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Dandruff and the disease that causes it suck. The scalp condition can be embarrassing, and it might even contribute to hair loss.
Red, itchy and scaly rashes developing on your body and flakes of dandruff falling from your scalp could mean you’re one of millions of people affected by a common skin disorder called seborrheic dermatitis.
Seborrheic dermatitis is one of the most common skin disorders in the world, with up to 70 percent of infants and approximately 11.6 percent of the general population affected. As you may have noticed, many people (and babies) with this condition don’t seem to be losing their hair.
Can seborrheic dermatitis make existing hair loss worse? Potentially.
Below, we’ll explain what seborrheic dermatitis is, how it develops, common symptoms and how it affects hair growth. We’ll also talk about the most effective options for treating seborrheic dermatitis in case you want to kick the problem.
Seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin disease caused by numerous things, including genetics, immune system health and fungal infection. In children and infants, seborrheic dermatitis is called cradle cap.
You might feel burning or an itchy scalp in areas of skin affected by seborrheic dermatitis. It can cause a scaly, red-colored, greasy and swollen rash to develop on your skin, which can feel even grosser than it sounds.
Seborrheic dermatitis symptoms can vary depending on age and other factors. But the most common symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis are:
Scaly patches that develop on the skin
Beneath the scale, a red skin rash
Yellow and white flakes that fall from the affected skin (aka dandruff)
Over time, the scale may become dry and flaky, causing it to break off easily when the affected skin is touched or rubbed.
Seborrheic dermatitis tends to develop on oily skin. It’s common on your scalp and around your ears, including inside your ear canal. Other affected areas where seborrheic dermatitis may develop include the:
Chest, back and armpits
Keep reading to learn what could be a potential cause of seborrheic dermatitis.
The causes of seborrheic dermatitis are still undetermined. Currently, research suggests that genetics, climate, stress levels and the growth of certain types of yeast on the skin all play a role.
Research also shows that factors such as allergies and hygiene don’t appear to play a role in the development of seborrheic dermatitis.
Although seborrheic dermatitis can affect anyone at any time in life, it’s most common in infants three months or younger and adults aged between 30 and 60. You may have a higher risk of developing seborrheic dermatitis if you have a medical condition or use certain types of medication.
Medical conditions that may increase your risk of seborrheic dermatitis include:
Skin conditions and scalp conditions, such as acne, psoriasis and rosacea
Some medical conditions can increase your risk of developing severe symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis. For example, people with Parkinson’s disease or HIV are often affected by severe, widespread scaling, skin irritation and other symptoms.
Those with suppressed immune systems might also experience more severe dermatitis. In these cases, it can spread to other parts of the body and is often harder to treat.
Some medications may also increase your risk of developing seborrheic dermatitis. These include interferon, psoralen and lithium.
A couple of things you should know about male pattern baldness:
It can cause you to lose hair in a specific pattern, such as a receding hairline or baldness around your crown (the area at the top of your scalp).
Since male pattern baldness is permanent, it’s crucial to respond as quickly as possible if you’re affected.
That said, seborrheic dermatitis can cause temporary hair loss if your skin becomes extremely irritated or if you frequently itch your scalp.
Excessive scratching can damage your hair follicles — the tiny structures inside the skin from which hairs grow. When these follicles are injured, they may stop producing new hairs, making your scalp look overly thin or causing patchy hair loss.
Seborrheic dermatitis may also cause hair loss by allowing certain types of fungi to multiply on your skin. Skin affected by seborrheic dermatitis tends to have high levels of sebum — an oil produced by the skin. When your skin has an excessive amount of sebum, fungi and other pathogens can multiply easily.
One common fungi genus called Malassezia can grow on your scalp and cause you to shed hair. Hair loss caused by Malassezia yeast generally isn’t permanent. However, it can have a noticeable impact on your appearance, especially when left untreated.
Bad news if you’re feeling flaky, fellas: There’s no cure for seborrheic dermatitis to speak of.
But thankfully, numerous treatments can relieve your symptoms, clear your skin of scale and control flare-ups.
Regardless of whether your seborrheic dermatitis includes signs of hair loss, your first step should be to make an appointment and talk to your primary care provider or schedule an appointment with a dermatologist to confirm a diagnosis.
A dermatology specialist can also tell you if the hair loss you think you’re seeing is real or imagined and whether it’s associated with your skin condition or due to another issue. If there’s something else going on, you’ll want to treat that along with your seborrheic dermatitis.
