What causes sensitive skin in babies?

Your baby's skin may be super soft, but it's sensitive, too.
Your baby's skin may be super soft, but it's sensitive, too.  Photo: Getty Images

Anyone who has stroked the face of a newborn knows that baby skin is as soft and delicate as it comes. But while it is soft, baby skin is also incredibly sensitive.

Dr Michael Freeman, lead dermatologist with The Skin Centre, says that infant skin is different to adult skin. "Baby skin continues to develop through the first year of life and is particularly susceptible to infection," he says.

In adults, the skin barrier, also known as the epidermis, plays a vital role as the defender and gatekeeper of the body. Thinner than plastic wrap, the main role of the epidermis is to prevent our water-rich internal organs from drying out.

The skin barrier also acts like a dam, keeping too much water from getting into the body – it allows just enough water to enter the body without flooding it.

But babies' skin is thinner and has less natural moisturiser than that of adults, making it vital we protect it for them. "It also loses more water than adult skin," Dr Freeman says.

Premature babies have even more sensitive skin, because the barrier didn't have time to develop as it normally would.

There are many common mistakes parents make with their baby's skin when they first come home from hospital, says Dr Freeman: these include over-cleansing, using strong soaps and shampoos at bath time, keeping the baby in the bath too long, and making the bath water too hot.

Dr Freeman says that his number one tip for parents is to use their own skin to fortify their newborns delicate skin. "When you get your baby home from hospital rub your healthy skin against the baby to inoculate healthy bacteria onto your baby," he says.

This is called early microbial colonisation, and is thought to influence the development of the immune function in skin.

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Of course, there are other benefits to skin-to-skin contact with a new baby, and it is something both parents and baby will enjoy.

In addition to skin-to-skin contact, it is important to choose bath washes and moisturisers very carefully, trying to avoid products with soaps and fragrances. Dr Freeman also advises, "Avoid products with the preservative methylisothiazolinone (ME) and always use safe moisturisers. Remember that some vegetable oils can degrade and would then irritate the skin."

After bathing, babies should be patted rather than rubbed dry with a soft towel. You can also tumble dry towels to make them even softer.

For children suffering from eczema, Dr Freeman suggests using a liquid cleanser (non soap) with a moisturiser that doesn't compromise the skin barrier. It is a good idea to apply an appropriate moisturiser several times a day.

Another way parents and carers can protect sensitive skin is to ensure that it's kept dry. "Exposure for long periods to saliva, and excretions such as urine and faeces, especially in the nappy region, can lead to discomfort, irritation, infection, and skin barrier breakdown," Dr Freeman says. "This process greatly increases sensitivity and the chance of becoming allergic to chemicals put onto the skin such as preservatives."

Given the harsh Australian sun, many parents wonder if they should apply sunscreen to their newborn babies before going outside. This isn't a good idea because babies have more skin surface than adults, making them receive a higher dose of chemicals, which increases the chance of an adverse reaction.

Instead, keep babies in the shade and protect their skin with long sleeved clothing. Baby sunscreen is available for babies that are over six months.

There is a good reason why people use babies' bottoms as a bench mark for softness – but don't forget that while babies have beautifully soft skin, it is also sensitive and needs to looked after.