Finding the proper treatment for your baby’s dry skin can be tricky. Children’s skin is delicate and dries out more quickly than adults, so they’re more likely to have itchy, red, rough, or peeling skin.
Dry skin can be caused or made worse by swimming, sweating in the summer heat, or the cold, dry air of winter.
Age is an important consideration when looking at moisturisers, too. That soft, smooth baby skin is thinner and more porous, handles moisture differently, and is less able to keep itself moist and healthy than adult skin.
This makes treating and preventing dry skin in children especially important.
Your baby’s birthday suit is soft, smooth, sweet-smelling — and extra sensitive. This means it’s particularly prone to dryness, especially in the colder months.
No need to worry, though. While dry skin might not be a cute look on your little one, it rarely causes concern.
Best of all? Relief is relatively easy to come by. Here’s how to moisturise your baby’s thirsty skin and keep the dryness in check.
Plus, how to tell a simple case of dry skin from something that might need more attention, like eczema.
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What Causes Dry Skin in Babies?
Almost every baby (and adult!) will deal with the occasional bout of dry skin from time to time. And many of the same things that make your skin dry can also leave your little one’s skin thirsty.
Exposure to cold temps and dry air — widespread in winter — can sap skin of its regular moisture.
Spending too much time soaking in hot baths, though soothing and cozy, can have the same effect. And your baby’s thin, delicate skin makes it extra prone to becoming parched.
Symptoms of Dry Skin
Dry skin looks like flaky, rough patches on your child’s skin. Dry skin isn’t usually very itchy or red.
Dry skin can come up anywhere and everywhere. However, children mostly get it on their faces, arms (especially elbows) and legs (especially knees).
If your child’s skin is dehydrated, cracks might develop. These can be painful. Sometimes they might even bleed or get infected.
If dry skin becomes itchy or red, eczema has likely developed in the skin. Eczema usually comes up in patches in the elbow creases, behind the knees or on the face. It’s more likely to develop when the skin is dry.
What Does Dry Skin in Babies Look Like?
Roughness, flakiness, ashiness and fine lines or cracks are all signs that your sweetie’s skin needs more moisture.
Dry spots can strike anywhere, but they’re ubiquitous on the hands, feet, face and lips.
Mild dryness probably won’t bother your baby much. But dehydrated skin can get itchy, leading her to scratch and irritate the skin further.
What’s the Difference Between Dry Skin and Eczema in Babies?
I wondered if that dry patch signifies that your sweetie might have a more severe skin issue?
Dry skin and eczema (a skin condition that often appears in babies starting in the first few months of life) can have some symptoms in common.
But there are a few ways to tell the difference (always check with your child’s doctor to be sure).
What Is Eczema?
Eczema is a skin condition that causes red, itchy skin with inflammation. It is common in children.
It’s different from simple dry skin and requires further treatment. If your child has symptoms that could point to eczema, talk to their doctor about how to treat it.
Eczema patches have a more distinct appearance. Run-of-the-mill dry skin can look rough or scaly.
But skin with eczema can also be inflamed and can look red or pink (in children with lighter pigmented skin) or red-brown, purplish or greyish (in children with darker pigmented skin). Skin with eczema can also develop tiny, fluid-filled pimples that eventually burst.
Eczema shows up in different spots. Both eczema and dry skin can appear on your baby’s hands, feet, face and lips.
But it’s also common for eczema to develop in areas not typically prone to chronic dryness, such as behind your baby’s ears, on her scalp, in the creases of her elbows or behind her knees.
Eczema may not just flare up when it’s cold or dry. Like dry skin, eczema can worsen due to cold or dry weather or from too-warm baths.
But if your baby has eczema, you might also notice that her skin can become irritated by moisture (like milk, saliva or sweat), dust, scratchy fabrics, and certain soaps or detergents. Keep in mind, however, that eczema affects every child differently.
How to Treat Dry Skin in Babies
Simple, at-home strategies are usually enough to quench and soothe your sweetie’s thirsty skin.
For Baths, Think Short and Warm.
Long, hot, bubbly soaks can strip much-needed moisture from your baby’s brand-new birthday suit.
Fill the tub with lukewarm water instead of hot and opt for a fragrance-free, soap-free wash over a foamy bubble bath.
When it’s time to towel off, go easy on your baby’s skin by gently patting it dry instead of rubbing it. Then, bathe daily or every other day and apply moisturiser to lock in moisture.
Keep bath times short, and keep the water warm but not hot. Your child doesn’t need a bath every day, especially in winter and low humidity times.
Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate.
Apply a thick moisturiser right after bath time and again once or twice throughout the day. Opt for hypoallergenic, fragrance-free creams or ointments — they’re less likely to irritate your baby’s skin and combat dryness better than lightweight lotions.
