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Skin Symptoms & Concerns

Seborrheic Dermatitis: It's More Than Just Dandruff

Seborrheic Dermatitis

Even if you’ve never heard the term “seborrheic dermatitis” before, you already know a bit about it. That’s because dandruff is one of the mosot well-known symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis.

What you might not know is that seborrheic dermatitis can also cause itching, flakes, and rashes on other parts of your body. Here’s what you need to know to get those frustrating symptoms under control.

What is seborrheic dermatitis?

Seborrheic dermatitis is a chronic skin condition that typically affects areas of your skin that have lots of oil glands, like your scalp. “Dermatitis” is the medical term for any type of skin irritation—so another example is atopic dermatitis, a.k.a. eczema. (In case you’re wondering, you can have both seborrheic and atopic dermatitis at the same time.)

Seborrheic dermatitis isn’t contagious and doesn’t usually cause lasting damage, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to live with. Anyone who’s felt embarrassed by an itchy rash or flaky scalp knows that sinking feeling is just not fun (to put it mildly). The bright side is that seborrheic dermatitis is more common that you might think: According to the National Rosacea Society, one out of every 20 Americans have the condition.

Scientists aren’t sure exactly why some people develop seborrheic dermatitis and not others, but genetics, hormones, and even your stress level could all be relevant factors.

So, what is the difference between seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff?

Great question! Dandruff is one of the most recognizable symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have seborrheic dermatitis elsewhere on your body or that dandruff is the only symptom.

What does seborrheic dermatitis look like?

Apart from the scalp, seborrheic dermatitis most commonly affects the face (especially the cheeks, ears, eyebrows, eyelids, forehead, and nose) or upper chest.

Here’s what to look for:

  • Bumps
  • Flakes or dandruff, especially on the scalp, eyebrows, or facial hair
  • Itchiness or irritation
  • Redness
  • Yellow scales or crusts

How is seborrheic dermatitis treated?

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: There’s no cure for seborrheic dermatitis. Symptoms can go away on their own, but they usually come back eventually. Luckily, that doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to life with itchy, flaky skin. There are plenty of effective treatments you can use to minimize or eliminate your symptoms.

Here are some of the best treatments for seborrheic dermatitis or dandruff:

  • Antifungal shampoo or cream: These medicated products combat the fungus living on your scalp and body that can make your symptoms worse. For example, prescription ketoconazole shampoo is an antifungal treatment that’s FDA-approved to treat dandruff.
  • Calcineurin inhibitor cream: Calcineurin inhibitors help suppress the inflammation that causes itch and redness.
  • Corticosteroid cream: Creams that contain corticosteroids like hydrocortisone kick your skin’s natural healing process into high gear.

Besides medication, how do I treat my seborrheic dermatitis?

Here are a few tips to follow:

  • Dandruff shampoos can give you some relief. You may need to leave certain shampoos on your scalp for a few minutes before rinsing (when in doubt, always follow the directions on the bottle).
  • Use the cool setting on your hair dryer to avoid drying out your scalp.
  • Rinse soap completely off your body and your scalp, then make sure to follow up with a moisturizer when you get out of the shower.
  • Avoid flare-ups by avoiding skin and hair products that contain alcohol.
  • Wear clothes made from smooth, breathable cotton. Why? The air circulation around your skin helps to reduce irritation.

Can seborrheic dermatitis be prevented?

This is another one of those questions doctors just don’t have a clear answer for yet. It’s likely that whether or not you can develop seborrheic dermatitis depends on your genetics, which would mean that no amount of shampooing or scrubbing can prevent it.

We know it’s tempting to feel like any itch, rash, or flake is a sign that you’re not taking proper care of yourself and your skin, but your symptoms are not your fault. You can tell Mom we said that the next time she says you’re just not washing your hair or face often enough.

Speaking of which...

Should you wash your hair every day if you have seborrheic dermatitis?

Not necessarily. Depending on your hair type, you might benefit from a daily wash, but most people don’t actually need to shampoo their hair every day. That’s because doing so can strip your hair and scalp of essential nutrients, which may actually end up making seborrheic dermatitis even worse.

So unless your hair and scalp are naturally oily, try skipping the shampoo every other shower or so. And be sure not to use medicated shampoo more often that your doctor recommends (it won’t make it work faster, we promise).

Article Reviewed By

Dr. Peter Young, Facet Medical Director and Board-Certified Dermatologist

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