Protect Your Child’s Skin From Irritants

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 13, 2011
5 min read

To kids, home is a safe haven where they play with toys and cuddle with their pets. Unfortunately, in addition to the things they cherish most, many children share their homes with skin irritants that can make them less than comfortable.

“Children are sensitive little creatures; they have thinner skin than adults, and their immune systems aren’t completely developed, so they aren’t as well-equipped to deal with the irritants in their environments,” says Francesca Fusco, MD, dermatologist in private practice in New York City.”

Some of the skin irritants she refers to lurk in the products you least expect; ironically, in the very things you use to make your home clean and inviting. The culprits may include air fresheners, bubble bath, soaps, deodorants, fabric softeners, carpet deodorizers, and many other household products.

Here are some household products that are particularly likely to cause skin problems such as itching, redness, or other skin irritation in sensitive children.

Laundry detergents and fabric softeners: “The perfumes and additives in laundry products may cause skin problems,” Dr. Fusco says. “Fabric softener is very allergenic and can cause eczema, which appears as dry, itchy skin,” she says. As an alternative, she suggests using fragrance-free laundry products. Or add a studded laundry ball to the dryer when laundering little ones’ clothes. “It contains no chemicals; the action of it banging around the dryer softens clothing,” she says. Fusco says that adding a little vinegar to the final rinse is another mild alternative to fabric softener.

Fragranced products: Scented soaps, lotions, and shampoos smell nice, but they contain substances that can cause children’s skin allergies and other skin irritations. “Fragrance usually comes from a mix of chemicals added to products,” says Sarah L. Stein, MD, pediatric dermatologist at Comer Children’s Hospital at University of Chicago. Stein recommends using fragrance-free alternatives and being wary of "unscented" imposters. Sometimes manufacturers add ingredients to products to mask the scent. Products are labeled "unscented," but fragrance still lurks. Look for labels that specify “fragrance-free” or “hypoallergenic.”

Harsh soaps: Bar soaps that children use on their bodies and faces and antimicrobial hand soap can adversely affect the skin. “The detergents in these soaps are abrasive and lead to irritated, itchy skin,” says Fusco. The sudsier a soap, the more likely it is to lead to children’s skin problems, according to Fusco. Stick with suds-free or low-sudsing soaps. When in doubt, ask your dermatologist for suggestions.

Exotic fruits: Fruit bowls are countertop staples in many households. And although fruit is a great source of fiber and vitamins for growing kids, some can cause skin allergies in children. “For example, mango rinds can cause a rash around the mouth that looks similar to poison ivy. And when citrus fruits land on your skin and the sun then hits the same area, you can get a red, itchy reaction that looks like a stain on the skin,” Fusco says. To prevent reactions, wash all fruit before cutting or eating it, and keep the rinds of acidic, exotic, or citrus fruits away from sensitive skin.

Organic alternatives: A lot of products labeled “natural” or “organic” contain botanicals. “Although they come from plants, botanicals can cause children’s skin allergies and sensitivities,” Stein says. If sensitive skin is an issue, avoid using products that contain botanicals or plant-based substances, which may irritate delicate skin. You’ll also want to be cautious if a label touts “natural fragrance.” This is a mixture that may include irritating botanicals, Stein cautions.

Aerosol irritants: Although they don’t touch your children directly, air fresheners, incense, candles and other products that produce vapors can irritate young skin. “Aerosolized household products are huge triggers for skin reactions in kids,” Stein says. Aerosolized products may include stain removers, furniture polish, and even all-purpose cleaning products. The solution? Minimize your use of these products, particularly when children are around.

Furry friends: Pets can cause children’s skinallergies, sneezing, and itchy eyes, Stein says. The shampoo used to wash your dog or cat could also be to blame. The only sure way to rid your children of pet-related skin reactions is to eliminate the offending animal. If that’s not an option, consider the following:

  • Limit your child’s exposure to the dog or cat.
  • Clean your home often.
  • Bathe your pet at least once a week.
  • If possible, keep the animal outside.

When it comes to household skin irritants, you can only do so much to protect your children. If your child has already developed a reaction -- if he has dry, irritated, itchy skin -- it takes a good detective to pinpoint the exact cause. “Think back to the last few days -- what your child was doing and what he or she was exposed to -- and try to identify the allergen,” Fusco says. And remember: If a reaction is directly related to a product that touches the skin, it will usually appear on the areas that product was applied. If the reaction is more generalized, it may be from a household skin irritant you spray, such as furniture polish or air freshener. Once you’ve identified the offending skin irritant, remove it from your household.

If your child has itchy skin but you don’t think the reaction is severe enough to require a trip to the doctor, apply a topical anti-itch lotion that contains menthol, Fusco suggests. “Keep the lotion in the refrigerator so you can apply it cool. It will be more soothing to kids’ skin,” she says. If that doesn’t work, she suggests trying some over-the-counter 0.5% hydrocortisone cream.

You can often prevent children’s skin problems simply by avoiding known household skin irritants or by following some of the tips provided above. However, some situations may require your pediatrician’s expertise.

“If you have an active rash, you may need medication to heal it,” Stein says. Contact your child’s health care professional if any of the following occurs:

  • Your child develops a fever or evidence of an infection, such as redness, blisters, yellow crusting or oozing of fluid.
  • The rash is severe and does not respond to home treatment.
  • Your child’s rash spreads, or he or she develops another rash.