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How to take care of your child's dry skin

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Dry, irritated skin is common in babies and children, and colder weather often causes a flare up in symptoms. Here's how to manage dry, itchy skin in your child...

Your child's skin is thinner and more delicate than yours and the natural barrier layer is easily damaged, causing faster moisture loss. “The skin barrier layer is the only protection we have from toxins, water and heat loss. It’s mostly formed by 34 weeks but doesn’t mature until six months after birth. Until then it’s wise to avoid anything that could irritate your baby’s delicate skin,” says consultant dermatologist at London’s Cranley Clinic, Dr Nick Lowe. In addition,other factors that cause dryness and irritation include a family history of allergic conditions, seasonal changes, chemical ingredients in soaps and detergents, synthetic clothing, an allergy to foods or drinks, swimming pools and even bathing too frequently.

“One in five children is prone to an allergic skin condition. If you have dry skin, the barrier layer is not as effective and is more easily irritated.If you live in a hard water area, this can dry skin further too. The good news is that around 50% of children will grow out of dry, irritated skin by the age of two and 90% by age 15,” says Dr Susan Mayou, consultant dermatologist at London’s Cadogan Clinic.

Common causes of dry skin in babies

  • Bathing too frequently. “Over-cleansing will dry baby’s skin out. Bathe two to three times a week, avoiding soap, and in warm – never hot – water,” says Dr Lowe. “Avoid soap in babies with dry skin as it damages the protective layer of skin and allows irritants in.”
  • Synthetic clothing. Dress babies in loose clothing, with thin layers you can peel off as they get warm. According to Maureen Jenkins, director of clinical services at Allergy UK, wool, nylon and labels or stitched-on elements which could cause irritation should be avoided. Cotton, silk, bamboo and viscose are the best choices.
  • Family history of allergies. This can make your baby more vulnerable to irritants that can penetrate the protective skin barrier.

Managing dry skin in babies

  • Limit exposure to chemicals. Avoid perfumed products during the first few months when your baby’s immunesystem is still developing.
  • Use plain water and cotton wool, or if you prefer, specially formulated baby products, to clean the nappy areain newborns.
  • Use a gentle emollient designed for baby’s skin if your baby has dry skin. “It needs to be applied thinly and regularly, every day,” says Dr Mayou. 
  • Use a non-biological washing powder/liquid and avoid fabric conditioner. “Laundry products must be thoroughly rinsed out many times so there’s no residue left in the fabric and in contact with skin. The greatest risk is from hand-washing products and using fabric conditioners,” says Maureen Jenkins. See Allergy UK’s list of products approved for allergy sufferers.

Common causes of dry skin in children

  • Allergens. Up to 50% of children have an allergic condition, says Allergy UK. Common triggers include dust mites, pets, pollen, diet and cigarette smoke. 
  • Changes in season or temperature. “On cold, windy days there’s low humidity and the skin barrier dries out easily,” says Dr Lowe. 
  • Swimming pool chlorine.​
  • Bubble baths not formulated specifically for children's skin.
  • Viruses. Common viruses such as colds can cause a flare-up in dry skin conditions.
  • Dry air. Central heating or air conditioning dries out skin.

Managing dry skin in children

  • Use an emollient designed for dry skin conditions, suitable for children. Avoid products with perfumes or colourants. “Test a new emollient on a small area of skin to check whether it irritates your child. If the product stings, don’t persevere as the preservative could be causing irritation. Try another one instead,” says Dr Mayou. 
  • See your GP for advice if your child’s dry skin worsens or fails to improve. “A 1% hydrocortisone cream is the next step for dry, inflamed skin and will relieve itchiness. Used correctly it won’t cause skin thinning,” says Dr Mayou. 
  • If your child goes swimming, apply an emollient before they get into the pool to prevent irritation, then shower and reapply afterwards. 
  • Keep your child’s nails short to avoid scratching. 
  • Tell your child’s teacher about their condition, especially if they need to apply emollient at school. 
  • Common foods associated with dry skin conditions, says Allergy UK, include cow’s milk, eggs, wheat, fish and nuts*. “We advise parents to speak to their GP or health visitor. It’s dangerous to remove basic foods from a baby's or infant's diet without supervision,” says Maureen Jenkins. 
  • Your GP may recommend anti-histamine syrup to help relieve itchy skin. 
  • Keep your child’s bedroom cool at night. “Once central heating is on, either use a humidifier or place a bowl of water next to radiators to add moisture to the atmosphere,” advises Dr Lowe.

All about emollients

Regular use of an emollient will help to keep dry skin under control. They range from runny lotions to thicker creams and ointments and you may need to try several to find the right one. They work by creating a protective barrier, reducing water loss and moisturising skin.

“A lotion is the least greasy as it contains more water. A cream is midway as it contains less water, more oil. An ointment contains no water, so it’s the greasiest of all,” says Dr Mayou. You may need a different type for day/night and depending on the season.

“You’ll need a bath oil, soap substitute and emollient cream for children with a dry skin condition. Avoid showers as these are too harsh and always use an emollient bath oil in bath water, which rehydrates skin,” says Dr Karolina Gholam, a paediatric dermatologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital and spokesperson for the British Skin Foundation. “Pick a product with a pump dispenser if possible to avoid contaminating the pot with bacteria, but if you use a pot, use a clean spoon to remove the product, never your fingers.”

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