What is seborrhea?

Seborrhea translates as "too much oil." Actually, this skin condition has little to do with having too much oil on the skin. The skin may look dry or red, and seborrheic dermatitis usually expresses itself as dandruff on the scalp. It can affect other areas of the skin. Dandruff or peeling skin can cause eyebrows or eyelashes, and can be present on the face, under the breasts, armpits, groin, navel, and buttocks.

Although it may seem that way, people who suffer from seborrhea do not have excessively dry skin. At this time it is not known what actually causes the irritation and inflammation associated with this condition. It is also not curable, although its symptoms can be addressed and treated, and it occasionally goes into remission or occurs in cycles. Sometimes a person may be free of seborrhea and then find that the symptoms return.

Seborrhea can affect anyone, at any time in life. Newborns often get a shape called a cradle cap. In adults, it is more likely to affect men than women, occurs regularly in the elderly and in those with AIDS and Parkinson's disease. Although seborrhea is incurable, it is usually easily controlled.

Although seborrhea is not a fungal infection, a buildup of fungus on the skin can exacerbate the problem. This is why dandruff shampoos often contain antifungal components, most commonly selenium sulfide, zinc, salicylic acid, and tar. Tar is banned from shampoos available in the US as a known carcinogen. Sufferers can also try shampoos that contain tea tree oil as they can help address symptoms. Dandruff shampoo is also available by prescription. These often contain ketoconazole, a strong antifungal medication, which may be needed when over-the-counter (OTC) shampoos don't work.

Seborrhea present on skin areas other than the head can be treated with antifungal medications or steroid creams. Sometimes over-the-counter versions of these medications are strong enough to treat the problem. For more severe cases, stronger prescription medications are required.

Generally, when using over-the-counter medications or medicated shampoo, it is recommended that people switch to regular shampoo after the problem has been resolved. Over time, using the same antifungal medications to treat seborrhea may be less effective. Patients can switch to a new product, which often helps, but most doctors recommend using only over-the-counter shampoos or creams as needed.

Seborrhea can also cause extreme itching. Typically, dandruff shampoos, especially over-the-counter ones, will not address this. Seborrhea on other parts of the skin can also itch, and over-the-counter medications can't help it. When this is the case, steroid creams, gels, or mousses are often the most helpful, both for hair and body, as they can reduce skin inflammation that leads to itchy, flaky skin.

Other conditions may resemble seborrhea but require different treatments. These include rosacea, psoriasis, and fungal infections. Anyone who has persistent itching, scaling, or redness of the skin, especially on parts of the body other than the scalp, should see a dermatologist for a correct diagnosis.

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