The feeling of touching soft, smooth baby skin is dreamy! There were times when my three babies had this delightful skin, but many other times, unfortunately, they had rashes, eczema, baby acne, and other random skin irritations. Infant skin is sensitive, and there are many factors that cause irritation to their skin.
I have written in the past about the influence of the skin’s ecosystem and GI health on sensitive skin. It is also important to understand the differences between adult and baby skin, as infants’ delicate and underdeveloped skin requires special attention to best support their health.
Human skin performs the same functions at every stage of life, including…
- providing a barrier against harmful pathogens and chemicals,
- absorbing and shedding water,
- protecting against UV damage,
- regulating body temperature,
- assuring the proper synthesis of hormones,
- synthesizes vitamin D, and
- providing sensory perception.
That’s a lot of essential functions! But, even though your baby’s skin has the same structure as yours, it cannot yet perform all of its functions. Because the skin is not fully developed it is more vulnerable to damage, which means that it needs to be treated with extra special care.
Here are key differences between your baby’s skin and yours. An infant’s skin is...
1. More permeable Baby skin has fewer elastic fibers than an adult’s. Therefore it acts like a sieve, allowing more substances to pass through than adult skin does. In addition, the outermost layer of a baby's skin (the epidermis) isn’t as firmly attached to the deeper dermis layer. So unlike an adult, whose epidermis and dermis are tightly adhered, substances can more easily make their way through a baby’s skin layers. And even though your baby’s skin can feel chubby and squeezable, it is actually thinner than yours. An infant’s epidermis is three to five times thinner than an adult’s and is made up of smaller cells. This increases the absorption of water and other substances into the body. Furthermore, the surface area of a baby's skin is between three and five times greater than an adult relative to body weight. Since the skin can absorb irritants, allergens, and bacteria from the environment, a substance that manages to penetrate the skin ends up being considerably more concentrated in a baby’s body.
Take Home Nugget: Choose skin care products wisely and avoid contact with any ingredients in products that you would not want to use on your child. Some potential ingredients include parabens, phthalates, dyes, and synthetic fragrances.
2. Less able to retain moisture Newborns have quite dry and rough skin, which hydrates within the first few weeks of life. Although older infants (8-24 months) quickly develop better-hydrated skin than adults, moisture levels fluctuate more. Adult skin cells have more molecules called Natural Moisturizing Factors (NMF), which keep cells hydrated by attracting and absorbing water.
Take Home Nugget: Work with you pediatrician to ensure good hydration and provide your infant with adequate fluids. Supplement skin hydration with a quality moisturizer Increase the effectiveness of a moisturizer by applying within two minutes after a bath or on damp skin.
3. Susceptible to irritations Baby skin has a pH close to neutral at birth. Skin pH gradually becomes more acidic as we age, but protecting your baby’s natural pH will help support healthy skin early in life. Many soaps and bubble baths are alkaline and can disturb the pH of your baby’s skin and make it prone to irritations. Antibacterial soaps and products containing alcohol (ethanol or ethyl alcohol) can also disrupt skin pH and cause skin irritations.
Take Home Nugget: Choose mild soaps and skin care products. Avoid antibacterial soaps and products containing ethanol or ethyl alcohol on your baby.
4. Vulnerable to sun damage Infant and toddler skin has less of the darkening pigment melanin, which helps protect the skin from ultraviolet light. Therefore, baby skin can be damaged more quickly from sun exposure.The thin outer layer of baby skin also increases the risk of absorbing excessive ultraviolet rays. There has been debate about the use of sunscreens on infants whose skin is not developed enough to properly absorb and distribute the chemicals in most sunscreen. Based on several studies on this topic, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding the use of sunscreen in the first 6 months of life and relying instead on protective clothing. Work with your pediatrician to determine what is best for your baby.
Take Home Nugget: Be sun smart! Avoid midday sun, wear protective clothing and hats, seek shade, use sunglasses that block UVA and UVB and after 6-months old use sunblock with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as the main ingredient (these block UV rays via a physical instead of chemical barrier).
5. Less able to regulate temperature Unlike adults, whose blood vessels in the dermis widen or narrow to regulate body temperature, babies are not as adept at body temperature maintenance. It is therefore important that we be proactive about managing factors that can affect body temperature, especially when your baby is suffering from a rash that may be triggered by heat. Babies also have fewer sweat glands, so they can’t sweat to cool down like adults.
Take Home Nugget: Dress your baby in breathable layers to be able to regulate their temperature for them. Ventilate and cool their body if it is overheated. Remember, the skin is the first line of defense for the human body and your baby needs your help to maintain that defense during the first few years of life. So make sure you give that delicate skin the TLC it deserves!
Sarah Kolman is the mom of three boys, a Registered Nurse, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and has a master's degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy. Her private practice as a health coach blends her experience and career as a nurse with her passion for nutrition and holistic wellness. She is the author of Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family's Whole Health in a Busy World.