Is It OK to Pick and Scratch Cradle Cap Off?

Reviewed on 5/20/2022

What is cradle cap?

Cradle cap is a common skin condition on newborn babies' scalps. Do not scratch and pick cradle cap off because an infection could develop and you could have a more severe issue on your hands.
Cradle cap is a common skin condition on newborn babies' scalps. Do not scratch and pick cradle cap off because an infection could develop and you could have a more severe issue on your hands.

Cradle cap is a common skin condition on newborn babies' scalps. It's harmless, and it usually goes away on its own, but there are things you can do to help cradle cap heal.

New babies often develop greasy rough patches of skin on their scalps that are difficult to remove. This is called cradle cap. It might look uncomfortable, but it doesn't itch or hurt your baby.

Typically, cradle cap shows up in the first few months of your baby's life and will only last for a few weeks or months. It's uncommon but possible for cradle cap to last up to a year for some babies.

What are symptoms and signs of cradle cap?

The most common symptom of cradle cap is caked, flaky material that develops on the scalp. The skin forms big, greasy yellow and brown scaly patches. These will start to flake off, sometimes leaving the underlying new skin red. Your baby's hair might even come off with patches cradle cap.

Cradle cap almost always begins on the scalp and can spread to the areas behind your baby's ears. You could find patches of this flaky skin on your baby's groin, nose, armpits, or behind their knees. When cradle cap is found on other parts of the body, it's referred to as seborrheic dermatitis.

What causes cradle cap?

The cause of cradle cap isn't clear. The sebaceous glands work harder than average, but it's unclear why. Some babies keep hormones from their mothers for a few weeks or months after birth. The mother's hormones might make the baby's sebaceous glands overactive. This extra sebum makes old skin cells adhere to the scalp instead of becoming dry and falling off like normal.

There's a kind of yeast, Malassezia, that can develop in sebum. Malassezia could be a contributing factor to cradle cap, in which case your baby might need an antifungal treatment.

Unlike other skin conditions, cradle cap isn't contagious. It also doesn't mean that your baby is dirty. Your baby can be healthy and well taken care of and still develop cradle cap. Babies related to those with allergy-like conditions like asthma or eczema may be more likely to get cradle cap. People who get cradle cap in their first few months of life might be more likely to get other kinds of seborrheic dermatitis, like dandruff, as they get older.

How do you get rid of cradle cap?

Cradle cap is not a cause for worry as long as you leave it alone. It doesn't irritate your baby and should, for the most part, be left to heal on its own. If you scratch at it, an infection could develop, and you could have a more severe issue on your hands.

You can help the healing process along by loosening the cradle cap:

  • Gently rub baby oil or olive oil into your baby's scalp before they go to bed. In the morning, the patchy spots will have softened.
  • Take a soft brush or cloth to brush away loose flakes carefully.
  • Wash your baby's head with baby shampoo.
  • Continue doing this until all scaly patches have become soft and easy to remove from the head.

Treating cradle cap with shampoo

There are several over-the-counter shampoos you can buy to loosen your baby's cradle cap. Before choosing a shampoo, check the ingredients and ask your health care provider to ensure it won't bother your baby's scalp. Try to avoid ingredients like groundnut oil, peanut oil, or other possible irritants and allergens. 

Follow instructions from the bottle and your health care provider. Don't let any shampoo get into your baby's eyes -- shampoos for loosening cradle cap are stronger than typical infant shampoo! If you notice that your baby's condition gets worse, stop using the shampoo and consult with your health care provider to see if your baby has eczema.

When to see a doctor for cradle cap

See a health care provider immediately if your baby is younger than 1 month old, and they develop a cluster of tiny pimples or water blisters or start acting seriously ill.

If your baby's cradle cap gets inflamed or becomes infected, you should make an appointment to see a health care provider. They might prescribe antibiotics, an antifungal cream, hydrocortisone, or a medicated shampoo. See a doctor for cradle cap treatment for the following circumstances:

  • Cradle cap continues past 3 months of age or is itchy. This could mean that your baby has eczema and needs different treatment.
  • You treat your baby's cradle cap, but it doesn't improve, or if the cradle cap spreads to the face or body.
  • The skin under the cradle cap is inflamed. This could mean there's an infection and needs different treatment.
  • You're suspicious that what your baby has isn't cradle cap.

Be patient

Don't rush your baby's condition! Their cradle cap will likely go away without complication, and if you have any doubts, you can consult with a professional.

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References
Pregnancy Birth & Baby: "Cradle cap."

Seattle Children's: "Cradle Cap."

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