Seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin condition that causes a scaly rash on the scalp and elsewhere on the body, particularly the face. When it involves the scalp it’s referred to as dandruff. The rash is usually pink in color with areas of scaling that are white or yellow in coloration. The rash can be itchy, but this isn’t always the case. Nevertheless, most people with seborrheic dermatitis find the symptoms to be annoying, and it can be disfiguring, especially when it involves the face.
What Causes It?
No one knows the exact cause of this skin condition, but there are some theories. Many experts believe a tiny organism called Malassezia may be responsible for the unpleasant symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis. This theory is further supported by the fact that seborrheic dermatitis improves with the use of anti-fungal medications.
Malassezia is a yeast that most people have on their skin, but people with seborrheic dermatitis are overly sensitive to this tiny organism, and their body reacts to it by launching an inflammatory response. It’s this inflammatory response that leads to the scaly rash, itching and other symptoms of seborrhea.
Genetics and hormones play a role in who suffers with this skin problem. The disease tends to run in families and is more common in men than women. It’s also more common in people with certain medical conditions such as immunodeficiency problems and central nervous system conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, although otherwise healthy people can be affected too.
The rash and scaling usually cluster in areas where there’s a high density of sebaceous glands. Such areas include the scalp, eyelashes, eyebrows and along the edges of the nose and the creases of the ears. Men who have facial hair often experience symptoms in those regions. Sebaceous glands produce sebum, a sticky substance that lubricates the skin. People with seborrheic dermatitis produce excessive amounts of sebum, which provides the perfect environment for malassezia to grow and thrive.
Certain factors can aggravate seborrheic dermatitis such as stress, illness, weather changes, fatigue, certain foods and lack of sleep. That’s why it’s important for people who have it to practice a healthy lifestyle, get plenty of rest and reduce the amount of stress in their life. Unfortunately, that’s usually not enough to completely keep the problem under control. That’s where other treatments come in.
Good hygiene is important for keeping this condition under control. This is true of both skin and scalp seborrhea. Allowing sebum and oils to build-up can enhance the growth of malassezia and aggravate the scaling, rash and itching. It is important to cleanse facial and body skin with a mild soap twice a day.
For scalp seborrhea, shampooing every day or two with a product that contains pyrithone zinc or selenium sulfide may be enough to minimize the symptoms. The problem with many anti-dandruff shampoos is they can dry the hair out.
Anti-fungal shampoos are also effective for treating scalp seborrhea. They may be more effective than shampoos containing zinc or selenium sulfide because they stop the growth of malassezia, the pesky little yeast that likely causes the condition in the first place. It’s important not to use harsh shampoos or soaps when you have seborrheic dermatitis.
For seborrheic dermatitis on the face, anti-fungal creams can help stop the growth of malassezia and reduce redness and scaling. Doctors also prescribe steroid-based creams in severe cases to reduce inflammation and itching. These should be used for the shortest period of time possible due to their potential side effects. In very severe cases, oral medications may be needed to control the symptoms.
There’s some evidence that omega-3 fatty acids found in certain fish helps control the symptoms of seborrhea. These are available in supplement form, but talk to your doctor before taking them. Some small studies show that tea tree oil is more effective than a placebo for treating seborrheic dermatitis, although more research is needed.
Food allergies can also aggravate the symptoms. Keep a food diary for a few weeks to see if certain foods make the symptoms worse. Some people find that their symptoms improve when they lighten up on processed foods and eat more fruits and vegetables.
The Bottom Line?
There’s no cure for seborrheic dermatitis, but they symptoms can be controlled by reducing stress, eating a healthy diet, practicing good hygiene and using medicated or anti-fungal shampoos and creams. With the proper treatment, it’s a skin and scalp condition that can be kept in check.