Baby Skin Care 101

Think all newborns have flawless skin? Think again. Here's how to care for baby's sensitive skin.
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Updated May 8, 2017
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You imagine baby’s skin to be smooth, soft and to smell amazing. But in reality, it can be dry, flaky, sensitive and even have some funky discolorations—especially during the newborn period. Here’s the deal on how to care for baby’s skin, even when it’s not as perfect as you may have expected.

Don’t go too crazy with the baths

Sure, you take a shower every day, but baby really shouldn’t get a daily bath. “Two or three times a week is plenty,” says Karl Neumann, MD, a pediatrician at Forest Hills Pediatric Associates and contributor to Kids Travel Doc. “Of course, clean the diaper area as often as necessary. Frequent bathing may dry out the skin and remove oils and other substances that protect against infections and other irritants.” Not sure what to do once you get her in there? Get the step-by-step on how to give baby a bath here.

Choose gentle products

You probably already know this, but you don’t want to use your adult shampoo and soap on baby. “Until infants are about one year old, it’s best to use soaps and shampoos that are specifically formulated for this age group,” says Dr. Neumann. “Generally, these products are ‘nontoxic,’ containing no or few dyes, deodorants, alcohols and other ingredients that can be harmful to your infant’s skin.” Staring at the aisle, stumped as to which baby products to buy? We suggest taking a look at the label and choosing the ones with the fewest weird chemicals. Tear-free formulas are less likely to irritate baby’s eyes. When you bathe baby, know that some baby soaps don’t provide a ton of lather like your usual soap does, but that doesn’t mean you need to add more — baby’s still getting clean sans suds.

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Forget the baby powder

We know it comes in those “baby care essentials” kits, but stay away from baby powder. Experts say to avoid using it, as baby could inhale the powder into his lungs, and that could cause damage. “If you have to use powder, shake the powder into your hands far away from the baby, clap your hands together to remove excess powder, and apply a thin layer to your baby’s skin,” says Dr. Neumann. For a dry bum, a pat with a clean towel works just fine.

Lotion is your friend

Your baby’s skin is prone to dryness, so you want to keep it as moisturized as possible. When you get baby out of the tub, gently pat her dry and apply moisturizer immediately. You’ll probably be moisturizing plenty in between baths too. “Moisturizers do not add moisture to the skin; they prevent moisture already in the skin from evaporating,” says Dr. Neumann. “Apply moisturizers as often as necessary. It’s okay to put thick layers on baby.” You can also invest in a humidifier to prevent the air in baby’s room from being too dry, which can help baby’s dry skin.

Go easy on sun exposure

Sunscreen isn’t recommended for babies under six months old. “Sunscreens are not approved for infants under the age of six months because they haven’t been tested for this age group yet,” says Dr. Neumann. “But most experts believe that in the rare situation where sun exposure is needed for an infant, using sunscreen is safer than not using a sunscreen.”

But you and baby can’t stay cooped up at home forever. (Yep, it’s not just okay to take baby out for walks or to the park or beach before she hits the six-month mark — it’s good for you both to be active and get fresh air.) Just try not to let sun directly hit baby’s skin — open the sun cover on her stroller, dress her in hats with brims, and cover her body. You may also want to get sunshades for the backseat windows of your car. When you’re hanging at the park or at the beach, chill under an umbrella or shady tree.

Once baby hits the six-month mark, look for sunscreen with inorganic filters (like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide), because they won’t irritate baby’s skin and eyes.

Clean those folds

While moisturizing with lotion is encouraged, you should make sure baby’s skin isn’t damp. According to pediatrician Cheryl Wu, MD, moisture can get stuck in all those folds — areas made up of thin, irritable skin especially prone to rashes. This is a big issue starting at three months, since baby will start drooling more and more as he enters his oral phase. To prevent redness, chaffing and peeling, clean all of baby’s nooks twice a day. Wu reccommends using water too, incase there are any milk or food remnants in there (gross!). Continuously wipe baby’s mouth and make sure he wears a bib during mealtime.

Rashes will typically clear up in a few days, but you can use Aquaphor and Vaseline to help sooth baby’s discomfort. If the rash is red a bumpy, it could be a sign of a yeast infection, which does require a call to your pediatrician and a prescription.

Be prepared for weird stuff

It’s normal for baby to have rashes, so don’t freak out too much if you spot some on your baby’s skin. “In the newborn period, most rashes come and go frequently,” says Dr. Neumann. “The most common are acne-type rashes on the face; ‘flea bite’ type spots all over the body; and dry, peeling skin similar to sunburns.”
Talk to baby’s pediatrician about skin changes and rashes. Chances are, it’s no big deal, but you want to get to the root of the problem to know the best way to treat it. Find out more about baby rashes and skin changes here. For advice on acne, check out our  baby acne guide.

And always look out for signs of infection — when you see them you must call the doctor. “Symptoms of infection include pustules and boils and very red, raw areas on diaper rashes (especially when the skin is cracked and bleeding),” says Dr. Neumann. “Contact your pediatrician if your infant has a rash accompanied by fever and is excessively cranky.”

Know the difference between diaper rashes

We don’t know any babies who never got a diaper rash, so (sorry!) you’ll probably have to deal with those too. Diaper rashes usually aren’t serious and disappear within a few days with some diaper rash cream or gentle moisturizing lotion and keeping the area dry. The key is to know the difference between a plain old  diaper rash  and a  yeast diaper rash. The plain old kind usually clears up with over-the-counter cream — different ones tend to work on different babies, so you may have to experiment. The yeast kind needs some extra help from a prescription cream. Most moms find that going diaperless for a while will air out baby’s bum to help either kind of diaper rash heal.

Extra help for super-dry skin

“Another common rash in infants is  eczema, a dry, itchy skin rash that often appears on baby’s cheeks and forehead, but can also occur anywhere,” says Dr. Neumann. “The first signs of eczema are red, scaly itchy patches of dry skin. Eczema is common in infants but does not appear until four or five months of age, and sometimes, much later.” Most eczema cases can be treated with over-the-counter medications, but if they don’t work on the problem, you’ll need to get a prescription cream from baby’s pediatrician. If you suspect eczema, get baby checked out.

The deal with birthmarks

So what’s up with those birthmarks on baby’s skin?  Birthmarks are pretty common for babies to have and are usually harmless, but you should keep an eye on them for any changes. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends consulting baby’s pediatrician if the birthmark develops “knots” (gets bumpy and looks twisted) or is growing quickly. Point out any red or pink birthmarks, especially if they are raised, such as hemangiomas, so baby’s doctor can check and watch it to make sure everything’s A-OK.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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