Reading time: 7 min.
Seborrheic Dermatitis According to the NHS: Causes & Treatments
Dr. Ismail Ughratdar (FRCS)
Medically reviewed by
Dr. Ismail Ughratdar (FRCS)
Updated on January 10, 2024

Seborrheic dermatitis, according to the NHS and current research, is a yeast infection of the scalp, face or upper body which affects between 3-5% of the world’s adults [1][2]. When it affects the scalp, it is often confused with dandruff, due to common symptoms, such as itching and flaking. However, unlike dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis also causes scalp redness and inflammation [2].

So if you are experiencing white or yellow oily flakes on your scalp accompanied by redness, inflammation, itching, tenderness, or a dry scalp that causes hair loss, you may have seborrheic dermatitis. While no permanent cure is currently available for seborrheic dermatitis from the NHS or other healthcare services [1], the good news is that there are treatments that can help keep its symptoms under control.

Keep reading this article to find out all you need to know about seborrheic dermatitis, according to the NHS:

  • What is seborrheic dermatitis?
  • The causes for seborrheic dermatitis provided by the NHS
  • NHS-recommended treatments for seborrheic dermatitis
  • Other conditions that can be mistaken for seborrheic dermatitis mentioned in NHS guidelines
Table of Contents

What is seborrheic dermatitis?

Seborrheic dermatitis is, according to the NHS, an inflammation of your skin which usually manifests with a rash in the areas where you have more sebaceous glands (i.e. glands that produce scalp sebum) [1], as follows:

Face (in 87.7% of cases)

seborrheic dermatitis on the face

Scalp (in 70.3% of cases)

seborrheic dermatitis on the scalp

Chest (in 26.8% of cases)

seborrheic dermatitis on the chest

Body folds (in 5.4% of cases)

seborrheic dermatitis in the body folds

Lower limbs (in 2.3% of cases)

Seborrheic dermatitis on the lower limbs

Upper limbs (in 1.3% of cases).

seborrheic dermatitis on the upper limbs

Seborrheic dermatitis is a common problem, which affects approximately 3-5% of the global population [1][3]. It is usually found in adults and is more common in men than in women, likely due to the presence of male sex hormones, such as testosterone and dihydrotestosterone (DHT) [4]. 

This condition usually sees three peaks over the course of your lifetime [4]:

  • It develops in up to 42% of babies in the first 3 months of life, commonly known as cradle cap. This condition often resolves on its own but may require a paediatrician’s advice if it does not.
  • It becomes prevalent again at puberty when sebum (skin oil) production naturally increases due to hormonal changes.
  • It peaks once more between ages 40 and 60, as the body undergoes significant hormonal changes once more.

While mild and moderate forms of seborrheic dermatitis are frequently encountered, severe forms, including a widespread rash that resists treatment, can indicate that your immune system is weakened by an underlying issue [5].

So be sure to see a dermatologist or trichologist if you are experiencing a severe scalp, face and/or upper body rash which will not subside with home treatment.  

What causes seborrheic dermatitis?

While the causes of seborrheic dermatitis are still not fully understood, most researchers agree that one of the main factors is the presence of a fungus called Malassezia furfur.

This fungus lives on your skin and feeds on its natural oils, but can experience overgrowth and cause inflammation under certain circumstances (e.g. an abundant production of skin oil).

Some other factors which can contribute to a flare-up of seborrheic dermatitis, according to the NHS and current research [1], are:

  • A weakened immune system
  • Stress or fatigue
  • Cold weather
  • Hormones 
  • Neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease (that does not mean that seborrheic dermatitis causes Parkinson’s, but that people diagnosed with Parkinson’s often develop this condition as well)

However, while in the past there were some theories about this, it has been determined that hygiene and diet are not likely to influence seborrheic dermatitis [1][2][6].  

What are the symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis?

The most common symptoms of scalp seborrheic dermatitis, according to the NHS, are as follows [1][2]:

  • Red, inflamed patches of skin
  • Large, greasy scales which cover the affected areas
  • Significant scalp itching even after washing your hair 
  • Pain or tenderness in the affected areas
  • In rare cases, a weeping rash on the scalp
  • Hair shedding, due to inflammation and scratching, which can damage the hair follicles and lead to hair breakage. ‘
  • Scalp seborrheic dermatitis can extend to the forehead, creating a crown-shaped scaly band. 
  • Scalp and face seborrheic dermatitis can sometimes extend to the eyes and ears, leading to inflammation and sometimes infection of the eyelids and ear canals.

On other parts of the body, seborrheic dermatitis may have other symptoms, as follows [1]:

Symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis of the face

Seborrheic dermatitis often causes an itchy rash on the inner parts of the eyebrows, the creases beside your nose and the parts of your cheek next to your nose. The skin may become red, dry, tender and flaky.

Symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis of the upper body

On your back and torso, seborrheic dermatitis can manifest as well-defined round, scaly red patches. They can be itchy, tender and inflamed.

Symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis of the folds

Seborrheic dermatitis usually creates a red, itchy, tender rash in the areas under the breasts, under the arms, in the groin region or in the folds of the abdomen. 

How can you treat seborrheic dermatitis on the NHS?

The first step you need to take to get treatment for your seborrheic dermatitis on the NHS is to see your GP and get a prescription or a referral to a dermatologist, as needed. However, some of the most common treatments for seborrheic dermatitis symptoms, such as antifungal shampoos, can be bought over the counter, often for under £10 per 100-150 ml bottle. 

Unfortunately, at this time, there is no known permanent cure for seborrheic dermatitis, according to the NHS and other healthcare providers. This means that while the symptoms of this condition can be controlled with special shampoos and medication, it is likely that it will flare up again after some time once the treatment is stopped

. However, the good news is that seborrheic dermatitis generally responds well to treatment meant to diminish its symptoms, such as [1][7][8]:

  • Medicated antifungal shampoos, containing ingredients such as zinc pyrithione, selenium sulphide, coal tar or ketoconazole
  • Emollients to soften and loosen the scales
  • If the itching is severe, steroid creams and anti-allergy medication
  • Salicylic acid-based ointment to reduce redness and inflammation

If seborrheic dermatitis fails to respond to treatment, it is a good idea to contact a dermatologist or trichologist, as they may need to prescribe a course of oral anti-yeast medication.

At the same time, it is recommended to see your healthcare provider to ensure that you are not experiencing an underlying condition which might be weakening your immune system.

What are some natural alternatives to medication for seborrheic dermatitis?

If you are experiencing a mild case of seborrheic dermatitis, you may be interested in treating its symptoms through natural means.

Here are some of the best essential oils for hair that can help by softening the scales and moisturising your scalp, reducing itchiness and scalp irritation and in some cases, their antimicrobial properties (although more research is needed to confirm this):

Lemongrass oil

lemongrass oil

Tea tree oil

tea tree oil
rosemary oil

Peppermint oil

peppermint oil

What other conditions can be mistaken for seborrheic dermatitis?

If not diagnosed by a specialist, it can be easy to mistake other common scalp problems for seborrheic dermatitis, according to the NHS. Here are some of the most common and how you can tell them apart from seborrheic dermatitis:

 

ConditionSymptoms [9]How to tell it apart from seborrheic dermatitis

Dandruff

dandruff

Dry and itchy scalp, with white or grey flaking.Seborrheic dermatitis often affects other areas of the body as well as the scalp and it also often produces skin redness and inflammation.

Scalp psoriasis

scalp psoriasis

Thick, red, crusty, itchy and tender plaques of skin with silvery flaking, localised hair lossSeborrheic dermatitis has large scales, but no thickened plaques of skin and usually only causes some diffuse thinning, not patchy bald spots.

Ringworm (tinea capitis)

ringworm on scalp

Red, inflamed, round patches of skin with raised borders, which can cause itchiness and localised hair loss.Seborrheic dermatitis is usually spread diffusely on your scalp. It will not normally develop in round patches and is unlikely to cause regular-shaped bald spots.

Atopic dermatitis (eczema)

eczema

Areas of dry, cracked, red and inflamed scalp which cause itchiness and tenderness.Seborrheic dermatitis generally produces oily flaking, while atopic dermatitis usually looks dry and does not flake.

Contact (allergic) dermatitis

contact dermatitis

Red, inflamed, swollen scalp, sometimes presenting blisters or oozing.Seborrheic dermatitis presents with oily flaking, while contact dermatitis usually manifests with blisters and swelling.

Are you concerned about seborrheic dermatitis?

If you suspect you may have seborrheic dermatitis, your GP might be able to help you get an initial diagnosis and treatment plan. However, if your symptoms persist even after seeking NHS treatment, there is no need to keep putting up with the constant scalp itching, tenderness and flaking. Book a consultation now with one of our top trichologists and get to the root of the issue.

They will perform a thorough examination of your scalp and remove all doubt regarding your diagnosis. Moreover, they will provide you with personalised treatment, which works best for your specific scalp issue, whether your condition is indeed seborrheic dermatitis or something else.

Seborrheic Dermatitis According to the NHS: Causes & Treatments, Wimpole Clinic

Dr. Ismail Ughratdar (FRCS)
Medically reviewed by Dr. Ismail Ughratdar (FRCS)Updated on January 10, 2024
The Wimpole Clinic offers FUE Hair, Beard & Eyebrow Transplants & Trichology.
Talk to a specialist ☎ 020 7935 1861.

Book a consultation

Simply fill in your details in the form below and we'll get in touch with you shortly.