Taking Care of Baby's Sensitive Skin

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 28, 2010
5 min read

Although you want to keep your new baby clean and her skin healthy and soft, you might worry about the chemicals in your baby shampoos, soaps, and lotions. Do you need them? Could any of those additives and preservatives -- like parabens and phthalates -- be harmful to her?

To get some guidance, WebMD turned to two early childhood experts: Tanya Remer Altmann, MD, author of Mommy Calls: Dr. Tanya Answers Parents' Top 101 Questions About Babies and Toddler; and Harvey Karp MD, creator of the books and DVDs The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block.

Although you might hope that products designed for babies are risk-free, that's not necessarily the case.

Many contain additives that are potential irritants or allergens, says Altmann. Most babies won't have a problem. Some can develop skin irritation, like eczema, from exposure to ingredients in these products.

Are there more serious risks? That's an unanswered question. Additives like parabens and phthalates -- dibutyl phthalate (DBP), dimethylphthalate (DMP) and diethyl phthalate (DEP) concern some experts, says Karp.

Some laboratory studies have found evidence that phthalates and parabens have the potential to alter hormone levels in the body. Theoretically, they could interfere with normal development, Karp says. Both can be absorbed through the skin; studies have found that they can show up in a child's urine.

However, there's a lot we don't know. The studies showing health effects are limited. Most were conducted on animals. There's no clear evidence that they have an effect on people -- and no clear evidence that they don’t.

If you're concerned and want to reduce your baby's exposure to these chemicals, there's good news. It doesn't have to be hard, Karp says.

"You don't have to go boil your own beef tallow to make soap," says Karp. "You can go to just about any supermarket or pharmacy in the country and find better products."

Here's some guidance.

  • Less is more. Let's start with the most important, basic fact: your baby doesn't need a lot of special soaps and baby shampoos. For washing, plain soap and water is just about all you need with young babies. They don't even need that much bathing at all. "With young babies, bathing two to three days a week is probably enough," says Altmann. They really don't get that dirty. Excessive bathing could dry out your baby's skin.
  • Consider natural ingredients. When you're shopping for soaps, baby shampoos, and lotions, look for natural ingredients that you recognize. Karp recommends using products that are based on vegetable oils, like Castile soap made with olive oil. You could use almond oil or hot cocoa butter for your baby's bottom instead of creams with lots of chemical ingredients. He also recommends keeping an aloe vera plant in the house; a leaf will help soothe diaper rash. Is natural always better? No. Plenty of natural products can also contain substances that are allergens or irritants for some kids, says Altmann. You can also never be sure that a product that's advertised as "natural" really is. Still, Karp says that going natural is at least a step in the right direction.
  • Look for simplicity. "If a shampoo contains 20 ingredients and you can't pronounce any of them, you might want to choose something else," Karp says. Of course, the amount of a chemical substance like a paraben or phthalate in a baby shampoo or soap is minute. But Karp points out that we're not only using one product. "Our kids might be getting these additives in 10-20 different products each day," Karp tells WebMD. "We haven't studied what happens when we use these products in combination." By looking for simpler products, you're reducing your child's overall exposure.
  • Skip the antibacterial soap. Although you might be especially anxious about germs when you have a young baby, experts say you really don't need antibacterial soap. The fact is that regular soap works just as well at getting rid of germs as antibacterial soap does. Antibacterial soap just includes extra chemicals -- like triclosan -- that your baby doesn't really need.
  • Avoid fragrances. That bottle of baby shampoo might smell "fresh" or "clean," but the fragrance is likely the result of many chemicals. Allergens and irritants in fragrances are a leading cause of skin reactions and they can dry out a baby's skin. Watch out for the word "fragrance" when listed as an ingredient on a body care product -- it's a catchall term for any of the chemicals used in making the aroma. "A lot of the phthalates that people worry about are actually in fragrances," Altmann says. "By cutting out fragrance, you cut out some of those additives."

Are natural fragrances better? Not always, Altmann says. Some kids will have reactions to those too. Go with unscented whenever you can.

  • Try it first. When you have a new baby skin care product, put a little bit on your baby's arm. Then wait a few hours to see if she has any skin reaction to it.

Thinking about what's in your baby's skin and hair care products makes sense, but you don't need to become obsessive, researching the implications of every ingredient in every single baby shampoo, soap, and skin care product -- not to mention detergent, toy, teether, food, sunscreen, and piece of clothing.

"You're not a biochemist," says Karp. "Even doctors get confused by this stuff." You can't be expected to figure this all out on your own.

Remember also that avoiding products with chemical additives is not a medical necessity. We don't really know if they have health effects or what health these effects may be. It's just that some parents choose to take extra precautions in case they are.

Karp stresses that preventing exposure to chemicals doesn't require massive changes to your life.

"No one can do everything to reduce their child's exposure to these substances," says Karp. "But everyone can do something." Added up, and over time, little changes might make a difference.