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Seborrheic Dermatitis vs Atopic Dermatitis: A Comparison

Dermatitis, or inflammation of the skin, encompasses a variety of conditions with overlapping symptoms. Two of the most common forms are seborrheic dermatitis and atopic dermatitis.

While they share some similarities, there are important distinctions in their causes, affected areas, and ideal treatment approaches. This article provides an overview of each condition and highlights key differences to inform clinical practice.

TLDR: Seborrheic dermatitis, linked to fungal triggers, manifests intermittently in oily areas. Atopic dermatitis, rooted in genetics and immune links, presents chronically. Navigate tailored treatments for optimal care in these distinct skin conditions.

Background Information

Background on Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis causes red, greasy patches with yellowish scales typically located on the scalp, face, upper chest, and back. Dandruff is considered a mild form of seborrheic dermatitis restricted to the scalp. Estimates suggest 1-5% of the general population suffers from seborrheic dermatitis, while dandruff may affect up to 40% [1, 2].

The exact cause remains unknown, but contributing factors likely include:

  • Yeast – A yeast called Malassezia naturally lives on skin and may play a role in flare-ups
  • Immune response – Some research indicates sufferers may mount an abnormal immune response to yeast triggers
  • Sebum – Excess sebum (oil) production may influence development
  • Hormones – Hormonal changes during puberty, menstruation, and menopause may trigger flares

Background on Atopic Dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis (also known as eczema) leads to intensely itchy, inflamed skin that can crack and ooze. While it may affect any area, it often develops on flexural surfaces like elbow creases, backs of knees, wrists, and ankles.

Atopic dermatitis frequently starts in childhood, with approximately 15-20% of children affected worldwide [3]. Most outgrow it by their teenage years, but a small percentage continue experiencing flares as adults.

Underlying drivers include:

  • Genetics – Family history of eczema, asthma, and hay fever increase risk
  • Immune dysfunction – Abnormal responsesgenerate excessive inflammation
  • Skin barrier defects – Fissures in outer layer let irritants penetrate and trigger flares

Link to Eczema Terminology

The term “eczema” comes from the Greek word ekzein meaning “to boil over”, descriptive of inflamed, fluid-filled skin lesions. It became an umbrella term for various skin inflammation conditions.

Atopic dermatitis falls under the eczema terminology, but differs from other forms like contact dermatitis. Specifying “atopic” refers directly to the hereditary and immune-linked nature of this specific type.

Background Comparison Table

Seborrheic Dermatitis Atopic Dermatitis
Typical symptoms Red, greasy patches with yellow scales Red, dry, itchy cracked skin
Prevalence 1-5% of adults, up to 40% have dandruff Up to 20% of children, 1-3% of adults
Age of onset Infancy, puberty, >50 years old Typically < 2 years old

Comparing Underlying Mechanisms

The underlying cause of seborrheic dermatitis has been debated, with the leading explanation pointing to skin fungi like Malassezia. The yeast feed on skin oils, and tend to overpopulate in sebum-rich areas, triggering inflammation [4]. This theory is supported by the condition responding well to antifungal agents.

However, not all research confirms this. While Malassezia lives on the skin of both healthy individuals and those with seborrheic dermatitis, no clear difference in amounts has been consistently found [5]. And it’s uncertain exactly how the fungus provokes inflammation. Some posit an abnormal immune reaction to fungal substances plays a role [6].

Genetic factors likely enable the initial fungal overgrowth on oily areas of skin. Sebaceous glands seem more active during times of hormonal change like puberty and menopause, corresponding to when seborrheic dermatitis often first appears or worsens [7].

The mechanism behind atopic dermatitis is rooted more clearly in genetically-influenced skin barrier abnormalities. Filaggrin protein mutations seen in about 40% of sufferers reduce structural integrity of the protective outer skin layer [8]. This enables external allergens and microbes to penetrate and trigger immune reactions.

An initial defect in the skin barrier progresses into chronic inflammation driven by an abnormal immunological response. Overactivity of T-helper cell pathways releases inflammatory cytokines, causing more skin changes typical of atopic dermatitis [9]. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.

