A guide to newborn skin

When it comes to baby skincare ranges we're spoiled for choice. But for newborns, says Rebecca Howard Dennis, it's best to wait before introducing anything other than water


With entire sections of supermarkets stocked with a dizzying array of products, no wonder mums are confused about what to buy – organic? sulphate-free? hypoallergenic? – let alone when it's safe to start using them. If you're struggling to make sense of it all (and trust us, you're not alone) then just follow our no-nonsense guide.

Caring for babies' skin

At birth your baby's skin is 20 per cent thinner than yours. It is also far more absorbent, making it more susceptible to damage from germs, chemicals and water loss, especially in the first four weeks before its protective natural barrier forms.

Some babies are delivered covered in a thick, white coating, known as vernix. Don't be tempted to remove this as it's nature's best moisturiser, helping both to prevent your baby's skin dehydrating and to protect it from the outside world.

Overdue babies, on the other hand, will have absorbed this protective film before birth, and may have dry or even cracked skin when they appear. Similarly, resist the urge to apply moisturiser. Instead leave it to peel and shed naturally (this will take just a few days) and you will soon see peachy, plump skin underneath.

When caring for newborn skin, less is most definitely more, especially when you consider that the skin is our largest organ, and what goes on it may also go in. For a newborn baby with the highest ratio of skin surface to body weight this means that, compared to an adult, infants can absorb proportionally more of everything – germs, bacteria and chemicals.

You also need to take care with their clothes, washing every new item before it's worn, ensuring thorough rinsing by not overloading the washing machine, as well as not using perfumed fabric conditioners. This will reduce your baby's exposure to allergens and irritants.

Don't be too rash

Even with the best care, babies are prone to some common rashes in their first three months, that are best left to clear up on their own.

  • Heat Rash is also known as prickly heat and is caused by overheating. Opt for loose-fitting clothes in breathable fabrics and stick to tepid baths.
  • Milk Spots or milia are blocked pores that appear as tiny white spots on your baby's face.
  • Erythema Toxicum is a blotchy red skin reaction that appears about 48 hours after birth. It will clear in a few days.
  • Cradle Cap is yellowish, scaly patches that develop on a baby's scalp within three months of birth. It will get better without treatment, though this may take a few months.

Skincare update

Beware of well-intentioned, but out-of date-advice from friends and family. Here we clear up a few of the myths surrounding caring for delicate baby skin, and give you some bang-up-to-date alternative views.

Then: Liberally sprinkle plenty of talc on your baby after their bathtime and at nappy changes.

Now: Talc is actually a finely milled mineral and while it's safe for your baby's skin, inhaling these tiny particles can be harmful, and tragically even fatal. Ultimately talc at bathtime is no substitute for careful, thorough drying with a soft towel, and there is no evidence to prove that talcum powder protects against nappy rash.

Then: Use lashings of aqueous cream to rehydrate dry skin, even substituting it for regular soap.

Now: Aqueous cream has been shown to contain one per cent sodium lauryl sulphate, that causes damage to the skin's natural barrier (see right). Try pure coconut oil instead.

Then: Applying olive oil to your baby's scalp at night will help loosen and lift scaly cradle cap.

Now: Olive oil isn't quite the natural (read gentle) wonder we thought. Its poor balance of oleic and linoleic oils means the acid-alkali balance is not suitable for a baby's sensitive skin because, although it will hydrate for
a few minutes, it ultimately has a harsh and drying effect that will damage a newborn's immature skin barrier.

Need-to-know nasties

Not sure what to swerve when it comes to eliminating shady chemicals from your baby's skincare? Take a look at this list of avoid-at-all-costs ingredients:

  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphate is a synthetic detergent. It's known to cause skin irritation, and there's talk of links to cancer and eye damage, although nothing's proven. Ditto sodium laureth sulphate.
  • PEG Polyethylene glycol is often used in moisturisers as a thickener but is also, scarily, the main ingredient in oven cleaner. Unsurprisingly it causes dry skin, rashes and dermatitis.
  • Triclosan: An antibacterial agent. It's been linked to contact dermatitis and is believed to be a hormone disruptor in animals, and may harm the immune system.
  • Parabens: Cheap, highly effective preservatives – but there are concerns about their toxic effects on humans' reproductive, immune and neurological systems

Also be aware that certain labels are more than a little misleading...

Organic cosmetics do not have to be certified as such. So products with only low levels of organic ingredients can still claim they contain 'organic ingredient x'. For peace of mind always look for an EcoCert or Soil Association stamp – they have stringent standards.

Natural is an unregulated term in the UK. Products can claim to be 'made with natural ingredients' when the majority are synthetic, or say 'contains natural ingredients' when just one per cent of the total formulation is truly natural.

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