Rashes are zero fun. If you have inflamed, itchy red skin for any reason, we feel your pain. Trying to figure out what’s going on? Itchy red skin can occur for dozens of reasons, but if your skin is also powdery, greasy, and covered in yellowish or white crusty scales you likely have yourself seborrheic (pronounced seb-oh-ree-ick) dermatitis. This chronic inflammatory skin disorder is estimated to affect 1 in every 20 Americans. The common disorder tends to flare up in areas where our oil-producing sebaceous glands are most prominent. The most common place for seborrheic dermatitis to occur is on the scalp, but it can also present on other areas of the body: on the eyelid and nasal creases, external ear canals, forehead, armpits, upper chest and back, eyebrows (beneath the brow hairs) and genitals.
The good news? Seborrheic dermatitis is neither harmful nor contagious, and can be treated with professional help. Here, we break down the symptoms, causes and treatments of seborrheic dermatitis.
Did you really say “Crusty scales?”
Why yes, we did. In adults and adolescents, white and yellow scaly patches are a symptom of seborrheic dermatitis, and these patches typically look crusty, greasy or moist. The scales may flake off, revealing irritated reddish or pinkish skin underneath. This is all unsightly — but does it hurt? Unfortunately, seborrheic dermatitis in adults and adolescents can burn and/or itch, especially on the scalp or in the ear canal.
When seborrheic dermatitis appears on the scalp in adults, it causes the skin to flake and shed — in other words, it causes dandruff. Watch this video where Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper) explains dandruff!
Babies also suffer from seborrheic dermatitis, which eventually flakes away easily and tends to completely clear up by the time they turn one (though it can return when the child reaches puberty). “Cradle cap,” which is a common form of seborrheic dermatitis in infants, can completely cover the scalp. Like with adults, greasy scales are a symptom, though in infants they tend to be more yellowish and brownish in color. Not surprisingly, infants also suffer from seborrheic dermatitis in their diaper area. Thankfully, in most cases the babies seem completely unbothered by this skin condition — no matter where it presents on their little body.
What causes seborrheic dermatitis?
That answer doesn’t come easy. Researchers haven’t quite found one direct cause, but they do believe several contributing factors — and there are a quite a few — may work in concert when it comes to seborrheic dermatitis.
The list of those factors is extensive, and includes: good old-fashioned genes, cold or dry climates (and changes in seasons, especially to the winter), certain hormones, stress, fatigue, oil gland and hair follicle abnormalities, yeast fungus issues, and overall health. What researchers do know: Poor hygiene doesn’t cause seborrheic dermatitis. It’s not an allergy, not contagious and it’s definitely not harmful. Unfortunately, in adults it can become a life-long irritant that flares up due to any of the above triggers — the most common being stress and weather changes as big-time aggravators.
Seborrheic dermatitis also doesn’t discriminate: People of all skin types, ethnicities and ages suffer from the condition; however, adults between the ages of 30 and 60 and infants 3 months old or younger tend to be most susceptible. Also, certain medical conditions can put you at greater risk for seborrheic dermatitis, and these include HIV, acne, rosacea, psoriasis, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, stroke, eating disorders, depression, alcoholism, and heart attack.
How do I treat seborrheic dermatitis?
Like we mentioned, seborrheic dermatitis is treatable. At the first sign of scaling (which can often be confused for psoriasis, eczema or an allergic reaction), get yourself to a dermatologist pronto for a diagnosis. Your dermatologist will examine your skin and review your medical history, and then come up with an appropriate plan of treatment.
The treatment chosen will depend on your skin type, the severity of the condition and where the rashes present on your body. Common treatments include medicated dandruff shampoos for the scalp, but research has shown that these can be used effectively on skin as well — a choice your dermatologist will discuss with you. For the face and body, topical medications, such as antifungal and steroid preparations, can help reduce inflammation and scale buildup. These are typically prescribed for usage over short periods of time. For less severe cases, barrier-repair creams may also help calm the skin and quell symptoms. Usually, dermatologists will prescribe two or more treatments at once to net the best result.
Common ingredients used to treat seborrheic dermatitis include coal tar, ketoconazole, salicylic acid, sulfur, selenium sulfide, and zinc pyrithione. Though wearing SPF is crucial, it’s believed that sunlight can help to dry up the yeast on the skin that causes this condition, so being outdoors and in the sun may help.
Here’s the big downside: Seborrheic dermatitis technically can’t be cured, making it a skin condition that is entirely about management. Flare-ups will happen, but making sure you speak to a professional dermatologist at the first sign of the condition will allow you to best find your mode of treatment — and it’s a surefire way to keep your seborrheic dermatitis in check.