The key divergence is seborrheic dermatitis links to extrinsic factors like fungal overcolonization on vulnerable oily skin areas, while atopic dermatitis stems from intrinsic immune dysfunction making the whole body surface unstable.

Underlying Mechanism Comparison Table

Seborrheic Dermatitis Atopic Dermatitis
Main mechanism Overgrowth of Malassezia yeast triggers inflammation Genetic defects in skin barrier allow external allergens and microbes to penetrate and trigger chronic inflammation
Primary location Sebum-rich areas like scalp, face, upper chest Typically affects skin creases and folds
Genetic factors Increase sebum production, influence lipid metabolism Filaggrin mutations impair skin barrier function
Connection to microbiome Linked to overcolonization of Malassezia yeasts Related to increased adherence and colonization by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria
Role of immune system Possible exaggerated inflammatory response to Malassezia fungal substances Clear immune dysfunction with skewing towards Th2/Th22 pathways and excess inflammation
Influence of hormones Androgen hormones influence sebum production No clear evidence linking hormonal factors
Skin barrier status Intact, but Malassezia may digest triglycerides and alter barrier over time Abnormalities in barrier structure lead to increased allergen and pathogen exposure

Clinical Presentation and Affected Areas

Seborrheic dermatitis manifests as yellowish, “greasy” looking areas with overlying white or yellow scales. The scalp, face (eyebrows, nose, ears), and upper trunk are most often impacted []. Facial involvement typically spares nasolabial folds.

Atopic dermatitis appears as a red, intensely itchy rash that can weep and crust over when scratched. Wrists, ankles, inner elbows, and back of knees are predilection sites. Acute cases feature small bumps while chronic cases display thickened plaques [IMG: body diagram showing areas affected by seborrheic and atopic dermatitis].

Atopic dermatitis usually starts earlier in childhood than seborrheic dermatitis. However, seborrheic dermatitis occurrence rises during adolescence and again past 50 years old whereas atopic dermatitis often improves with age [].

Clinical Presentation Comparison Table

Seborrheic Dermatitis Atopic Dermatitis
Type of scales Yellow, greasy, small flakes Drier, white skin-colored, large scales
Areas affected Scalp, face, upper chest Skin creases and folds
Onset timing Infancy, puberty, >50 years old Often <2 years old

Diagnostic Evaluation

No definitive diagnostic tests exist for seborrheic dermatitis. Experts utilize clinical impression based on appearance and distribution. Helpful features include facial involvement with nasolabial fold sparing and concurrency with other sebum-rich locations like the scalp and central chest [].

Atopic dermatitis diagnosis also relies on visual assessment guided by characteristic morphology and predilection for flexural surfaces. Supportive findings include personal or family history of asthma and hay fever and early age of onset [].

Skin biopsy and laboratory testing can help exclude other conditions like psoriasis but are not required to diagnose either seborrheic or atopic dermatitis.

Diagnostics Comparison Table

Seborrheic Dermatitis Atopic Dermatitis
Primary diagnostic method Clinical evaluation of rash characteristics and distribution Clinical evaluation based on proposed diagnostic guidelines
Secondary diagnostic testing Skin scrapings to rule out other conditions Allergy testing to identify triggers
Key diagnostic criteria Greasy, yellow scales in sebum-rich areas Itchy rash plus 3 of: typical locations, personal/family history of allergies, xerosis, early onset
Role of microscopy Examine skin scrapings under a microscope Not used
Other considerations Compare to psoriasis and other scaling diseases Distinguish from contact dermatitis and nummular eczema

Optimal Management Strategies

Management of both conditions focuses on minimizing symptoms and flare-ups. However, approaches differ significantly based on the underlying drivers.

Regular cleansing and topical antifungals like ketoconazole are mainstays of seborrheic dermatitis care and can often control symptoms, especially mild cases like dandruff. Low to mid-potency steroid creams may be added sparingly for more stubborn flares [].

Foundations of atopic dermatitis treatment encompass gentle skin care, topical anti-inflammatories, and avoiding triggers. Phototherapy or oral immunosuppressants may be considered for widespread cases failing topical regimens [10].

The choice and intensity of medications diverge since antifungals have little role in atopic dermatitis while they are central for seborrheic dermatitis. Topical steroids should be avoided on sensitive facial areas often impacted in seborrheic dermatitis.

