How to Keep Your Baby's Skin Healthy When the Temps Drop

Cold weather can be hard on a baby's delicate skin. Learn how to protect your little one from rashes, dryness, and more all season long.

From the first snowfall to sledding in the backyard, there's a lot for a baby to enjoy during the winter. Unfortunately, though, it can also be the worst season for your child's tender skin. Cold, dry air can sap precious moisture. And if you're not careful? It's easy for young skin to go from supple to leathery and windburned.

"I was absolutely shocked by how much my son Nicholas's skin changed during his very first winter—not just on his face but elsewhere, too," says Karla Duke, a mother in Monroe, North Carolina. "His skin was so scaly and dry in places that it felt exactly like a lizard's."

Luckily, there's plenty you can do to protect your child from seasonal skin hazards. Here, experts weigh in with simple, sensible advice.

Protect Against Temperature Changes

Winter poses a triple threat to your child's skin: "The combination of low humidity, cold temperatures, and wind can be particularly rough," says Paul Honig, M.D., an emeritus professor of pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Add in the temperature shifts your baby endures as you shuttle her between the chilly outdoors and the heated indoors, and it becomes especially important to give your baby's skin some extra TLC. These basic steps can prevent many problems (or keep them from becoming severe).

  • Spread moisturizer on thick. If any areas of your child's skin look or feel dry, immediately apply a generous amount of baby moisturizing cream or a thick ointment such as petroleum jelly.
  • Stick with fragrance-free products. Baby soaps and lotions free of scent are less likely to be irritating.
  • Invest in a humidifier. "Using a humidifier, especially in your child's room, can minimize the drying effects of the season," says Anthony J. Mancini, M.D., a professor of pediatrics and dermatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. For safety reasons, don't place the humidifier near or directly over your child. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also recommends using a cool-mist humidifier over a warm-mist one.
  • Be clothes-conscious. Overbundling your child can make him sweat, leading to blocked glands and skin irritation, while underdressing can dry out exposed skin or aggravate a pre-existing condition.

Soothe Common Skin Woes

Your baby's skin is so soft and delicate that it's bound to suffer from some irritation this winter, no matter how cautious you are. Here's how to treat the most common problems. And remember: For any of the below conditions, contact your child's pediatrician if symptoms persist or if there's bleeding, excessive itching, oozing, or scabbing.

  • Create a barrier to treat chapping. The area around your baby's mouth and chin can become chapped from the combination of cold and your baby's drool. The solution? "Create a barrier between the skin and saliva," suggests Dr. Mancini. Applying a thick, greasy moisturizer or cream should do the trick. The skin around your child's nostrils can become irritated too, especially if her nose is runny. Dab on a bit of a petroleum-based product, such as Aquaphor.
  • Cover up to prevent windburn. Exposed skin, especially on your child's cheeks, bears the brunt of any stiff, dry wind that comes along. The result can be windburn—sensitive, dry, red patches that resemble sunburn. Cover your child up as best you can and use a thick lotion with SPF 15 or higher. (Sunburn is a risk even in the winter, partly because of how intensely snow reflects the sun.)
  • Shop smart to fight eczema. Low humidity can aggravate this fairly common skin disease; its main symptoms are itchy, red patches on the cheeks, scalp, hands, and feet. Avoid wool and perfumed lotions or soaps, and ask your pediatrician about treating the irritated areas with an anti-inflammatory cream.
  • Beware of prickly heat. Prickly heat isn't just a summertime problem. Dressing your child in too many layers can also lead to these tiny red bumps. A cool compress or a tepid bath can relieve itching, as can keeping your child cool and letting his skin breathe. This is one time when applying some lotion won't help: "It will only make the rash worse because sweat glands are already blocked," Dr. Mancini cautions.
  • Keep outdoor time short to prevent frostnip. This precursor to frostbite can strike when the skin is exposed to wind and cold temperatures for too long. The affected areas—usually the cheeks, nose, fingers, and toes—turn so pale they look whitish or ashen, but return to their usual color soon after being warmed. If you suspect that your baby has frostnip, immediately take her in out of the cold and try to warm her skin using your hands, warm towels, or warm (but not hot) water. If none of these techniques work, take her to the hospital right away.

Master Bath Time

When the wind is howling and the temperature is plummeting, it seems only natural to treat your baby to a long, warm bath. But watch out: Too much time in the tub can dry out his skin. Here's how to keep your little one clean without overburdening their skin.

  • Time baths accordingly. Infants don't need to be bathed every day. But if your baby finds a daily bath soothing, you don't necessarily have to change your routine. "Just make sure the bath lasts no longer than 10 minutes and that the water is lukewarm, not hot," says Dr. Mancini.
  • Moisturize post-bath. After a bath, pat your infant dry, then apply a thick cream or lotion. "Moisturize within three minutes of the bath, while there are still water droplets on the skin, or as soon as is practical," Dr. Mancini says. "This will help seal in the moisture."

Originally published in the February 2003 issue of Parents magazine.

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