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Skin care for your baby

January 13, 2020 / Duncan Fisher
A little counsel for parents and carers

The advertising world is full of skin care products for babies. The range is bewildering, and you can feel like you’re doing very poorly if you don’t buy every one of them.

Research suggests that actually our babies don’t need most of them. And in fact, when they’re brand new, babies do best overall without any skin care products.

Here’s a little guide for anyone who’s anxious, on how to care for healthy baby skin, what baby skin normally looks like, and how to manage the routine baby problems along the way.

What to do generally

Less is more, as the adage goes. You do not need to bathe your baby every day. And in fact, for the first few weeks you really shouldn’t. Their skin hasn’t yet developed its natural protective barrier. When you do bathe them, use plain water. Introducing soaps or baby baths too early can dry babies’ skin out, and possibly encourage allergic reactions or eczema.

Even after those first few weeks (or longer than this if your baby arrived early), use bath products sparingly. Try to find ones without perfumes, colorants, or alcohol. It’s a good idea to put on an emollient cream after baths, too, to moisten and protect that delicate young skin.

If your baby’s skin is really dry, or cracked, talk to your health visitor before you try lotions or creams. Sometimes these can actually compound the problem.

Tidy up flaky skin debris with a soft cloth or a baby comb.

It’s best not to try cleaning eyes or ears, unless your health visitor says otherwise.

Things you’ll probably see

Babies get acne. It a pimply little rash on the face. It goes away.

When they get cold, their skin sometimes looks marbled, in pinky blue. That’s normal. Warm them up.

Really new babies can get a flare of red rash, sometimes with white or yellow bumps. It lasts a few hours or occasionally a few days. It’s called ‘erythema toxicum’. It always goes away.

Extremely common on babies faces are ‘milia’, zillions of tiny whiteheads. They’re just aggregations of dead skin cells. They don’t hurt, and they go away soon.

That white stuff you might have seen on your baby’s skin soon after birth? That’s ‘vernix’, a protective coating that babies have when they’re still inside the uterus. Some people like it wiped off, some people like to let it come off on its own. Your midwife will have some counsel on this. If you choose the latter, don’t be alarmed if the skin looks like it’s peeling a little as the vernix sloughs off. This is okay.

Little problems

You’ll hear about diaper rash. This usually means skin irritated by being in contact with urine or fecal matter for too long. There’s another kind, that’s fungal. It’s a yeast infection. If it’s that, your doctor will need to give you a cream to treat it. If it’s the former (which usually looks milder), change the diaper more often. Consider no diaper sometimes, so things dry out completely. Clean your baby with warm water and very mild soap. You can put a barrier cream onto the skin for protection. Creams with zinc oxide work best. Petroleum jelly works pretty well too. Go easy on the wipes, especially if they’re perfumed or if they contain alcohol. Don’t use talcum powder.

Your baby may get patchy crusting on the scalp, or in other places. This is ‘cradle cap’. It goes away. You can help it along with baby shampoo, or with baby oil.

Little kids get eczema a lot. It looks like dry, scaly skin, sometimes with little red bumps, that ooze when they’re scratched. Generally, it goes away over time. If it’s mild, just go lightly on the baths, and use moisturizers.

If you see little focal points of what looks like eczema, it may be a contact dermatitis, evidence of a new allergy to something physically in contact with the skin there. It can be from things like metal snaps in clothing, or dyes. Be watchful for that.

New parents are sometimes alarmed by babies who suddenly seem terribly hot and have proliferations of little bumps on the skin under their clothes. They’re looking at heat rash. They’ve dressed their babies too warmly. The diagnostic for this is to remove some layers and see if it resolves.

When to call the doctor

Sometimes babies really are sick. Use common sense about what you see in their skin. Is the rash really sudden, really dramatic? Does it not go away? Does it seem like it’s associated with other symptoms?

Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone. Besides your pediatrician, there are dermatologists who specialise in babies and children. It’s never a bad idea to talk to them.

Questions about your baby's skin (or yours)? Ask our dermatologists online for $35.