Looking after your baby's skin. Do you know what's safe to use?

Rosie Taylor

Your baby’s skin is precious so what products are safe to use? Rosie Taylor looks at the latest research.

From baby washes, to moisturisers and even baby massage oils, there are so many baby skincare products these days that choosing which to use on your child can be overwhelming. Type “baby skin” into pharmacist Boots’ online shop, for example, and you’ll find 173 products on sale.

But just because products are being sold in high street stores by reputable brands, doesn’t mean you can automatically assume they are safe for your baby. Scientists have warned that while these products have passed cosmetic safety tests, many have not undergone clinical trials because they are not regulated in the same way as medical products. This means there is often no scientific evidence proving the products will not damage delicate baby skin.

Babies’ skin is different from adults’: it is softer, more delicate and susceptible to irritants. In children under two, the skin is not fully developed, which means everything from the way the skin cells align together to the skin’s ability to protect the body from infection is not as robust as in adults.

It can take up to two years for the skin to develop the barrier protects it from irritants. Its outer layer – the epidermis – is around 20 to 30 per cent thinner than adult skin, so it is more fragile. Baby skin has a relatively high level of lipids (fats) which mean oil-based products are more likely to cause it irritation. Babies also sweat less than adults but absorb and lose moisture more quickly. The skin can be more likely to develop conditions such as eczema, if not cared for properly.

All this means treatments and products which work well for adults are not necessarily good for delicate baby skin.

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 What the Study shows

Dr Carol Bedwell was part of a University of Manchester team which reviewed all the available scientific research from around the world into baby skincare. The researchers compared the results of studies from a variety of countries including the UK, but found there was very little reliable evidence proving any product had any benefits for babies.

They discovered there was “absolutely no evidence” about safety or efficacy when it came to haircare or baby massage products and evidence for others, such as bathing and washing products, was “relatively limited”.

Presenting the study at the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) conference 2016, Dr Bedwell said: “Considering the wealth of products that are out there, it’s probably surprising that there are so few clinical trials completed for these. They often go through cosmetic trials but they don’t go through clinical trials, as such.”

The team compared reliable studies which each measured how one branded product compared to water – the gold standard – in three factors affecting baby skin: water loss through the skin, skin hydration and pH. They found only one product – Johnson’s Head to Toe – was reliably shown to be no more or less harmful than water for washing healthy, full-term babies. This means the product was shown not to harm the skin of babies, but it didn’t have any benefits over and above water either. Some of the studies were part-funded by the Johnson’s brand, although the results were deemed independent and reliable by the scientists.

Dr Bedwell added: “We know [parents] are confused by the wealth of products that are out there. We know that they are keen to use them but there is an assumption that if they are available they are also safe for use… there needs to be more research.”

While we wait for that research to be carried out, parents can rely on the fact that plain water is safe and certainly no worse at cleaning or hydrating baby skin than any product currently on sale.

The official NHS watchdog NICE says parents should ideally not use any products on their baby’s skin, and if they do, they should use unperfumed soap. However, NICE representatives have admitted this advice is ‘out of date’. Speaking at the same RCM conference, Professor Rona McCandlish, who chaired the writing of the 2006 guideline, said there was increasing evidence some branded baby skincare products were safe, while soap may not be as safe as previously thought.

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