What causes dry skin on a baby’s face?

Children
It is relatively common for newborns and older babies to have some dry skin on their faces. In most cases this dry skin is harmless, and it tends to clear up without treatment.

Babies often have dry skin on their faces because their skin is more sensitive than adults. Their skin may be adjusting to the environment outside the womb, or it may be reacting to allergens in products or clothes. Dehydration and skin conditions can also cause dry skin.

Most cases are minor, temporary, and of little cause for concern, though some may need specialist advice, treatment and continued observation.

The following sections look at the causes of dry skin in a baby’s face and treatments.

1. Newborn skin peeling

Baby with dry red skin on face crawling towards camera
It is common for babies to have dry skin on their face occasionally.

It is common for newborn babies to have peeling skin for a week or two after birth.

In the womb, amniotic fluid surrounds the fetus, and the skin does not exfoliate as it does outside the womb. In the early days after birth, a newborn’s skin might appear dry and may peel.

In the womb, a waxy coating of vernix covers the fetus’s skin, which protects it from the amniotic fluid. Leaving the vernix on the baby’s skin for a while immediately after birth may help the baby’s skin to adapt to the environment outside the womb.

Preterm babies often have less vernix and less skin peeling than babies born at term. Overdue babies often have less vernix, but more skin peeling than babies born at term.

Skin peeling is a natural process, and most babies do not need treatment. Dry skin will go away on its own, though people can use gentle home remedies to speed up this process. Using warm baths and humidifiers can help.


2. Overexposure to water

Long baths, especially those with hot water, tend to wash away some of the skin’s naturally present oils. This increases the risk of dry, peeling skin. Avoid using harsh, potent soaps as these have a similar drying effect.

It is best to limit a baby’s bath time to 15 minutes in lukewarm water. Dry the baby’s skin gently by patting their face with a soft towel. Avoid rubbing with the towel to reduce friction and minimize the risk of skin peeling.

People may consider keeping a gentle baby-friendly moisturizer handy to apply occasionally if a baby has excessively dry skin.


3. Dehydration

Breastfeeding can help keep a baby hydrated,
Breastfeeding can help keep a baby hydrated.

Cool, dry environments — both outside and in the home — dehydrate the skin very quickly and can lead to breaks in or peeling of the skin.

Often, a humidifier can help regulate moisture levels in a room but first check with the pediatrician whether it is OK to use one.

In the case of newborns, breast milk is the best solution to keep them hydrated and healthy. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommend exclusive breastfeeding, meaning no other food or liquids, for 6 months from the time of birth.


4. Use of alcohol-based lotions

One of the most important to-dos while shopping for baby products is to read the packaging label. Avoid lotions and creams that have an alcohol base, as they dehydrate the skin’s outer surface.

5. Ichthyosis

Ichthyosis is a group of genetic skin conditions that cause peeling and dryness of the skin that is often severe. The word ‘ichthyosis’ comes from the Greek word ‘ichthys’ — meaning fish — since people with this condition have scaly-looking skin.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, there are more than 20 different types of ichthyosis. Ichthyosis vulgaris is the mildest form of the condition that develops during infancy or childhood.

Doctors diagnose ichthyosis if it is present at birth based on the family’s medical history and a physical examination. They may also ask for a blood or skin sample to confirm the condition.

Ichthyosis has no cure, but many topical creams can help relieve dryness and control other symptoms. However, do not use over-the-counter (OTC) remedies unless prescribed by a dermatologist or pediatrician.


6. Eczema

Eczema can cause dry and itchy skin.
Eczema can cause dry and itchy skin.

In some cases, a skin condition called atopic dermatitis or eczema can also lead to dryness on a baby’s face. Sometimes, the cause of eczema is unknown, but experts have found that nearly half the people with moderate to severe eczema also have asthma, seasonal allergies or allergic rhinitis, or food allergies, though these do not usually start in early infancy.

Common symptoms of eczema are:

  • itchy skin
  • dry or peeling skin
  • red, chafed, or thick skin
  • inflammation that comes and goes
  • rash on the face, neck, wrists, knees, elbows, and ankles

In babies with eczema, dry skin tends to worsen the rash and itching. Talk to a doctor who will recommend creams or ointments to relieve symptoms.

Treatments

In most cases, dry skin on a baby’s face does not require treatment. People can, however, relieve the symptoms or speed up healing using a few methods.

We discuss 10 home remedies to relieve dry skin on a baby’s face here.


Prevention

Some simple tips and home remedies to prevent dry skin include:

  • using a baby-friendly moisturizer if needed, though this is usually not necessary and most babies do best with as few lotions put on their skin as possible
  • keeping the baby away from cold indoor and outdoor conditions
  • avoiding harsh, heavily scented creams and perfumes around the baby
  • keeping bath time to a maximum of 15 minutes
  • gently patting dry the baby’s face and avoid rubbing their skin with the towel to reduce friction


Takeaway

Baby skin, especially that of a newborn, is more fragile, more prone to infection, and more permeable to external agents than the skin of older children and adults.

Many babies experience dry, peeling skin during infancy. Sometimes, skin peels as a result of temporary natural causes, while other times, irritants, genetic conditions, or environmental conditions cause the skin to peel.

If dryness persists for more than a couple of weeks, check with a pediatrician or dermatologist to identify the root cause and find a more permanent solution.

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