There’s nothing quite like cuddling with a cute, roly-poly infant—bright eyes, adorable wispy hair, tiny fingers that curl around yours, and of course, sweet-smelling, super soft skin. Caring for a baby’s sensitive skin can seem a bit confusing. We’re here to help you figure out a simple, gentle routine for the basics—bathing, diapering, sun protection, and approaching common baby rashes—so you can focus on the cutie in your arms and get some precious sleep.
When your baby is still in the womb, the skin is covered with a thick, waxy protective layer called the vernix, which helps keep the skin protected during those long months floating in the amniotic fluid, regulates body temperature, and is thought to have some immune function as well. After birth, the vernix is typically removed with your baby’s first bath, revealing the sensitive, delicate skin underneath. Many labor and delivery units delay baby’s first bath by 24 hours, with some evidence suggesting that this may have health and skin barrier benefits. Your doctor and delivery team can help guide you. Remember that baby skin is still new and thin compared to adult skin, so you’ll want to take extra care to avoid irritation. We recommend keeping your routine super simple—no special products really needed to keep your baby’s skin healthy.
When it comes to bathing baby, pediatricians generally recommend shorter, lukewarm baths to avoid drying out the skin. (Just remember that babies can only have sponge baths until the umbilical stump falls off - then they can do a regular bath). And you don’t necessarily have to give a bath daily—a few times a week may be enough. Instead of your regular soap, use a simple, fragrance free cleanser and check the labels. Many products labeled for “baby” contain fragrance (even the traditional yellow baby tear-free shampoo that many people grew up with). Other baby products may contain plant oils or extracts. As we discussed in a prior post, while these often smell wonderful, they may also cause itching and irritation in those with extra-sensitive skin. Dermatologists often recommend skipping products that contain these ingredients. And unless your little one has been rolling around in dirt or is an extra-adventurous toddler, you can usually focus that gentle cleanser on the face, neck, bottom, and other body folds. Rinse off well with lukewarm water, then pat dry.
Bubble baths can be fun, but those soapy bubbles are often made with extra detergent—and sometimes a dollop of fragrance as well—so little ones with eczema or extra-sensitive skin may find them irritating. As babies get older, they usually enjoy splashing around with toys in the tub. Try to keep those baths relatively short to avoid drying out the skin. And of course, don’t forget to always keep your little one within reach during baths and never leave them unattended.
Just like your skin, baby skin can become dry, especially in winter months, or with over-bathing. Many newborns may also go through a short peeling phase, thought to be the rest of the vernix sloughing off post-birth. A moisturizer applied head to toe at bedtime or right after a bath can help lock in moisture and keep baby’s skin soft. There’s no need to go fancy here: choose a simple, gentle moisturizer that does not include parabens. As with cleansers, we recommend going with a product without potential irritants like fragrances and essential oils.
Often parents ask if natural oils are good moisturizers, like coconut oil. Studies have shown that coconut and sunflower seed oils can help maintain the skin barrier, so those may be worth a try. If your heat is on during the winter, you might also try putting a cool mist humidifier in your baby’s room to help raise moisture levels in the air. If you do this, make sure that you clean the humidifier regularly to prevent mold growth. And, as always, if your baby has a rash that’s spreading, or seems to really bother them (fussier, not sleeping as well, scratching or rubbing the skin), check with your pediatrician.
Your precious little one might have a full head of hair or might be rocking the bald look for now. Either way, some babies develop “cradle cap”, or a buildup of thick, yellow scale on the scalp. This can also sometimes be present on the face too. It’s thought to be an overly enthusiastic immune response to a yeast that lives on the skin and, in most cases, improves on its own within a few weeks. If it’s bothersome, there are several simple measures you can try. Because it’s thought to be triggered by a yeast, some cradle cap shampoos contain a small amount of antifungal ingredients. Some find applying coconut oil or olive oil and then gently combing out the scale may help as well. If it’s worsening, talk to your pediatrician.
Baby skin is especially vulnerable to the sun’s rays, and you’ll want to take extra care to protect them from overexposure. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping infants out of direct sun. Seek out shade when possible and try to avoid prolonged exposure to midday sun. Sunblocks aren’t recommended in babies under 6 months, so cover up your little one’s skin with sun hats and lightweight, breathable clothing. And don’t forget the sunglasses! After age 6 months, you can apply a mineral-based sunblock to all exposed areas—especially face, neck, tops of ears, tops of hands, etc. These are zinc-based so they’re made out of the same ingredient often used in diaper creams. Dermatologists recommend a product labeled at least SPF30 and broad-spectrum. It’s still best to use sun-protective clothing in combination with sunblock and avoid excess exposure (just like we recommend for yourself).
No post about baby skin care would be complete without addressing diaper care. Today’s diapers are generally super well designed and absorbent, but having that area covered all day means that extra moisture can sometimes lead to skin irritation and redness. This can often worsen when your baby is sick. To keep the skin in this area healthy, try to change your little one’s diaper frequently, whenever the diaper is wet or dirty, and especially if your baby is dealing with diarrhea or frequent stools. If you do see a rash developing, try applying a good, fragrance free diaper cream made with a higher percentage of zinc oxide, which helps create a protective barrier on the skin. Make sure you let your pediatrician know if you’re not able to get the rash under control.
A note about baby wipes: while these are super convenient for cleaning, they have some issues too. As with moisturizer and soap, we recommend looking for fragrance and alcohol free wipes. Most pre-moistened wipes contain certain preservatives necessary for preventing mold and bacterial buildup in the packages and sometimes these preservatives can cause allergic or irritant reactions. If your baby is developing a red rash and you find your current wipes seem to be making it worse, consider looking for products that don’t contain these preservatives (one common culprit is methylisothiazolinone, or MI). Sometimes, just using a small spray bottle of water to clean during a diaper change and patting dry with a soft washcloth can be sufficient and even more economical! Also, letting your little one go diaper-free for a few minutes each day can help the skin breathe and provide some rash relief.
Do allergies, asthma, or eczema run in your family? Is your baby developing a red rash on those chunky cheeks, or inside the arms or wrists? Your little one might have a case of eczema, or atopic dermatitis. For these kiddos with extra-sensitive skin, it’s recommended to go as simple as possible skincare wise - fragrance free cleanser, moisturizer, and soft, cotton clothing. Laundry detergents labeled “baby” are often highly fragranced as well. Look for detergents that are labeled free and clear. Those are less likely to be irritating.
When you’re going through your home to remove products that may irritate baby’s skin, don’t forget your own bathroom shelf. If you use products formulated for adults that contain fragrances, parabens, and essential oils and then go snuggle or breastfeed your baby, their sensitive skin is still coming into contact with potential irritants. Even if these products don’t irritate you, they can cause issues for your little one. Therefore, be vigilant about anything that may come into contact with your baby’s skin.
The bottom line for baby skin care is to keep it simple. Your little one doesn’t need a multi-step routine. A gentle, quick wash, layer of moisturizer daily, and simple measures to keep the skin protected and healthy will go a long way.
As with all of our articles, the above is general information only and is not meant to be medical advice. Please consult your pediatrician or dermatologist if you have questions.