I’ll never forget the moment my pediatrician asked what, exactly, I was using on my baby’s skin. I was five months into new motherhood and, bleary-eyed with exhaustion, hadn’t noticed the patches of tiny bumps behind his knees and elbows she called eczema.
Luckily, as is usually the case with motherhood, the only one passing judgement on my parenting was me. But as the doctor gently asked questions about our nighttime routine, I was aghast to learn that the things I’d thought I was doing to soothe him were actually wreaking havoc on his skin.
As it turns out, contrary to what the chorus of sleep-training experts advise, bathing an infant every single night is too much for their paper-thin dermis. And despite images from the commercials I’d grown up with, filling that bath with heavily-fragranced bubbles seriously dried out his fragile, developing skin barrier.
Happily, switching to gentler products, laying off the bubble baths, and keeping his eczema-prone spots diligently moisturized put an end to his itching and even led to longer stretches of sleep (hallelujah). But when our Scientific Advisory Board explained that my experience was far from isolated and up to 30 percent of children develop eczema, I peppered them with questions to find out what new parents need to know about baby skin.
It’s ultra-sensitive, thin and fragile
When you’re snuggling a sweet, naked babe, it’s hard to imagine their skin is anything less than perfect. But every infant’s skin is medically classified as physiologically fragile. A 2011 meta-study of a decade of research acknowledges this paradox, stating: “Albeit showing a nearly perfect experience, newborn skin is structurally and functionally immature compared to adult skin, undergoing a physical maturation process after birth at least through the first year of life.”
Just how fragile is it? Until around age two, baby skin is structurally similar to the delicate area under adults’ eyes. In of 20 healthy mothers and their biological children aged 3-24 months, the babies’ and toddlers’ skin was found to be 20-30% thinner than their moms’.
It’s not yet fully developed
Why does the thickness of skin matter? Flash back to biology class: you may remember that the skin is the largest organ in the body and plays an essential role in both keeping us hydrated (trapping moisture in) and healthy (keeping chemicals and irritants out). By the time a healthy baby is full-term, their skin is able to perform these basic, vital functions. But while dermatologists call newborn skin “competent,” studies show that the barrier function matures significantly throughout a baby’s first 12 months. And because the surface area their skin must cover expands rapidly from birth through the toddler years (hello, growth spurts), that all-important protective barrier is constantly playing catch-up until a child reaches the age of four.
It’s “like an open window”
Because children’s skin is so thin, it experiences what dermatologists call increased “transepidermal water loss.” Translation: it dries out easily. And when it gets dry, explains Dr. Joyce Teng, Chief Scientific Advisor, Pediatric Dermatology, Stanford Medical School, its barrier function is about as effective as an open window. Because of this, children can develop reactions easily to skincare products that contain certain sensitizing ingredients (such as preservatives and fragrance) and chemicals applied to the skin surface can be absorbed into their body more easily.
The takeaway: making sure that the products we use to soothe and protect little ones are non-toxic and non-irritating isn’t trendy or indulgent; it’s highly recommended by pediatric dermatologists and supported by scientific research. It’s best not to use any products on a newborn, but once they reach eight weeks, it’s important to protect and fortify babies’ whisper-soft skin from their sweet-smelling heads to those tiny, perfect toes.
About the author:
Jasmine Firchau has written for DailyCandy, Martha Stewart Living, Self, Glamour, and others. She lives in Colorado with her husband and two munchkins, where she's become a crazy-person about proper sun protection.