Depending on your symptoms and other factors, your provider will typically suggest one or several of the following treatment options:
Medicated shampoos. Most cases of seborrheic dermatitis can be treated using over-the-counter dandruff shampoos designed to get rid of scale, prevent fungal growth and reduce scalp inflammation. Your healthcare provider may recommend a dandruff shampoo containing one or more ingredients that act as antifungal agents. This includes ketoconazole, pyrithione zinc, selenium sulfide, chloroxine and coal tar.
Antifungal creams. You may need to apply an antifungal cream to the affected areas of your skin. This type of medication works by preventing fungi growth that can irritate the skin and contribute to seborrheic dermatitis symptoms. Several topical antifungal medications are commonly used to treat seborrheic dermatitis, including ketoconazole, itraconazole, ciclopirox and bifonazole.
Oral antifungal medications. If you have severe seborrheic dermatitis, or if you don’t experience any improvements from topical antifungal creams, your healthcare provider may prescribe an oral antifungal medication.
Corticosteroid creams. Your healthcare provider may prescribe a topical corticosteroid if you have inflamed skin. This treatment works by reducing inflammation and easing symptoms such as itchiness, redness and discomfort. Several corticosteroids are used to treat seborrheic dermatitis, including hydrocortisone and betamethasone. These medications can cause side effects, and as such, they’re typically only prescribed for short-term use.
If you’re prescribed medication to treat seborrheic dermatitis, it’s vital to closely follow your healthcare provider’s instructions. Take your medication for the entire treatment period, even if you notice an improvement in your symptoms relatively early.
For optimal results, you may need to use a combination of medication and medicated shampoo to control your symptoms and clear your flaking skin.
Make sure to closely follow the instructions provided with your shampoo. Many shampoos need to be used daily at first, after which you may be able to use them on an as-needed basis to control your symptoms.
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As for the hair loss conversation, there’s some good news and some bad news. The good news is that hair loss from seborrheic dermatitis is temporary, meaning you should notice your hair gradually growing back once you get your symptoms under control.
To speed up regrowth, you might consider using minoxidil. This medication stimulates the growth of your hair and may help to improve regrowth in areas of your scalp with noticeable hair loss.
Some men who use minoxidil foam or a minoxidil solution may experience irritation and worsening seborrheic dermatitis symptoms. Because of this, it’s important to finish treating your seborrheic dermatitis before using minoxidil or any other topical products to stimulate hair growth.
See our guide to minoxidil side effects for more on this hair loss treatment.
As for androgenetic alopecia, the outlook is a little less flaky — but a little more grim. Though male pattern baldness is incurable, it can be treated, restrained, stopped or slowed.
Minoxidil can help with this in some circumstances, as will the medication finasteride. Finasteride treats male pattern hair loss by preventing the production of a hormone derivative associated with hair loss called DHT.
If you’re struggling with hair loss, you might consider a topical finasteride and minoxidil spray combo, which offers the effects of both medications but in one package.
Generic for Rogaine®, this FDA-approved over-the-counter version of topical minoxidil is used for regrowth on the crown of the head.
This is the FDA-approved dynamic duo. When used together, men saw better results in clinical trials compared to using either alone.
If you’re looking for something effective but don’t want too many steps in your routine, this once-a-day pill could be right for you.
Clinically proven to regrow hair in 3-6 months, no pills required.
Although there’s no cure for seborrheic dermatitis, it’s possible to control your symptoms using medicated shampoo, medication or both. Hair loss may be another problem.
If flakes, redness, itchiness, hair loss or other problems are plaguing your scalp, here’s what you need to know:
There’s no cure for seborrheic dermatitis, but it’s possible to control your symptoms using medicated shampoo, medication or both.
Hair loss from seborrheic dermatitis isn’t permanent. If you experience temporary hair loss from seborrheic dermatitis, the hair you lose should grow back once your symptoms are under control.
Minoxidil, a topical hair loss medication, may help stimulate growth and speed up the hair regrowth process.
You can prevent temporary hair loss by dealing with oily skin and scalp fungus before they become problems. (*cough* Medicated shampoos like our dandruff detox shampoo (with pyrithione zinc 1% and salicylic acid) and ketoconazole shampoo are great places to start. *cough*)
Stop scratching and start feeling confident again — your hair will thank you.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.