby's face and neck.

    Luckily it's really easy to treat and prevent, plus it usually goes away quickly.

    Rub baby oil or olive oil into your baby's head before bedtime, and wash it off with baby shampoo in the morning. They'll love the massage!

    Dry with a nice soft, baby towel and brush their head with a special cradle cap brush (a soft hair brush or baby comb will do the job too). Most of the scales will slide off easily.

    Sometimes it'll take a bit of your baby's hair with it: rest assured, it will grow back! You might want to make this part of your daily routine until the cradle cap is gone.

    What to Do If Cradle Cap Doesn't Clear Up

    If it's still there after a couple of weeks of oil massages, shampooing and brushing, you might like to try a cradle cap treatment.

    Ask the chemist for a special shampoo that's suitable for your baby.

    You can also have a little chat with your health visitor about it.

    It's unlikely to happen, but if the cradle cap starts to spread to your baby's face and neck, take a trip to your GP to get peace of mind that no bacteria has crept into the cracked skin.

    Thankfully this is really rare, especially if you get in and treat it early.

    Can Adults Get Cradle Cap?

    You might be surprised to know that cradle cap isn't something that just babies and toddlers can get.

    Although a lot less common, cradle cap in adults is usually referred to as seborrheic dermatitis or seborrheic eczema and can be similar to other conditions like psoriasis,[4] atopic dermatitis and rosacea.

    Much like with babies and toddlers, no one really knows the exact cause of cradle cap in adults.

    However, other factors that could exacerbate or increase the risk of getting it include;

  • stress
  • use of alcohol based skin products
  • obesity
  • cold or dry climates
  • excessive sun exposure
  • hormonal changes

  • If you are showing symptoms of adult cradle cap, try not to itch or scratch the affected areas. This could cause bleeding, increasing your risk of infection and extra irritation.

    Read More:

  • How to Bathe Your Baby
  • Treating and Preventing Nappy Rash
  • How to Cut Your Babies Nails

  • Last reviewed: May 2019


    [1]. Cradle cap, NHS, January 2019

    [2]. Toddlers get cradle cap too, Mom365, [Accessed May 2019]

    [3]. Seborrheic Dermatitis in Children, National Eczema Association, [Accessed May 2019]

    [4]. Psoriasis, NHS, May 2018

    [5]. Dr Mary Harding, Infant Seborrhoeic Dermatitis,, August 2016