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Does Cradle Cap Smell? Why Does My Babies Head Smell So Bad?

When my daughter was an infant, she had a severe case of cradle cap. During our cuddles, I couldn’t help but notice that her head smelled different than it used to. A trip to her doctor confirmed that a cradle cap can make your baby’s head smell different.

This is due to the excess oil that some infants develop when they have cradle caps. How bad the odor typically depends on how severe the cradle cap is. 

What Is Cradle Cap?

Cradle Cap is also referred to as the baby form of dandruff. That’s how my daughter’s pediatrician explained it to me years ago. This makes sense because it almost looks like dandruff. 

What Causes Cradle Cap?

There are not a lot of studies to verify what does, or does not, cause Cradle Cap. Most doctors agree that it’s caused by overactive oil glands on the scalp.

Because the head is so oily, it causes dead skin cells to stick to the scalp instead of falling off as they normally would. This results in the appearance of scales on a baby’s scalp. 

Cradle Cap Is Not Caused By Poor Hygiene

Because the baby’s hair and head usually look oily, and washing their hair more can be helpful in dealing with Cradle Cap.

There is a common misconception that this condition is caused by poor hygiene. That is simply not true. I gave my daughter a nightly bath, and she still got cradle cap. 

Signs Of Cradle Cap

Cradle Cap is easily identifiable by its appearance. You’ll notice small white or yellowish patches of skin on your baby’s scalp. Less severe cases of Cradle Cap often only have one or two of these spots. More severe cases can have several of these scale-like patches all over the scalp. 

This condition is usually seen in newborn babies that are between 2-8 weeks old. However, some babies may have it sooner and some may have it later. As with everything, there are always exceptions. 

There will be changes on your baby’s scalp. Some babies develop scale-like patches that eventually fall off. Other times a baby may not have these patches, but their scalp will change color. It may appear yellow or whiter than usual. 

Although hair loss doesn’t happen to every baby, it does happen to some. Some infants lose hair in the same location that they have Cradle Cap. If this happens, don’t worry. The hair usually grows back once the condition is gone. 

Why Does Cradle Cap Smell?

Cradle cap is caused by a build-up of oil. Sometimes, this oil can make your baby’s head smell like that oil. This is perfectly normal for this condition. 

If your little one has this condition and you notice that their head smells a bit more unpleasant than usual, make sure that you double-check for signs of infection. Infected cradle caps will have pus coming out of the scales or appear red and inflamed around them. 

How Do You Diagnose Cradle Cap?

Doctors can do this by simply seeing it. They might check other areas of your infant’s body, too. This is because the condition can occasionally be seen on the face, the ears, behind the areas, the diaper area, and on the armpits.

Your pediatrician will want to see which areas of the body it is on, and how severe the condition is. Your pediatrician will not need to conduct any tests or lab work to determine whether your baby has this. 

How To Treat Cradle Cap

Treating cradle cap in infants is relatively simple. Doctors usually do not prescribe medicine for normal or less than severe cases.

If there is an infection your pediatrician may prescribe antibiotic cream to help it clear up. Some doctors prescribe hydrocortisone cream for severe cases, but most do not. At-home remedies and other methods work exceptionally well for this condition. 

Let It Resolve On Its Own

In most cases, the condition will resolve on its own with time. If the case is not particularly severe, you might not have to do anything to treat it. 

Wash Your Baby’s Hair More Often

Babies do not need a bath every day. Most doctors recommend only bathing a baby every few days, which is fine. Other parents might bathe their baby nightly, which is also fine. Typically, it’s just your personal preference. 

When you have an infant with cradle cap, you need to give them a bath more often than you already are to wash their hair more often. This helps eliminate some of the excess oil that is causing cradle cap.

If your baby has a condition anywhere that is not on the scalp, make sure that you wash those areas more often as well. 

You Don’t Need To Use Specific Shampoos

baby bathing

Because pediatricians typically refer to cradle cap as being like dandruff in babies, it makes sense that dandruff shampoo should clear it right up. However, that’s not the case.

You don’t need to use dandruff shampoo or any shampoo other than regular baby shampoo. Some ingredients in these products are not safe for infants, so it’s best to avoid them. Baby shampoo removes the excess oil wonderfully. 

Put Oil On The Scales

While the scalp itself is producing too much oil, the scales are dry, dead skin. Putting oil, such as baby oil or petroleum jelly, on the scales can help them come off a bit easier. 

Use A Soft Baby Brush

Baby brushes are notoriously softer than other brushes. The soft bristles won’t hurt your baby’s head, and they won’t pull on the scales which can hurt.

Gently brush your baby’s head in small circular motions to help remove some of the dead skin that is ready to come off. Do not apply a lot of pressure when doing this.

Is It Okay To Pick Off Cradle Cap?

