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Seborrheic Dermatitis

What is seborrheic dermatitis?

Seborrheic dermatitis is a common type of rash. It causes red, scaly, greasy skin. It occurs on skin that has oil glands, such as the face, scalp, ears, back, and upper chest. A common type of scalp seborrheic dermatitis is dandruff. It tends to last a long time, or go away and come back. It is often made worse by cold weather, hormonal changes, and stress. Seborrheic dermatitis is not spread from person to person.

What causes seborrheic dermatitis?

The cause is not yet known. It may be partly caused by your body’s response to a type of yeast that grows on skin, along with extra oil production. Experts are still learning more. Seborrheic dermatitis may run in families.

Who is at risk for seborrheic dermatitis? 

It’s more common in:

  • Men

  • People with oily skin or hair

  • People with HIV/AIDS, Parkinson disease, alcoholic pancreatitis, hepatitis, or cancer

What are the symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis?

Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each person. They can include skin that is:

  • Bumpy

  • Covered with flakes (dandruff on the scalp, eyebrows, facial hair)

  • Covered with yellow scales or crusts

  • Cracked

  • Greasy

  • Itchy

  • Leaking fluid

  • Painful

  • Red or orange

These symptoms can occur on skin:

  • Around the nose

  • Behind the ears

  • In the beard

  • In the eyebrows

  • On the scalp, also known as dandruff

  • On the upper chest

You may also have acne, inflamed eyelids (blepharitis), psoriasis, or other skin conditions at the same time.

The symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis can be like other health conditions. Make sure to see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is seborrheic dermatitis diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and health history. He or she may also ask about your family’s health history. He or she will give you a physical exam. The physical exam will include looking closely at your rash. Your provider may do a biopsy, this is usually not needed.

How is seborrheic dermatitis treated?

Treatment will depend on your symptoms, your age, and your general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

Treatment can reduce symptoms. The types of treatments most often used include:

  • Antifungal shampoo, body wash, or cream. These contain medicines such as ketoconazole, fluconazole, selenium sulfide, or ciclopirox.

  • Corticosteroid cream or ointment. These contain medicines such as hydrocortisone or fluocinolone acetonide.

  • Calcineurin inhibitor cream or ointment. These contain medicines such as pimecrolimus or tacrolimus.

  • Shampoo or cream with other medicines. These contain medicines such as coal tar, salicylic acid, or zinc pyrithione.

  • Sodium sulfacetemide creams and washes. These may also help reduce symptoms.

Talk with your healthcare providers about the risks, benefits, and possible side effects of all medicines.

What can I do to prevent seborrheic dermatitis?

Researchers don’t know how to prevent seborrheic dermatitis.

How to manage seborrheic dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is an ongoing (chronic) condition. It can go away and then come back. You will likely need to use shampoo, cream, or ointment with medicine once or twice a week. This can help to keep symptoms from coming back or getting worse. Wash your skin gently. You can remove scales with oil and gentle rubbing or a brush.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call the healthcare provider if you have:

  • Severe, thick scales on your scalp

  • Symptoms that don’t get better, or get worse

  • New symptoms

Key points about seborrheic dermatitis

  • Seborrheic dermatitis is a common type of rash. It causes red, scaly, greasy skin. It occurs on skin that has oil glands, such as the face, scalp, and upper chest.

  • It tends to last a long time, or go away and come back. It is often made worse by cold weather, hormonal changes, and stress.

  • Symptoms can include skin that is bumpy, scaly, greasy, and itchy.

  • You may also have acne, inflamed eyelids (blepharitis), or other skin conditions at the same time.

  • Treatment such as medicine in shampoo, body wash, and lotion can reduce symptoms.

  • Seborrheic dermatitis is an ongoing (chronic) condition. It can go away and then come back. You will likely need to use shampoo, cream, or ointment with medicine once or twice a week.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Online Medical Reviewer: Kevin Berman, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Louise Cunningham, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2018
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