Which treatments help in teenagers and adults?

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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 have a temporary effect, so they won’t get rid of the rash for good.

If you develop seborrheic dermatitis as a teenager or adult, you’ll likely keep on getting inflamed flaky patches of skin on your scalp and face. Your skin will clear up during some periods, but the dermatitis often comes back again.

Various treatments can keep the rash in check during acute phases. These treatments can be applied in the form of creams, gels or lotions, for instance. It is a good idea to talk with your doctor about which product is best for your skin type. If you have dry skin, for example, a moisturizing cream might be better. If you have a rash on your scalp, you can use a medicinal shampoo. And if your hair is dry or curly and doesn’t need to be washed very often, you can use a special hair foam that doesn’t need to be rinsed out.

In babies and toddlers, seborrheic dermatitis is commonly known as cradle cap. It goes away on its own and doesn't need to be treated.

Are antifungal medicines effective?

Experts believe that a type of fungus known as yeast is one of the factors that play a role in the development of seborrheic dermatitis. So products that kill fungus or slow its growth (called antifungals or antimycotics) are used as a treatment.

Researchers at the (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 placebos (fake medications) do, and are less likely to cause side effects like redness, itching or hair loss than steroid medications are. Most of these studies were low-quality, though.

How effective are steroid medications?

Steroid medications that are applied directly to the skin (topical medications, such as creams or gels) have an inflammation-reducing effect, so they're often used to treat seborrheic dermatitis. They are not suitable for long-term treatment, though. This is because steroids may have side effects, such as changes in the skin.

Another team of 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 placebo (treatment with no medication in it). The researchers found the following: When applied for two to four weeks, all of the inflamed patches went away in

  • 8 out of 100 people who used the placebo.
  • 30 out of 100 people who used the steroid medication.

Another study that lasted 12 weeks confirmed these results.

But it isn't possible to say whether the symptoms will come back after the treatment and, if so, when.

What can help to remove the flakes of skin?

If you have bothersome crusty flakes of skin on your scalp or other parts of your body, you can try to soften them and then remove them. One gentle way to do this is by dabbing the flakes with olive oil and letting them soften overnight. They can be washed out the next day using a mild shampoo.

Special shampoos and creams for removing crusty flakes of skin are also available from pharmacies. They contain drugs such as

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

Elgash M, Dlova N, Ogunleye T et al. Seborrheic Dermatitis in Skin of Color: Clinical Considerations. J Drugs Dermatol 2019; 18(1): 24-27.

Kastarinen H, Oksanen T, Okokon EO et al. Topical anti-inflammatory agents for seborrhoeic dermatitis of the face or scalp. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2014; (5): CD009446.

Moll I. Duale Reihe Dermatologie. Stuttgart: Thieme; 2016.

Okokon EO, Verbeek JH, Ruotsalainen JH et al. Topical antifungals for seborrhoeic dermatitis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2015; (5): CD008138.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Updated on February 1, 2024

Next planned update: 2027


Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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