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Seborrheic Dermatitis

By Karen McKoy, MD, MPH

Seborrheic dermatitis (SD) is inflammation of skin regions with a high density of sebaceous glands (eg, face, scalp, upper trunk). The cause is unknown, but Malassezia (formerly Pityrosporum) ovale, a normal skin organism, plays some role. SD occurs with increased frequency in patients with HIV and in those with certain neurologic disorders. SD causes occasional pruritus, dandruff, and yellow, greasy scaling along the hairline and on the face. Diagnosis is made by examination. Treatment is tar or other medicated shampoo and topical corticosteroids and antifungals.

Despite the name, the composition and flow of sebum are usually normal. The pathogenesis of SD is unclear, but its activity has been linked to the number of Malassezia yeasts present on the skin. Seborrheic dermatitis occurs most often in infants, usually within the first 3 mo of life, and in those aged 30 to 70 yr. The incidence and severity of disease seem to be affected by genetic factors, emotional or physical stress, and climate (usually worse in cold weather). SD may precede or be associated with psoriasis (called seborrhiasis). SD may be more common and more severe among patients with neurologic disorders (especially Parkinson disease) or HIV/AIDS. Very rarely, the dermatitis becomes generalized.

Symptoms and Signs

Symptoms develop gradually, and the dermatitis is usually apparent only as dry or greasy diffuse scaling of the scalp (dandruff) with variable pruritus. In severe disease, yellow-red scaling papules appear along the hairline, behind the ears, in the external auditory canals, on the eyebrows, in the axillae, on the bridge of the nose, in the nasolabial folds, and over the sternum. Marginal blepharitis with dry yellow crusts and conjunctival irritation may develop. SD does not cause hair loss.

Newborns may develop SD with a thick, yellow, crusted scalp lesion (cradle cap); fissuring and yellow scaling behind the ears; red facial papules; and stubborn diaper rash. Older children and adults may develop thick, tenacious, scaly plaques on the scalp that may measure 1 to 2 cm in diameter.


  • Clinical evaluation

Diagnosis is made by physical examination. SD may occasionally be difficult to distinguish from other disorders, including psoriasis, atopic dermatitis or contact dermatitis, tinea, and rosacea.


  • Topical therapy

Adults and older children

In adults, zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide, sulfur and salicylic acid, or tar shampoo should be used daily or every other day until dandruff is controlled and twice/wk thereafter. A corticosteroid lotion (eg, 0.01% fluocinolone acetonide solution, 0.025% triamcinolone acetonide lotion) can be rubbed into the scalp or other hairy areas twice daily until scaling and redness are controlled. For SD of the postauricular areas, nasolabial folds, eyelid margins, and bridge of the nose, 1% hydrocortisone cream is rubbed in 2 or 3 times daily, decreasing to once/day when SD is controlled; hydrocortisone cream is the safest corticosteroid for the face because fluorinated corticosteroids may cause adverse effects (eg, telangiectasia, atrophy, perioral dermatitis). In some patients, 2% ketoconazole cream or other topical imidazoles applied twice daily for 1 to 2 wk induce a remission that lasts for months. An imidazole or hydrocortisone can be used as first-line therapy; if necessary, they can be used simultaneously. For eyelid margin seborrhea, a dilution of 1 part baby shampoo to 9 parts water is applied with a cotton swab.

Infants and children

In infants, a baby shampoo is used daily, and 1% hydrocortisone cream is rubbed in twice daily. For thick lesions on the scalp of a young child, 2% salicylic acid in olive oil or a corticosteroid gel is applied at bedtime to affected areas and rubbed in with a toothbrush. The scalp is shampooed daily until the thick scale is gone.

Key Points

  • In adults, seborrheic dermatitis causes dandruff and sometimes scaling around the eyebrows, nose, and external ear, behind the ears, in the axilla, and on the sternum.

  • SD can cause a thick, yellow, crusted scalp lesion in newborns or thick, scaly scalp plaques in older children and adults.

  • Treatments can include medicated shampoos and topical corticosteroids.

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