Common myths about baby skincare

10 October 2010

Which skincare practices should be encouraged to protect baby skin, and which are unfounded myths?

Baby skincare

Maintaining baby skin hygiene and health is of key importance. In so doing, most parents' and caregivers' intention is to do good, or at least to do no harm. This explains why there have been some efforts to either minimise exposure to cleansing products or to use products or emollients that appear as being most natural or harmless. However, some of these practices are being unveiled in the evidenced-based world as unfounded myths, or can even cause skin problems. Let's look at three widespread myths.

Key Points

  • Water is the basis for almost all cleaning procedures, but water-only bathing is not an effective cleansing method and can dry or irritate the skin.
  • If cleansing products are used, they should be specially formulated for infant skin and have been clinically tested to ensure they are appropriate for infant skin
  • Many vegetable oils, such as olive oil, can break down the skin barrier
  • Medicinal grade mineral oil us chemically inert, has an extremely low allergenic potential and is safe for baby skin
  • Preservative-free skin products can be unsafe because they lack protection against the development of microorganisms, including bacteria, mould and fungi

Is water alone best to care for baby skin?

We've lived our lives with abundant water and use it more and more. Water-based cleaning is second nature to all of us and is the basis of almost all cleansing (even liquid soaps would not work best without the help of water to make them spread, foam or be removed from the skin). However, water used on it own is not an effective cleanser. It only removes about 65% of all impurities' and importantly, does not remove fat-soluble substances such as faeces and sebum. Furthermore, many scientists question the ability of water to buffer skin pH, as it might shift pH levels to basic levels. In fact, research has shown that hard, chlorinated water or overexposure to it has an irritation effect,2 so used on its own, water is not as innocuous as one might think. It can actually dry the skin!

There may be a better way though —it is hypothesised and shown in some studies that short and not too frequent baths in warm water in conjunction with a mild baby liquid cleanser might reach the objective of appropriate skin hygiene while not harming the skin barrier (with some added benefits in certain cases).

The ideal baby skincare regimen will be enhanced by the use of a mild baby cleanser. Many skin impurities are fat soluble and a mild baby cleanser can be more helpful than water alone in releasing impurities, especially oily and/ or fatty substances.' Surfactants (surface-active agents) work by reducing the surface tension of water by absorbing at the liquid-gas interface. Thus, there is a need not only to change perceptions about bathing, but also to emphasise how important it is to bathe, moisturise and take care of infant skin with the proper products. This will result in effective cleaning and — just as important — deaning without damaging baby skin.

Vegetable oil properties
Figure 1: Oleic acid content of common vegetable oils (typical percentage by weight)


Is olive oil appropriate for baby skin?

Olive oil is widely reported as being beneficial in the use of cosmetic skin preparations due to, mainly, its benefits as a food ingredient (antioxidant properties etc). Olive oil is often used as a homemade remedy to massage or moisturise baby skin.

However, evidence suggests that olive oil can be damaging to the skin barrier. The main constituent of olive oil is oleic acid, which comprises 55% to 83% of the oil.' Even small amounts of oleic acid have been found to induce skin barrier breakdown.'

It is suspected that oils containing oleic acid disorganise the lipid layers of the skin by a process called emulsification, which weakens the stratum corneum (the top layer of the skin) and makes it more susceptible to attack. In fact, several studies have shown that oleic acid breaks down the stratum corneum, increasing epidermal permeability. As the skin barrier is being compromised, trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL) values increase, dryness is more prone to occur and allergen penetration can increase as a consequence.'

Variable amounts of oleic acid can also be found in almond oil, sunflower oil and avocado oil. However, mineral oil, which is not a vegetable oil, contains no oleic acid and thus avoids all of the oleic acid-related risks associated with a wide range of vegetable oils. (See Figure 1.) Further research is still needed to determine the right proportion of other components in the oil, compared to oleic acid levels, to fully understand the effect on the skin barrier.

It is worth noting that olive oil is useful for treating cradle cap. Olive oil should be applied to the scalp and gently massaged to loosen the scales and encourage them to separate. Depending on the severity of the cradle cap, the oil can be left on for between 30 minutes and over night. A medicated or mild shampoo should be used to remove the oil.'

Do preservatives in skincare products have a negative impact on baby skin?

Contrary to some popular thinking, preservative-free skincare products can be unsafe and potentially hazardous to the skin.'" Preservatives are a necessary ingredient in certain products. They ensure the integrity, purity and quality of the product during its use. They also protect against the development of microorganisms, including bacteria, mould and fungi.

When it comes to the preservation of topical products, creams that contain water must contain preservatives to prevent contamination. Ointments with no or very little water content, or ointments packaged in air-tight containers, however, do not necessarily need to contain preservatives.

So is mineral oil safe to use on baby skin?

In contrast to some vegetable oils, medicinal grade mineral oil is safer for baby skin and is actually used in the management of skin diseases such as atopic dermatitis. It is non-irritating to skin, an effective emollient and is one of the safest cosmetic ingredients known, having been in use for over 100 years. 

Medicinal grade mineral oil is significantly purer and goes through a more comprehensive purifying process than any other grade of mineral oil to ensure its extremely low allergic potential. Clinical studies have shown that medicinal grade mineral oils have the exact same penetration profile as some common vegetable oils without skin barrier disruption.9 It is also more stable in comparison with the majority of plant oils and has exceptional chemical inertness, which makes it less likely to cause skin reactions.