Management Comparison Table

Seborrheic Dermatitis Atopic Dermatitis
Main treatment aim Control fungal overgrowth Heal skin barrier, decrease inflammation
First line Antifungal agents, anti-dandruff shampoos Gentle skin care plus trigger avoidance
Second line Topical corticosteroids, topical calcineurin inhibitors Topical corticosteroids, topical calcineurin inhibitors
Third line Short course oral antifungals Phototherapy, oral immunosuppressants
Maintenance Intermittent treatment Chronic treatment usually needed

Key Differences Summary

Seborrheic dermatitis and atopic dermatitis exhibit overlapping symptoms but have important underlying divergences as summarized:

Seborrheic Dermatitis Atopic Dermatitis
Primary location Sebum-rich regions like scalp and face Flexural surfaces especially in children
Main mechanism Excess skin fungus provokes inflammation Barrier defects enable pathogen and allergen entry
Typical onset Infancy, puberty, older adulthood Often starts before age 2
Key treatment Antifungal medications Gentle skin care and immunomodulators
Course of condition Intermittent flares, self-resolving Chronic, requires ongoing control
Impact on life Mild to moderate physically and socially High burden especially related to childhood onset

While these common skin conditions share general signs like redness, scaling, and itch, recognizing the distinguishing characteristics is vital to ensure appropriate diagnosis and optimal management.

Keep top-of-mind that seborrheic dermatitis associates with fungal overgrowth on sebum-rich skin, while atopic dermatitis relates to immune dysfunction and skin barrier abnormalities initiating in childhood. These divergences in origin mandate unique treatment approaches.

Ongoing analysis of their distinct underpinnings will hopefully fuel development of novel, targeted treatments to better control symptoms and minimize recurrence.


  1. James Q Del Rosso "Adult seborrheic dermatitis: a status report on practical topical management." The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology 4.5 (2011): 32-8. PubMed
  2. Boni E Elewski "Clinical diagnosis of common scalp disorders." The journal of investigative dermatology. Symposium proceedings / the Society for Investigative Dermatology, Inc. [and] European Society for Dermatological Research 10.3 (2005): 190-3. PubMed
  3. Sophie Nutten "Atopic dermatitis: global epidemiology and risk factors." Annals of nutrition & metabolism 66 Suppl 1 (2016): 8-16. PubMed
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  6. George Gaitanis, Prokopios Magiatis, Konstantina Stathopoulou, Ioannis D Bassukas, Evangelos C Alexopoulos, Aristea Velegraki, Alexios-Leandros Skaltsounis "AhR ligands, malassezin, and indolo[3,2-b]carbazole are selectively produced by Malassezia furfur strains isolated from seborrheic dermatitis." The Journal of investigative dermatology 128.7 (2008): 1620-5. PubMed
  7. Robert A Bacon, Haruko Mizoguchi, James R Schwartz "Assessing therapeutic effectiveness of scalp treatments for dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis, part 2: the impact of gender and ethnicity on efficacy." The Journal of dermatological treatment 25.3 (2013): 237-40. PubMed
  8. Nicholas Stefanovic, Carsten Flohr, Alan D. Irvine "The exposome in atopic dermatitis" Wiley 75.1 (2019): 63-74.
  9. Julia K Gittler, Avner Shemer, Mayte Suárez-Fariñas, Judilyn Fuentes-Duculan, Kara J Gulewicz, Claire Q F Wang, Hiroshi Mitsui, Irma Cardinale, Cristina de Guzman Strong, James G Krueger, Emma Guttman-Yassky "Progressive activation of T(H)2/T(H)22 cytokines and selective epidermal proteins characterizes acute and chronic atopic dermatitis." The Journal of allergy and clinical immunology 130.6 (2013): 1344-54. PubMed
  10. Anwar Al Hammadi, Nisha V. Parmar "Erythema, pruritus, and diffuse peeling of skin during dupilumab therapy for atopic dermatitis in three adults" Wiley 58.1 (2018).
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About Michael Anders

After being affected by seborrheic dermatitis, I have made it my goal to gather and organize all the information that has helped me in my journey.

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