Cradle Cap Vs. Dry Scalp – What Is The Difference?

by Anjali Sayee

Cradle cap and a dry scalp in babies can look similar. However, the two have certain distinctions. While the former occurs due to excess oil production, the other could be a result of dehydration. In this article, we further delve into the differences to help you understand which condition your child may have. We also discuss the treatment options you can adopt.

What Is A Dry Scalp

A dry scalp is characterized by itching and flaking. It might be a sign of pruritus (1). The child may also experience scalp scaling caused by dandruff or eczema (2).

A dry scalp is mainly caused by sebaceous activity (3). Other extrinsic factors like unbalanced sebum production, weather conditions, and improper hygiene may also cause a dry scalp.

What Is Cradle Cap?

Cradle cap, also known as pityriasis capitis, is a common and chronic non-inflammatory form of scaling that affects infants (4). It is generally noticed in the child between the third week and a few months since birth. It is characterized by greasy, yellowish flakes (scales) that affect areas with excess sebaceous gland activity. These flakes are prominent on the T-zone of the face, the ears, and the scalp.

Understanding the causes of both these conditions can help determine the best course of treatment.

Causes Of Dry Scalp

Flakes appear on the scalp mainly because of sebaceous activity (3). The scalp becomes undernourished and develops flakes when there is less sebum production. A reduction in sebum production could be caused by the following factors:

  • Over-washing your child’s hair/scalp
  • Fungal and bacterial infections
  • Excessively hot or cold temperatures
  • Nutrient deficiencies
  • Infrequent oiling of the child’s hair/scalp

Causes Of Cradle Cap

While more research is warranted to understand the causes of cradle cap, few factors are thought to result in the condition:

  • Maternal hormones that increase sebaceous gland activity
  • The Malassezia fungus that causes dandruff (it also disrupts sebum, absorbs the saturated fatty acids, and leaves the unsaturated fatty acids behind)

How do you identify your child’s dry scalp or cradle cap?

Symptoms Of Dry Scalp

  • Small white flakes
  • Redness or small bumps on the scalp
  • White flakes characteristic of a pre existing skin condition, like eczema

Symptoms Of Cradle Cap

  • Yellowish and greasy scales
  • Slight redness with inflammation (5)
  • Scales at the vertex and frontal regions of the scalp
  • Cradle cap is most often neither painful nor itchy. It is primarily noticed during the third month of infancy and reduces before the child turns one.

The following section lists the treatment options and prevention tips for both conditions.

Treatment And Prevention Tips

Dry Scalp: Oiling your child’s hair and scalp works best. While adults with a dry scalp may go for deep conditioning treatments, these are not recommended for infants. You may instead use natural moisturizers, oils, and baby-friendly hair masks and hair products.

Cradle Cap: Cradle cap may not be prevented as its major cause is thought to be maternal hormones. However, certain treatment methods may help ease the condition. You can apply oils to your child’s hair and brush off the scales gently with a cradle cap comb. Wash the child’s hair with a mild and gentle shampoo.

While both these conditions usually resolve with the right treatment, you may have to consult a doctor in some cases.

When To Consult A Doctor

Dry Scalp

  • The dryness is paired with severe redness or inflammation and hair loss.
  • The dryness persists even after applying hydrating packs and oils.

Cradle Cap

  • There is moderate to severe pruritus (itching) that hinders the child’s sleep and food patterns.
  • There are crusty lesions on the cheeks or scalp.
  • You notice vesicles with thin, fragile roofs.
  • There is hair loss.
  • There are bright red, silvery scale papules.
  • The condition persists even after 12 months since birth.

The doctor may prescribe an antifungal cream like 2% ketoconazole or a topical steroid cream like 1% hydrocortisone for 2 to 3 weeks.


Cradle cap and dry scalp are not the same. While the former is caused by excess sebum production, the latter is caused by dehydration and dryness. Of the two conditions, however, cradle cap is more common in children. But you may want to keep an eye on the exact symptoms to determine the right mode of treatment. The right treatment methods can heal the condition and leave your child happier and healthier.

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Anjali Sayee

Anjali Sayee is a writer and an introvert. From studying Aeronautical Engineering and wanting to design her own airplane to writing articles on hairstyles, she has been on quite a journey. She believes that hair is one of the key factors that define a woman’s personality. To quote her, “What’s the first thing they do in the movies to show a personality change? Change the hair – because it has a life of its own.” She’s here to help you find the hairstyle you need. This bookworm is a self-professed Wholocker, a talented drummer, and an amateur photographer.