Baby Skincare Basics All First-Time Parents Should Know

Experts weigh in on simple steps to protect your little one's skin.

Mother is changing son's diaper on her bed while smiling
Photo: Kristen Curette & Daemaine Hines/Stocksy

Skin, the human body's largest organ, provides head-to-toe coverage for your newborn. And pediatric dermatologists agree that the way you care for your baby's skin is important to their health.

“How babies are exposed to the world through their skin matters,” says Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., MBE, FAAP, a mom, pediatrician, and chief medical officer of SpoonfulONE, an allergen introduction product for babies.

"During critical periods of development, like infancy, what goes on our baby's skin can go into our baby's body and have an effect," she adds.

Many parents aren't aware that it can take two to four years for a child’s skin to undergo the full maturation process, says Latanya Benjamin, M.D., FAAP, FAAD, a pediatric dermatologist who owns a private medical practice in Coral Springs, Florida. During that time, infant skin is susceptible to disruption from external factors, such as weather, topical products, and other potential irritants.

Even parents' own routines can irritate their baby's skin, says Karan Lal, D.O., MS, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Scottsdale, Arizona and member of the Society for Pediatric Dermatology. He tells his patients that everything from fragrant candles burning in the room to perfume or cologne lingering on their skin and clothes to habits like smoking can all potentially irritate a baby's skin or trigger an allergic reaction.

"Sometimes there are parents who are doing the absolute right thing [with baby], but it's what they're doing to their body and their skin that can influence their baby's health," Dr. Lal says.

Besides being irresistible to pinch and cuddle, a baby’s skin is also a form of armor, says Dr. Benjamin, noting that the role of skincare should support that armor on your little one.

Here are simple ways to care for your baby’s skin.

The Art of Bathing

How often you bathe your baby is subjective. While dermatologists' recommendations vary from a few times a week to bathing daily, they agree that the important thing to avoid is drying out your baby's skin.

Dr. Swanson has seen families build in a bathing routine every night before bedtime, which she says can be OK as long as parents are adding a moisturization routine as well. (Remember, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends only giving your newborn sponge baths until the umbilical cord stump falls off. After that, you can put your baby in the water.)

Parents can set themselves up for success by finding the right size tub for their baby and having all the products and bathing accessories within arm’s reach, so the baby isn't left unattended, says Dr. Benjamin. She recommends filling the tub with about two inches of lukewarm water to avoid exposure to extreme water temperatures.

Using a baby washcloth, gently cleanse the areas that need to be cleansed, such as the diaper area, the folds of skin (armpits), and the feet.

"Really, the rest of the skin does not need soap every single day," explains Dr. Lal, adding that two or three times a week of full-body cleansing will suffice. "And the reason is because babies, in general, lose a lot of moisture from their skin."

Bath time should only last five to seven minutes, he says, even on full-body cleansing days. The AAP notes that baths should be no more than 10 minutes.

After bathing, immediately wrap your baby in a towel, preferably one with a hood, says Dr. Benjamin, as babies can also lose a lot of heat from their scalp.

After patting your baby dry, immediately moisturize to help seal in hydration and protect their skin barrier.

Diapering Explained

Babies basically live in diapers, so it's no surprise that diaper rash is one of the most common skin conditions in infants.

Diaper rash can be caused by prolonged exposure to a dirty diaper and the drying effects of soaps, says Dr. Benjamin.

When babies have a diaper rash, the skin can become pink or red and tender, she explains. She suggests that parents practice frequent diaper changes, especially in cases of diarrhea or any condition that's making their baby poop more often, as the risk of diaper rash increases.

Parents should also practice gentle cleaning of the diaper area to avoid any extra irritation. Dr. Benjamin recommends avoiding scented baby wipes or wipes that are alcohol-based.

When it comes to choosing diaper rash creams, parents should opt for ones that have a high concentration of zinc oxide. These provide a protective barrier to help relieve irritation from the rash, Dr. Benjamin says.

Consider the Weather

Protection from sun damage is essential, no matter how dark or light your baby's skin tone is. The AAP recommends keeping babies younger than 6 months out of direct sunlight.

"Any kind of exposure to UV radiation will damage the skin," says Dr. Swanson. "And since the skin is more fragile and susceptible in early life, we want to make sure that families are really protecting a baby's skin from the sun."

The best way to offer sun protection is with shade and protective clothing, she says. If those measures aren’t possible, baby-safe sunscreen can be applied to sun-exposed areas. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are Dr. Swanson's two favorite ingredients for infant sunscreen.

Conditions like cold weather and dry weather can have an effect on your baby's skin. Parents should be aware of any kind of extreme environmental conditions their baby can be exposed to, says Dr. Lal. He encourages parents to also keep in mind that it's harder for babies to tolerate excess heat, which makes them more vulnerable to heat rash.

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