Skin Care for Babies & Children

A healthy, safe skin-care routine for your child should revolve around one word: gentle. But did you know many skin-care products made for babies and children contain irritating ingredients? That's not good for your child's skin—but there are alternatives!
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Gentle Products for Babies & Children

Do Your Child's Products Smell Like Trouble?

Products may look (and smell) like they're made with kids in mind, but you need to ignore the colorful packaging and the emotional pull and go right to the ingredient list. Be on the lookout for the following common irritants:

  • Fragrances: Added fragrance, or perfume (synthetic or natural) has no benefit and is always problematic for your child's skin (and for yours!). Fragrance can irritate the skin below its surface, so even though you may not notice a reaction in your child's skin, that doesn't mean damage isn't occurring.
  • Essential oils and fragrant plant extracts: There are many beneficial natural ingredients, but just because something is a plant doesn't mean it's good for your skin. Essential oils and some extracts, such as citrus, peppermint, menthol, eucalyptus, and lavender to name a few, are potent irritants that can make skin red, inflamed, and itchy, as well as hurt the skin's healing process. It is shocking how often these irritants appear in children's skin-care products, even in those labeled as being gentle or fragrance-free!
  • Coloring agents: Designed for visual appeal, children's skin-care products often contain a parent-pleasing pink, lavender, or yellow tint. The product may look great to you, but coloring agents can be a problem for your young one's tender skin.

For a detailed list of common irritants to avoid, see our article Irritation: Your Skin's Worst Enemy. For information on over 1,600 common cosmetic ingredients, see our Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary.

When shopping for children's skin-care products, look for products that are free of fragrance and coloring agents, and avoid those that contain fragrant plant oils or extracts. Brands that offer fragrance-free options include:

  • California Baby (their Super Sensitive products)
  • Aveeno Baby
  • Pharmaceutical Specialties (Free & Clear)
  • Cetaphil
  • CeraVe
  • Aquaphor Baby from Eucerin
  • Nature's Baby Organics (select products)
  • Paula's Choice Earth Sourced (but all Paula's Choice skin-care products are fragrance- and colorant-free)

Children's Skin Care 101

The basics of your child's skin-care routine should include:

  • Gentle, fragrance-free body wash and/or shampoo.
  • Tear-free claims on the package. This doesn't guarantee it won't cause tears, but it reduces the likelihood of the problem.
  • Fragrance-free baby wipes. Especially important to help heal diaper rash; these are surprisingly easy to find at drugstores and wholesale retailers such as Costco.
  • Moisturizer formulated without fragrance or the irritants mentioned above. (Tip: "Adult" sensitive-skin formulas are excellent for children, too!)
  • Fragrance-free zinc oxide or petrolatum-based diaper rash ointments (Very few are fragrance-free, but try Triple Paste Medicated Ointment for Diaper Rash).
  • Cornstarch-based, talc-free powder to help absorb wetness and prevent chafing.
  • Broad-spectrum sunscreen rated SPF 15 or greater with the active ingredients titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide.
  • Fragrance-free mineral oil can be used as massage oil for your baby. A brief massage at night might even help your child fall asleep more easily.

We can't stress this enough: Sun exposure is especially damaging to children's skin because their skin's immune defenses are still developing, which means babies and children more susceptible to sunburn and sun damage.

NOTE: Generally, applying sunscreen on children less than six months of age is not recommended; instead, sun avoidance is the critical factor. If your infant must be outside, take preventive steps such as protective clothing and shade over the stroller so as to avoid exposing your child's skin to direct sunlight. Check with your pediatrician for guidelines on sun protection.

Diaper Rash

This is one of the most common skin conditions in children and something that almost every parent must deal with. Following are some basic facts to help you understand what is taking place and what you can do about it.

Chafing can occur from a wet diaper rubbing against the skin, from folds of the baby's skin rubbing together, or just from a baby's skin being wet for too long:

  • Use a mild, unscented zinc oxide– or petrolatum-based diaper ointment and a fragrance-free powder to help alleviate problems from wetness and rubbing.
  • Change diapers frequently.
  • If chafing persists, try a different brand/type of diaper (cloth or disposable).
  • Try a different type of baby wipe because some can be irritating to skin, even if they are fragrance-free.
  • Consider using water to rinse off the residue left behind from a baby wipe because the cleansing agents potentially can irritate skin.
  • When changing diapers be sure the skin is completely dry before putting on a fresh diaper.
  • Laundry detergents can leave a film on diapers or clothing that can cause irritation. All Free & Clear is a good detergent to consider, as are products from Dreft.
  • Stubborn diaper rash that doesn't respond to conventional treatment may be a sign of a yeast or bacterial infection, in which case you should have the pediatrician examine your child.

Cradle Cap (Seborrheic Dermatitis)

In babies, cradle cap appears as red, scaly, flaky skin on the scalp, but it also can appear on other areas of the body, such as the face and neck. The causes of cradle cap are unknown, but it's believed to stem from excessive production of oil, which traps dead skin cells and creates crusty, flaking areas that appear greasy and thick.

Cradle cap is definitely unsightly, but it is not an infection, and typically it does not cause itching or discomfort. Over time, cradle cap will clear up, but you can hasten the process with these tips:

  • Gentle daily cleansing with a mild shampoo until cradle cap clears up; then cleanse every other day.
  • A soft brushing helps loosen flaking, especially right after shampooing. Use a children's hair brush with extra-soft nylon bristles. Do not use brushes with natural bristles because they can harbor bacteria, causing serious problems for skin.
  • Medicated shampoos, such as those containing salicylic acid, zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide, or ketoconazole, are options, but check with your pediatrician before use.
  • Avoid applying petroleum jelly or similar ointments meant for dry skin, because they won't help cradle cap. In fact, such products can trap more dead skin cells and slow the healing process.
  • If your child begins to scratch at the flaking areas, your pediatrician may suggest hydrocortisone or an anti-yeast topical cream.

Keratosis Pilaris

Keratosis pilaris (KP) often looks like tiny red bumps on the upper arms, neck, or legs (sometimes described as "chicken skin"). KP results from clogged pores caused by a buildup of dead skin cells. KP is not an issue of hygiene or an infection.

For very young children (check with your doctor) it is best to ignore KP unless the area becomes irritated and inflamed. Here are the best ways to treat your child's KP:

  • Wash the affected area twice daily with a gentle, water-soluble lotion or gel cleanser.
  • Do not use bar soap or a bar cleanser. Bar cleansers are almost always irritating, and the ingredients that keep them in bar form can clog pores.
  • Apply a mild BHA* (salicylic acid) lotion, such as Paula's Choice Resist Weightless Body Treatment with 2% BHA.
  • If the skin is also dry, apply a lightweight, lotion-textured (not cream-textured) fragrance-free moisturizer. CeraVe Moisturizing Lotion is great.
  • Be sure to keep exposed skin protected during the day by applying a sunscreen rated SPF 15 or greater, and greater is better.

*Be sure to get your pediatrician's OK before applying a BHA product to your child's skin, especially if he or she is still an infant.

Eczema

Eczema is very common among babies and children. In children it usually looks like red, irritated scaly patches, along with tiny blister-like eruptions. The skin may even become so dry it cracks.

Treatments for eczema vary, so it is best to consult your child's pediatrician for specific recommendations. For more information on this complicated topic, see our article Eczema: Stop the Itch.

With a bit of research, you can easily find the essentials to ensure you're taking good care of your child's skin! Be sure to avoid products with fragrance and coloring agents, and think gentle! Your little one's skin will thank you by looking smooth and healthy! And, of course, don't forget to consult a pediatrician before treating any skin condition.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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