Keep Your Baby Hydrated.
Make sure she gets plenty of fluids from breast milk and formula. But don’t offer water until getting the green light from the pediatrician — usually around six months, as your sweetie gets started on solids.
Adjust the Indoor Air.
Hot air tends to be drier, so resist the urge to make your baby’s room too toasty. Set the thermostat around 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and consider adding a cool-mist humidifier for extra moisture.
Bundle up in the Winter.
Skin that’s exposed to cold, dry air is more prone to dryness. So before heading out, layer up your little one with a hat and mittens and apply an ointment or balm to her cheeks and lips.
On very windy days, you can block some wind by putting a plastic rain cover over the stroller.
Be on Drool and Snot Alert.
Keep some cotton burp cloths on hand for patting away dribble. Excess moisture from saliva or a runny nose can lead to chapped skin, especially when you’re out in the cold.
Do a Post-Swim Dip.
Rinse your baby off with warm water after swimming in the pool or ocean. Both chlorine and salt can dry out her skin, even in the summer.
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Other Things You Can Do
Look at your laundry detergent. Opt for one made specifically for a baby’s sensitive skin.
Avoid using soap, fragranced products, and bubble bath products in your child’s bath. Use plain water or a soap-free liquid wash instead.
You can add special water-dispersible bath oils to your child’s bathwater. You can get these from any pharmacy.
Be careful when you use them because they can make the bath slippery. Also, avoid bath oils that have antiseptics in them unless your child has a diagnosed infection.
It’s essential to use a fragrance-free, non-irritating moisturiser like Dermeze, emulsifying ointment or Vaseline.
You could also try aqueous cream or sorbolene with 10% glycerine cream. Your child must use the moisturiser regularly, ideally twice a day or more.
A good time is after your child’s bath while her skin is warm and damp.
You might need to try several different moisturisers before you find one that suits your child.
The most important thing is to make sure that the moisturiser doesn’t sting your child. If it does, wipe it off gently.
Ointments are often better and less likely to sting than creams because they have fewer added ingredients.
Dry skin can come and go, so don’t worry if it comes back. Instead, try to work out what’s causing it and the times of year that it happens. This can help you prevent it.
Dry Skin Treatments for Babies and Older Children
Moisturisers are a must for treating or preventing dry skin in your child. However, not all products are created equal.
The greasier, the better
Ointments are usually better than creams, and creams are generally better than lotions when moisturising dry skin.
Avoid alcohol-based moisturiser
Alcohol dries the skin, so choose a non-alcohol product, such as Aquaphor Baby Healing Ointment or Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream.
Lactic acid is beneficial.
Look for lactic acid in the ingredients list because it promotes hydration of the skin. Lac-Hydrin (available in both OTC and prescription strengths) or Eucerin Intensive Repair Creme for Very Dry Skin are good options.
Consider a specialty moisturiser.
These contain multiple ingredients and tend to be more expensive than more familiar brands.
They include Vanicream Moisturizing Skin Cream, Cutemol Emollient Cream, Mustela Dermo-Pediatrics, Stelatopia Moisturizing Cream, or Burt’s Beeswax Lip Balm.
Reapply moisturiser on your child’s hands every time they wash them. In other dry areas, use a moisturiser at least two or three times a day.
Talk about products with your pediatrician. For example, if your child’s skin is dehydrated, isn’t improving with moisturising, or shows signs of eczema or another skin problem, your doctor may recommend a prescription moisturiser.
Lotions may not be the best option for your kids.
Because children’s skin lacks oil, lotions may not be strong enough. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), lotions can be irritating, so creams and ointments may be better choices.5
Creams and Ointments
Whereas lotions are a thick liquid, creams are defined as semi-solid emulsions of water and oil.
Ointments are more oily than creams. The AAD recommends creams or lotions that contain one or more of these ingredients:
- Hyaluronic acid
- Jojoba oil
- Mineral oil
- Shea butter
You may prefer a cream for your child since they’re less greasy to the touch. They may also be more comfortable than heavy ointments during hotter times of the year.
Most people grew up using soap in the bath or shower, but soap removes the skin’s natural protective oils and leaves the skin vulnerable to drying and irritation.
Some pediatricians recommend bathing children in just warm water and only twice a week.
When they reach their teen years, they can start using soap only to develop body odour (armpits, feet, and genitals). Never use soap on skin that’s itchy or has a rash.
While it may be disappointing for your kids, it’s best to avoid bubble baths. They can be one of the more dangerous things for your child’s skin.
If you do choose to use soap, use the type meant for that part of the body.
Facial soaps and cleansers are typically gentler than hand soaps, which may be softer than those meant for the whole body.
