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What's Really In Your Child's Skincare Products
Most parents are ultra-careful about what goes into their little one’s body. But what about what goes onto it?
Many baby skincare products look gorgeous on your bathroom shelves and smell good enough to eat – but is a product containing dozens of unpronounceable ingredients really the right thing to be slathering onto your little one’s delicate skin?
Many parents-to-be stock up on baby skincare products – from bubble baths to moisturisers – before their little one’s even arrived. But your baby is born with a top layer of skin that’s thin, absorbent, and easily damaged. Over the first month, her skin will mature and develop its own natural protective barrier. That’s why the NHS recommends using just plain water and cotton wool to wash your baby for at least the first month, only using some mild, fragrance-free soap if necessary.
It’s best to avoid all skincare products (including soap) for at least the first month. The only exception is a thin layer of nappy barrier cream. Choose one that’s as simple as possible, without fragrance, and do a patch test on your baby’s arm or leg first.
For the first few days, until the cord has dropped off, you should just ‘top and tail’ your baby (clean her face and bottom) rather than give her a bath (use moistened cotton wool to clean
the cord area if it’s dirty). After that, bathe your baby just two or three times a week, rather than every day.
Your baby may be born with traces of a white, sticky substance called vernix on her skin. This is a natural moisturiser and protective barrier, which protected her skin in the womb. It should be left to absorb naturally.
If your baby is overdue, her skin may be dry and cracked because all of the vernix was absorbed in the womb.
But don’t be tempted to use moisturisers or lotions, which may make things worse.
After a few days, the top layer of skin will peel off, revealing perfect skin underneath.
After the first month, the natural protective barrier will have formed on your baby’s skin, and you may want to gradually introduce a few baby skincare products. Using as few as possible. A little goes a long way. You don’t need to use loads. It's important, also, doing a patch test on a small area of your baby’s skin when you use a product for the first time. After six months you might want to introduce a bath product (non-bubbly ones are less drying), perhaps a moisturising cream, baby lotion or baby oil. If you’ve avoided products in the early months and let your baby develop her own natural barrier, chances are when you introduce products she’ll be able to tolerate them.
However, you must avoid shampoo until your baby is a year old. A baby’s hair doesn’t get dirty – it has its own natural oils, which are stripped away when you use shampoo. Shampoo encourages the skin to produce more sebum [an oily substance that keeps the hair moisturised], so your baby is more likely to get cradle cap. Simply rinse your baby’s hair in her bathwater, using a baby comb to get rid of any debris.
Be aware that even products developed specifically for babies may include ingredients that could irritate your baby’s skin or cause an allergic reaction. Some ingredients are more likely to do this, so read the labels carefully.
Choose products that aren’t fragranced, as fragrance can be an irritant. I avoid a preservative called methylisothiazolinone [MIT or MI].
Unfortunately, MIT is widely used in baby wipes, shampoos, soaps and creams. It can evoke an allergic reaction in people that can be very severe.
Products that lather up may contain sodium lauryl sulphate [SLS – a cleansing and foaming agent], which strips away the oil from the skin and is associated with skin irritation. I would try to avoid SLS. If anything lathers up by itself, avoid it. If you want to use something to wash your baby, there’s a wide range of soap substitutes available that can be bought at most chemists and supermarkets.
You may feel you need a degree in chemistry to understand the ingredients listed on many skincare products. It’s often easier to choose a product based on the claims on the packaging, such as ‘natural’, ‘hypoallergenic’ or ‘for sensitive skin’. But how much do these really tell you?
Products labelled ‘natural’ are not necessarily safer for your baby’s skin. Natural things can still be irritating, and they’re often full of fragrance.
For example, olive oil, often recommended for baby massage, can strip away a baby’s delicate skin barrier.
And what about products labelled ‘hypoallergenic’, supposedly less likely to cause an allergic reaction?
An allergy is not the same as an irritant. So one of the ingredients could still irritate your baby’s skin. In any case, your child could still develop an allergy to one of the ingredients in time.
A product labelled ‘for sensitive skin’, meanwhile, refers to simple irritation, not allergic reactions. The claim would typically be supported either by careful selection of ingredients to minimise the risk of irritation or be tested on people with sensitive skin.
When there’s a problem
If your child has a reaction to a product, stop using it straight away, and see your doctor if you’re concerned. However, it isn’t always easy to pinpoint the cause of a problem.
If your baby’s allergic to something, the rash often takes three to five days to develop so it’s very difficult to pick up what they’re allergic to. However, if it’s an irritant reaction, the skin becomes red straight away.
Using fewer products is better because it will be easier to pinpoint the cause. Once you’ve
found a brand you like, stick with it, because the basic ingredients for any particular brand tend to be similar.
If your child reacts to something, go back to basics and use nothing but plain water again.
Reintroduce products gradually and keep a diary so you can determine the cause.