Your newborn is picture-perfect, of course—but as you memorize every square inch of her, you may notice some blemishes on her otherwise brand-new skin. What gives? It’s not as if she’s been chowing down on fast food. They may be red and raised, they may be tiny and white or they may resemble the acne flare-ups you experienced in high school. But while these bumps may be disconcerting, they’re actually not surprising, when you think about it: Just like a teenager, a baby experiences profound hormonal shifts as she adjusts to the world outside the womb, and that can manifest as baby acne. Here’s how to recognize baby acne and how to treat it when it pops up.
What Is Baby Acne?
There are two different types of acne, depending on baby’s age. Newborn acne, otherwise known as neonatal acne, can appear when baby is a newborn up to 3 months old—and it’s totally normal. “Neonatal acne is a benign skin condition that roughly 20 percent of newborns have,” explains Katie Pyle, DO, a pediatrician at UCHealth Pediatric Care Clinic in Firestone, Colorado. “We don’t really know the cause, but it’s likely either due to the stimulation of baby’s oil glands from mom’s hormones or an inflammatory reaction to a type of yeast that colonizes on a baby’s skin.” The good news: While your baby may have a few pimples in her pics, newborn acne doesn’t point to future skin problems.
If baby is older than 3 months, he may be experiencing what’s called infantile acne, especially if you notice larger red, raised blemishes or pustules, says Meagan O’Neill, MD, a pediatrician with Riley Children’s Health in Indianapolis. Like newborn acne, infant acne occurs in about one-fifth of babies. “While neonatal acne tends to go away on its own with age, infantile acne may stick around longer and, since it can be more severe than neonatal acne, may require treatment to avoid scarring.”
What Does Baby Acne Look Like?
The characteristic signs of newborn acne are small red or white bumps that can appear all over the body but are usually concentrate on baby’s face and torso. You might also spy tiny white bumps on your newborn’s forehead, cheeks or near his mouth, called milia. These actually aren’t baby acne, per se—instead, the bumps are dead skin cells trapped in small pockets on the skin’s surface and tend to disappear within the first few weeks of life.
Infant acne can manifest as a crop or cluster of raised red bumps, sometimes filled with pus, and can appear anywhere on the body. Sometimes they disappear on their own; sometimes they require treatment. Unlike neonatal acne, they can be a predictor of skin issues later in life, so partnering with a pediatrician or pediatric dermatologist can help set up a smart course of treatment, says Omar Baker, MD, FAAP, assistant clinical professor in the department of pediatrics at Columbia University and co-president of Riverside Medical Group in Northern New Jersey.
Is it baby acne or a rash?
All this talk of red, raised bumps can sound suspiciously like describing a rash. So how do you know if it’s baby acne or a rash? Baby acne actually falls under the umbrella of a rash. “A rash is defined as any skin change, and broadly speaking, neonatal and infantile acne are both considered rashes,” O’Neill says. That said, it can be tough to tell the difference between baby acne and other benign skin conditions that commonly affect newborns and infants, like heat rash or eczema. “Eczema and skin infections are generally red and inflamed, with areas of very dry and sometimes cracked skin,” says Baker. “Eczema and other worrisome rashes will often cause the baby a good deal of discomfort and could present with other symptoms like extreme fussiness, excessive spit-up or fever.”
If you’re concerned about possible baby acne, flag it for your pediatrician, who can diagnose the problem and provide a best course of treatment. Plus, talking through any skin breakouts or eruptions with your doctor can help you become familiar with your baby’s unique skin needs.
What Causes Baby Acne?
Baby acne is a common skin condition, but there isn’t necessarily one clear cause. Even more frustrating: There’s very little about it that you can control. Here, some of the main causes of baby acne:
• Hormones. Yup, just like when you were a teen, hormones are often to blame, experts say. For newborns, it’s actually your hormones that are likely the cause—at the end of pregnancy, a mother’s hormones can cross the placenta into baby’s system and can stimulate baby’s sebaceous (oil) glands on the skin, leading to breakouts. For infants over 3 months, their own hormones can drive an overgrowth of skin glands, O’Neill says.
