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Skin Care for Newborns

Less Is More

By David Steinman,
Natural Health, Nov.-Dec. 1994

Five kinds of skin care products are used most frequently for newborns.  Here is what you need to know about each of them.


Though plain water usually does the job, occasionally a small amount of soap may be required.  If so, use a mild soap containing olive, coconut, or palm oil and possibly herbal extracts such as calendula.  (All pediatricians recommend avoiding antibacterial soaps.)  After soaping, replenish the skin's oils by using a soothing oil or lotion containing saturated oils such as coconut or sesame, with herbs such as calendula or arnica.  Few babies are sensitive to these.

Bubble Baths

Many bubble bath products for young children are based on detergents that destroy beneficial bacteria and harm the baby's acid mantle.  Furthermore, bubble baths are a leading cause of vaginitis and urinary tract infections in infants.  This problem has become so prevalent that the Food and Drug Administration has ruled that bubble baths for children must carry warning labels advising parents against excess bathing of their children.  If you wish to scent your baby's bath, add a bit of lavender oil (5-10 drops only) to the water.  (Lavender oil is not to be taken internally.)


Shampooing schedules should be determined by the amount of hair your baby has and how oily it is.  Most babies with thin hair don't need to be shampooed all that often during their first year.  (Only do so as needed.)  When you do shampoo, a mild shampoo is best.  You can recognize them by what they don't contain:  synthetic fragrances, artificial colors, or highly allergenic and irritating preservatives including quaternium 15, imidazolidinyl urea, and parabens.

Also, avoid products containing diethanolamine (DEA) or triethanolamine (TEA), both of these interact with nitrites -- which may be inadvertently added as preservatives and not shown on ingredient lists -- forming carcinogenic nitrosamines that rapidly penetrate the skin.  You will often see these ingredients abbreviated and listed as compounds with other ingredients such as TEA-sodium lauryl sulfate or cocamide-DEA.

The gentlest preservatives include citrus seed extract, phenoxyethanol, and vitamins A, C, and E (also known respectively as retinyl palmitate, ascorbic acid, and alpha tocopherol).  Most baby products you find in health food stores rely on these preservatives.

Lotions and Oils

Massaging lotions and oils into your baby's skin can relieve irritation.  But anything you use should be free of petrochemicals (especially mineral oil), which are themselves irritants.  Also, look for healing herbs in your baby's lotion or oil. 

Chamomile and aloe have a long history as soothing and moisturizing ingredients and have a good record of safe use in cosmetics.  Other healing herbs to look for in lotions and oils (and other baby products) include calendula, marigold, and arnica.  The same guidelines for finding gentle shampoos apply to lotions:  avoid artificial colors, DEA, and TEA, and seek out products that use gentle preservatives.

Many baby lotions contain lanolin, a fatty substance obtained from sheep wool and used as a base for cosmetics.  Experts advise against the use of lanolin unless the company guarantees it is pesticide-free.  In surveys done by the Environmental Protection Agency, much of the commercial lanolin used in baby products was found to contain relatively high concentrations of pesticides such as DDT, lindane, and diazinon.  According to the National Research Council, these chemicals are readily absorbed through the baby's skin.  Each of them can damage the nervous system, and some of them are cancer-causing.

"The skin-care products you grew up with can cause more problems than they cure.  Fortunately, there are natural alternatives."

One-year-old Kathy Wikholm has never suffered from diaper rash -- in fact, she's never had skin irritation of any kind.  Her father, Gary, an M.D. specializing in family practice, believes that Kathy's healthy skin is a result of his avoiding the many skin lotions, cleaning wipes, and shampoos that are marketed to parents.  As more and more parents are discovering, these convenience products often contain substances that upset the natural balance of a baby's skin, which can lead to recurring problems.

A recent report in Clinical Pediatrics reveals that more than 75 percent of newborns suffer rashes within the first few months of birth, and researchers suspect that contributing factors include the very products that promise to soften, clean, and moisturize children's skin.  As they note in their research, "Newborn skin is relatively more permeable to topically applied agents than adult skin.  Therefore, the risk of systemic toxicity ...  is much greater in newborns."

Personal care products (for adults as well as babies) are among the least-regulated consumer products on the market, and are not subject to safety testing!  According to the North American Contact Dermatitis Group, many products contain allergens and widely-recognized irritants.

"The safety and efficacy of over-the-counter skincare products are not supported by well-controlled scientific studies," say researchers in the Department of Pediatrics at Loyola University in Chicago.  But concerned parents like the Wikholms can avoid the risk posed by such products by using simple home remedies or choosing skin-care products that are free of harmful substances.

"Babies are born with this beautiful creamy white coating called the vernix caseosa, a collection of dead cells and mucus that has protected the child for the entire pregnancy," says Dr. Jay Gordon, a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.  "The vernix is the most exclusive body lotion a human ever sees and should be massaged into your baby's skin immediately following birth," Gordon says.

Instead, many newborns are taken from their parents and immediately bathed in antibacterial soap, which disturbs the skin's acid mantle (the skin's natural acidity) and its delicate balance of beneficial bacteria.

"Never let the hospital personnel do this to a healthy, full-term baby," Gordon says.  "It's your choice."  If there is any blood left on your baby from delivery, you can request that the hospital instead sponge with a little warm water, leaving the vernix intact, and being careful not to let your newborn catch cold.  With the tips of your fingers and while the baby is still lying in her crib, gently massage the vernix in.

"The average one-month-old baby is bathed four times and shampooed three times every week, according to researchers from Loyola University in Clinical Pediatrics.  "Yet newborn skin is slow to mature, and the outer layer is highly permeable and sensitive to chemicals," says Uwe Stave, M.D., formerly of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miami.

If you have to bathe your baby during the first year, it should only be occasionally with a little warm water.  More likely, you'll only have to wipe your baby's genitals and buttocks with a soft cotton cloth.

Baby Powder

Most powders contain tiny particles that irritate the skin, says Stave, and many contain fragrance, a leading cause of allergy and irritation.  Under all circumstances, avoid baby powders containing talc.  Several studies have linked talc to cancer.

The only places you might need to use a little powder (never talc) are in the creases of the baby's skin -- the underarms, genital area, and neck, says Gordon.  He recommends scent-free powders made with cornstarch or bentonite clay.  These are available in health food stores.

Powders, of course, are most frequently used to "treat" diaper rash, but there are better ways.  Some diaper rash stems from high-protein diets or allergies to substances on diapers (either disposable or reusable).  Most diaper services use strong chemical detergents that leave residues in the diapers.  Stave strongly recommends that parents rinse these diapers by hand before using them, or wash diapers at home.  Many disposable diapers also contain irritants, although some diapers contain less than others.  Another preventive measure is frequent changing.

Allowing fresh air to get to your baby's bottom whenever you can will also reduce the likelihood of diaper rash.  Zinc oxide and chamomile, applied to the inflamed area, will help dry and soothe the skin.  Most pediatricians specializing in natural skin care warn parents to avoid petroleum jelly, which traps moisture against the skin and is also a common allergen.


Related products available in the NaturoDoc Store:

Quercetin with Bromelain

This product is very helpful in treating irritated baby skin safely and effectively.  It's not available in retail stores, so save time and money by ordering them online today!

Other articles on children's health:


Autism Linked to Vaccines

Children's Nutrition:  Some Basic Ideas

Feeding Special-Needs Children

Healthy Snacks for Kids


Infant Formula Recipes

Introducing Solid Foods

Loss of an Infant

Nutrition Ideas for Kids

Skin Care for Babies


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