What medications are effective in treating seborrheic dermatitis?

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Anti-inflammatory and antifungal creams and shampoos can effectively relieve the symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis in teenagers and adults. But these medications only provide relief for a limited time and can’t make this skin condition go away for good.

If you develop seborrheic dermatitis as a teenager or adult, you’ll often be affected by inflamed reddish, flaky patches of skin on your scalp and face. The skin will clear up during some periods, but the dermatitis often comes back again. There are various effective medications available for keeping flakes of skin and redness in check during the acute phases of the condition.

Treatment with antifungal or anti-inflammatory drugs isn’t necessary in babies because then the seborrheic dermatitis will clear up on its own and it won’t cause any further problems. Skin care products like baby oils without perfumes or preservatives or household remedies like olive oil can be used to get rid of the flakes faster.

Are antifungal medicines effective?

Experts believe that yeast fungus is one of the factors to play a role in the development of seborrheic dermatitis. So creams, shampoos and lotions that kill fungus or slow its growth are used as treatment (also called antimycotics).

Researchers at the Cochrane Collaboration, an international research network, looked for studies on these kinds of medications. They found the most data on the medications ketoconazole and ciclopirox. It showed that antifungal medicines relieve the symptoms better than a placebo (fake medication) and less often cause side effects like redness, itching or hair loss than treatment using steroid medications. Most of these studies were low-quality, though.

How effective are steroid medications?

Medications that contain steroids to be applied directly to the skin – such as creams or gels – have an anti-inflammatory effect, so they are often used to treat seborrheic dermatitis. They are not suitable for long-term treatment, and are instead used for temporary treatment.

Another group of Cochrane researchers looked into the effectiveness of various anti-inflammatory products in the treatment of seborrheic dermatitis. They analyzed studies comparing steroid solutions, lotions and shampoos with a fake medication (placebo). The researchers found the following:

  • In 8 out of 100 people who applied the placebo for 2 to 4 weeks, all of the inflammation went away.
  • In 30 out of 100 people who applied the steroid medication for just as long, all of the inflammation went away.

In other words, localized treatment with steroid medications caused the dermatitis to disappear in 22 out of 100 people.

Another study that tested the treatments for 12 weeks confirmed these results.

But it was not possible to say whether the symptoms would come back after the treatment, and if so when. Also, steroids may have side effects, such as skin changes.

What can help to loosen the skin flakes?

You can try to soften and then loosen skin flakes from seborrheic dermatitis that has developed on your scalp or other parts of the body. It’s possible to use gentle home remedies, even on babies – for example, dabbing the flakes with olive oil and letting them soften overnight. They can be washed out the next day with a mild shampoo.

Special shampoos and creams are also available from the pharmacy for loosening the flakes of skin. They contain active ingredients such as

  • salicylic acid,
  • pyrithione zinc or
  • coal tar.