• Yeast. The Malassezia species, a common type of yeast that colonizes skin surfaces, can sometimes create an inflammatory reaction in newborns, resulting in newborn acne.
How to Get Rid of Baby Acne
Baby’s skin is incredibly sensitive, so it’s important to be gentle when dealing with baby acne. That means whatever go-to techniques you used as an adolescent or currently turn to as an adult probably aren’t appropriate for baby’s skin. Here’s how to treat baby acne properly:
• Don’t scrub. Or pick at or pop those pimples. “That can break the skin, introducing bacteria and increasing the risk of infant infection,” Baker says.
• Wash and moisturize. If your newborn has neonatal acne, keep baby’s face clean and moisturized. “Skin is the body’s first line of defense against infection,” says Baker. Try using a mild soap and a fragrance-free, hypoallergenic moisturizer to keep skin healthy and supple.
• Use a humidifier. Acne may be exacerbated by dry air, so using a humidifier can ensure that baby’s skin stays moisturized, Baker says.
• Consult your pediatrician. She may have product recommendations or can prescribe medication, like Retin-A or something with benzoyl peroxide, in an infant-friendly dose. “If severe infantile acne is left untreated, it could run the risk of scarring,” O’Neill says.
Natural remedies for baby acne
If you’re eager to test out natural home remedies to treat baby’s skin, it’s smart to first check in with your pediatrician, who can assess your child’s skin and make sure those treatments won’t cause any additional harm. “Most natural remedies aren’t well studied in children, so it’s hard to predict what side effects may occur,” O’Neill says. “Particularly with something you may be putting on your baby's skin, you might run the risk of causing further irritation or inflammation.” Some natural remedies for baby acne that you may want to discuss with baby’s doctor include:
• Coconut oil. Coconut oil is a tried-and-true baby acne treatment around the world and one Baker recommends to his own pediatric patients. This ultra-hydrating oil can help moisturize baby’s skin—just add a few drops to a cotton ball and swab over baby’s face.
• Breast milk. Breast milk for baby acne may sound like an old-wives’ tale, but there may be something to it. “Breast milk contains lauric acid, which has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory characteristics,” Baker says, adding that wiping a few drops of milk over baby’s skin and then letting it air dry may help. “I swore by this,” says Jenna, a nursing mom of a one-year-old. “It definitely seemed to clear up my daughter’s skin.”
• Changing your diet. Nursing? It may be worth discussing your current breastfeeding diet with your pediatrician, who may recommend cutting back on certain foods, like dairy or citrus. While these aren’t t direct causes of baby acne, eliminating them may help improve baby’s overall skin condition, especially if he’s also dealing with eczema.
How Long Does Baby Acne Last?
Newborn acne can appear anytime in the first three months of baby’s life but usually disappears by month three, Pyle says. Infant acne can last a few weeks and disappear on its own or it may linger, Baker says. If you’re consistently seeing symptoms for a few months, see your pediatrician to discuss baby acne treatment options.
How to Prevent Baby Acne
While it’s impossible to prevent neonatal acne, the newborn period is the best time to develop smart infant skin care habits, which can help prevent future rashes and skin issues. Even if your baby was lucky enough to be born with silky-smooth skin, many of the strategies used to treat baby acne can also help prevent it:
• Go fragrance free. The chemicals that make up artificial fragrances can irritate baby’s sensitive skin. Try hypoallergenic products, including lotions, shampoos and laundry detergents, when possible.
• Wash, don’t scrub. Scrubbing can cause further irritation and make matters worse. Instead, gently wipe and pat baby’s skin dry.
• Bathe baby regularly. For older, active infants, dirt and oil can get trapped in pores and exacerbate breakouts, just like with adults, so giving baby frequent baths can help minimize the possibility of breakouts.
Updated Novermber 2017