Dx Across the Skin Color Spectrum

Seborrheic Dermatitis

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Photographs courtesy of Richard P. Usatine, MD.


A Seborrheic dermatitis in a woman with brown-gray greasy scale as well as petaloid papules and plaques that are especially prominent in the nasolabial folds.

B Seborrheic dermatitis in a man with erythema, scale, and mild postinflammatory hypopigmentation that are especially prominent in the nasolabial folds.

C Seborrheic dermatitis in a man with erythema, faint scale, and postinflammatory hypopigmentation that are especially prominent in the nasolabial folds.

D Seborrheic dermatitis in a man with erythema and scale of the eyebrows and glabellar region.

Seborrheic dermatitis (SD) is an inflammatory condition that is thought to be part of a response to Malassezia yeast. The scalp and face are most commonly affected, particularly the nasolabial folds, eyebrows, ears, postauricular areas, and beard area. Men also may have SD on the mid upper chest in association with chest hair. In infants, the scalp and body skin folds often are affected.


Seborrheic dermatitis affects patients of all ages: infants, adolescents, and adults. It is among the most common dermatologic diagnoses reported in Black patients in the United States.1

Key clinical features in darker skin tones

  • In those with darker skin tones, arcuate, polycyclic, or petaloid (flower petal–like) plaques may be present (Figure A). Also, hypopigmented patches and plaques may be prominent (Figures B and C). The classic description includes thin pink patches and plaques with white greasy scale on the face (Figure D).
  • The scalp may have diffuse scale or isolated scaly plaques.

Worth noting

  • In those with tightly coiled hair, there is a predisposition for dry hair and increased risk for breakage.
  • Treatment plans for patients with SD often include frequent hair washing. However, in those with tightly coiled hair, the treatment plan may need to be modified due to hair texture, tendency for dryness, and washing frequency preferences. Washing the scalp at least every 1 to 2 weeks may be a preferred approach for those with tightly coiled hair at increased risk for dryness/breakage vs washing daily.2 In a sample of 201 caregivers of Black girls, Rucker Wright et al3 found that washing the hair more than once per week was not correlated with a lower prevalence of SD.
  • If tightly coiled hair is temporarily straightened with heat (eg, blow-dryer, flat iron), adding a liquid-based treatment such as clobetasol solution or fluocinonide solution will cause the hair to revert to its normal curl pattern.
  • It is appropriate to ask patients for their vehicle preference for medications.2 For example, if clobetasol is the treatment selected for the patient, the vehicle can reflect patient preference for a liquid, foam, cream, or ointment.
  • Some antifungal/antiyeast shampoos may cause further hair dryness and breakage.
  • Treatment may be delayed because patients often use various topical pomades and ointments to cover up the scale and help with pruritus.
  • Diffuse scale of tinea capitis in school-aged children can be mistaken for SD, which leads to delayed diagnosis and treatment.
  • Clinicians should become comfortable with scalp examinations in patients with tightly coiled hair. Patients with chief concerns related to their hair and scalp expect their clinicians to touch these areas. Avoid leaning in to examine the patient without touching the patient’s hair and scalp.2,4

Health disparity highlight

Seborrheic dermatitis is among the most common cutaneous disorders diagnosed in patients with skin of color.1,5 Delay in recognition of SD in those with darker skin tones leads to delayed treatment. Seborrheic dermatitis of the face can cause notable postinflammatory pigmentation alteration. Pigmentation changes in the skin further impact quality of life.

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