It can be a bit too tempting to simply pick off the scales and be done with the whole situation. However, this is not a good idea. It can result in a fungal infection, which can be very unpleasant for both you and your baby.

Continue to treat this condition using the above methods until it has been completely resolved. Then, use prevention methods to keep it from coming back. 


Once you have the first diagnosis of cradle cap under control, it’s important to use the same methods to make sure that it doesn’t come back. Your baby’s scalp will more than likely continue to produce more oil, so you may want to keep the same routine of washing their hair more. This will get rid of the extra oil, which will prevent the cradle cap from coming back. 

How To Eliminate Cradle Cap Odor

When your baby has cradle cap, it’s common for their scalp to have a slightly oily smell. As you treat the cradle cap, you’ll notice that the odor goes away as well.

Washing the hair more often will instantly make the scalp smell better and get rid of the extra oil that is causing the smell. If your baby’s head smells, but it doesn’t smell oily, there might be another reason. 

Other Reasons Your Baby’s Head Smells Bad

Sometimes, baby’s pick up odors from other places. We all do. If your little one was being held by someone that is a heavy smoker, even if they were not around cigarette smoke, they might have an odor.

If the smell is only on their head, however, that can be a medical problem. Sometimes hair follicles get infected or clogged, resulting in a sour smell. It’s not natural for your baby’s head to have a bad smell. You should contact your pediatrician. 

Baby’s Head Smells Musty

Your baby might smell musty if they sweat a lot. Just like we can smell musty on those hot summer days, so can your baby.

If you notice that your baby sweats a lot, particularly from their head, it’s a sign that this is why they smell musty. Give them a bath more often on particularly hot days to eliminate the smell. 

There is also a chance that a hair follicle could be infected. If your little one has a cradle cap, it could also be infected.

When your hair follicles are infected, they release a strong odor. This can require medical treatment. It’s always best to call your pediatrician to determine the cause. 

Why Does My Baby’s Head Smell Sour?

This usually points to a fungal infection. If your little one has cradle cap, it can easily get infected.

This is particularly common if anyone has been picking at the scales in an attempt to remove them. It is not normal for a baby’s head to smell sour, so it’s important to give your doctor a call. 

How To Treat Baby Head Smells

When we think of cuddling with a baby, we think of that sweet baby smell that we’re so used to.

It leaves you wondering how to get that smell back once you catch a whiff that is less than pleasant. There are quite a few things you can do to make sure that your baby always has the newborn baby smell. 

Call Your Doctor First

Before assuming anything, it’s important to contact your pediatrician. If there is an infected hair follicle, they’ll be able to tell. You want to determine whether your baby has an underlying medical condition before anything, which might require a visit to the pediatrician. 

Treat The Underlying Condition

If your little one has cradle cap, an infection, or another condition, make sure that it’s treated. The sooner it is resolved, the sooner you’ll have a baby with that newborn baby head smell. 

Wash Their Head More

Babies get stuff everywhere when spitting up, vomit, are drooling from teething, etc.

Why is My Baby or Toddler Suddenly Afraid of the Bath?

If your little one is okay with it, consider giving them a nightly bath to eliminate unpleasant odors. Some parents give their baby’s a bath twice a day if they are prone to smelling a little off. 

If your baby smells like vinegar, this tip will be particularly helpful. When sweat mixes with bacteria on the skin, it tends to make you smell more like vinegar. 

Wipe Off Their Head After Meal Times

When your little one starts eating solids, they get food everywhere. You might not notice that they dipped their hand in yogurt before smearing it into their hair. Make sure to wipe their head off after meal times to prevent a serious odor later in the day. 

Keep Them Cooler On Hot Days

Babies that sweat more during hot weather might need to be kept a little cooler. Excessive sweat is their body’s way of trying to cool itself off.

Consider picking up a portable fan that you can attach to their car seat during hotter months to keep them both comfortable and smelling beautiful. This is the one we used for my grandson, and it worked wonderfully. 

Consider Scented Baby Shampoo

If you’re not against using scented products on your baby, this is a great idea to make sure that your baby always has that new baby smell. Scented shampoo can help ensure that your little one always smells amazing.

Brand name shampoos are a bit pricier than dollar store versions, but they also have a scent that tends to last longer. 

Wipe Your Baby’s Head Off Throughout The Day

If your little one doesn’t have an underlying condition, etc. but you simply can’t seem to bathe them enough to eliminate the sweaty odor, consider wiping their head off with a baby wipe throughout the day.

Not only will this help cool them off, but it will also help keep sweat, oil, and odor under control. 

In Conclusion

If your little one has cradle cap and you notice an unpleasant odor, it could be normal. First, determine why your baby’s head smells. You can rest assured that if it’s due to an underlying condition the smell will go away when the condition does.