Also, choose mild soaps such as:
- Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser
- Dove Sensitive Skin Body Wash
- Purpose Gentle Cleansing Wash
- Dove Sensitive Skin Unscented Beauty Bar
- Cetaphil Gentle Cleansing Bar
Best Ways to Tame Your Child’s Eczema
Sometimes hydrocortisone creams, available over-the-counter (OTC) in milder strengths and by prescription for more potent formulations, are used to treat dry skin conditions associated with inflammation.
These creams can have side effects, so starting with a low-potency product is common before advancing to a stronger one.
Side effects can include:
- Thinning skin
- Stretch marks
- Unwanted hair growth
- Changes in skin colour
- Red bumps around the mouth
- White or red spots on the skin
- Burning, itching, or red skin
- Slowed growth and delayed weight gain
Severe side effects that warrant an immediate call to your doctor include:
- Severe rash
- Signs of infection (redness, swelling, pus) where the cream was applied
Side effects from topical hydrocortisone (and topical products in general) are more likely in children than adults because their thinner skin absorbs more significant amounts of medication.
OTC hydrocortisone creams are considered safe for children age two and older. They should only be used in younger children under the advice and supervision of a doctor.8
Hydrocortisone is frequently recommended for treating eczema, rashes, insect bites, and skin allergies, as well.
Several nonsteroidal prescription creams are also available, including Eucrisa, Elidel, and Protopic.
They’re used to treat a variety of skin conditions and may be an option for your child if they can’t tolerate hydrocortisone, or you want to avoid the side effects. But, again, your pediatrician can help guide you to the best one for your child.
Damp Skin Application
It’s best to apply moisturiser to skin that is still damp, such as just after your child gets out of a bath. This can help seal in moisture.
You may also want to consider using a wet-to-dry skin dressing. An example of this is wetting your child’s hands, applying a generous amount of moisturiser to them, and then covering them with wet cotton gloves, which you can leave on for a few hours or even overnight.
For other areas, you can apply a wet gauze over moisturised skin and then apply another dry gauze over it for a few hours.
An oatmeal bath can soothe a child’s irritated skin.9 It’s not as simple as just adding oats to the bathwater, though. You can buy commercial products for this use or make your own at home.
You can help protect your child’s skin from becoming dry and irritated by being aware of products that are problematic and taking a few simple steps:
- Avoid alcohol-based hand sanitisers when possible, as they dry skin. If they must be used, such as at school due to COVID-19 regulations, be sure to use extra moisturiser and look for sanitisers that moisturise, as well.
- Use fragrance-free skin products, but avoid those labelled “unscented,” as they may contain irritating chemicals that hide or neutralise the smell of ingredients.
- Use gentle, fragrance-free laundry products.
- Choose clothes made from soft, breathable fabrics (such as cotton) to reduce sweating and irritation.
- Have kids shower after swimming and then quickly apply a moisturiser to their skin to prevent chlorine rash.
- Have them wear gloves in the winter to protect their hands from dry, cold air.
You can help ease dry skin or keep your child’s skin healthy by using a cool-mist humidifier in their room during the winter, when the air in the house may be dehydrated from the heater.
If you live in a hot, dry area, you may want to use the humidifier during the summer, too.
Keep in mind that raising the humidity level may help your child’s dry skin, but it can also contribute to dust mites or mould, which may exacerbate allergies.
Dry Skin Prevention
Your child doesn’t need daily baths, and he doesn’t need to use soap either. However, avoiding too many baths as well as soap will help prevent dry skin. An older child can use a soap-free wash.
If your child is prone to dry skin or eczema, keep her bath times to no longer than five minutes.
Using a moisturiser after your child’s bath will help to stop the skin from drying out.
If your child takes swimming lessons, moisturise before and after classes.
Dress your child in loose cotton clothing if possible, or add a cotton layer under wool or synthetic clothing.
Why Do Some Children Have Dry Skin?
Many children have an inherited tendency for dry skin or sensitivity to certain things that make their skin dry.
Often, habits can dry the skin—such as using harsh soaps, not using moisturisers often enough, or alcohol-based moisturisers.
When to Talk to Your Doctor About Dry Skin in Babies
There’s a good chance that the strategies above will keep your little one’s skin supple and smooth as well, a baby’s bottom.
But if dry patches start to spread, crack or seem painfully itchy, consult your pediatrician. She may recommend special lotions, soaps or shampoos that would be better for your baby.
You should call your doctor about your child’s dry skin if the condition lasts more than two weeks despite treatment, especially if the skin is cracked.
If the area starts to look infected or the symptoms are accompanied by fever, you should also contact your pediatrician.
For persistent skin problems, your pediatrician may refer you to a pediatric dermatologist.
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