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Baby eczema

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 4 minutes read
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It’s very common for babies to suffer from dry skin and eczema, and it can first emerge before or around 6 months. It affects about a quarter of children with up to 60% of them developing it during their first year of life. The exact cause of eczema is unknown but genetics are thought to play a major role, so it’s more common if someone in your family has eczema, allergies, or asthma, or if they have light skin and hair. It may also be triggered by environmental factors such as central heating, hard water and the use of soaps.

The good news is that even though children may develop eczema in childhood, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will have it forever as many of them grow out of it by 5-6 years old. And - with the right attention to triggers, moisturizing routine and recognition of flare-ups - it can be treated more effectively.

Doctor’s advice

What does eczema look like?

Eczema in babies looks slightly different than what you’re used to seeing on yourself or much older children. In babies under 6 months, it tends to appear as more widespread on the body but typically occurs on the face and scalp. In younger babies, the skin can appear red, inflamed and wet looking.

After 6 months it tends to start occurring around the elbows and knees and by the age of 2, it typically affects the wrists, hands and ankles, and perhaps the eyelids. Skin looks and feels dry and scaly, possibly thickened with deep lines. It can be quite itchy and cause them a lot of discomfort as they continue to scratch it, so you might see scratch marks and even broken skin in places – itching is often the most significant symptom and scratching makes this worse. The itching can sometimes be so bad that repeated scratching makes the skin bleed and it may even become infected, so that the skin becomes crusty and oozes fluid.

What are common triggers?

Your baby’s skin is delicate and still developing, and the surface area is large for their body mass compared to adults, so they can rapidly lose moisture from their skin. Certain environmental factors can increase the risk of irritation and threaten the skin barrier, and lots of these revolve around bath time such as: spending too long in the bath, especially if you live in a hard water area, if the bath is too hot, if you use bubble bath or lathering soap on them, and if you don’t dry them thoroughly afterwards by patting them gently rather than by rubbing their delicate skin hard with a towel.

Any lotions you use may have irritants such as fragrances or certain preservatives. Any skin infection will make eczema worse, and vice versa. And there are common allergens that may be irritating, such as house dust mites, pollen, and animal dander, if they have sensitivities.

What can I try at home?

It is important to look at a good combination of bathing and very regular moisturizing every day. Eczema treatment is often a trial and error so what works for others may not work for your child and it requires a lot of persistence and patience to get the winning combination.

Treatment is aimed at locking in moisture to the skin to combat the dryness and prevent inflammation. The moisture also creates a barrier to prevent irritants or allergens from penetrating.

It is important to use a gentle moisturizing cleanser or a soap substitute like Dermol 500 in the bath, and avoid those with sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or other foaming agents. Afterwards, lock in the moisture with a good nourishing moisturizer. If your baby’s having a flare-up, you can increase the moisturizer from once to twice or even three times a day.

Regular bathing and moisturizing is important. Keep the baths fairly short if your baby is prone to eczema - no longer than 10 minutes - and the water should be tepid rather than too warm.

It is also important for them to wear cotton clothing, avoid overheating as this can dry out the skin and worsen symptoms and be mindful of the detergent that you use to wash clothes - a baby-friendly hypoallergenic detergent is best.

Can I take my baby swimming?

Your baby or your young child shouldn't miss out on the wonders of swimming, but the chlorine used to keep the pool clean can be irritating. So put the moisturizer on 2 hours before swimming to let it soak in, then wash them immediately after their dip and reapply the moisturizer. This should keep their skin nicely protected.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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