When it comes to caring for your baby’s skin, it is important to keep in mind that newborn skin is immature - it is more fragile and its barrier function is not yet fully developed. In recent years, the importance of the skin’s microbiome for the health of the skin and for the normal development of our immune system has become better understood. Maintaining a healthy skin microbiome on your baby’s skin is particularly important (see our blog on this here). These factors should be considered when choosing how to care for your baby’s skin, and the good news is that keeping things simple and natural is going to be best for your baby.
How is newborn skin different?
When our skin is fully mature, it forms a good physical barrier to the environment that makes it semi-waterproof, prevents dehydration and keeps out irritants, toxins and microorganisms. This barrier is formed by the skin’s outermost layer of cells and fatty molecules called the stratum corneum. Immediately after birth, a baby’s skin has to make a rapid transformation as it adapts to the outside world. Because a newborn’s skin is initially thin and fragile with a reduced barrier function, more water is lost through newborn skin than mature skin. It is also more sensitive to irritants and, importantly, more permeable to toxins. It is not until around 12 months of age that full barrier function is developed.
Our skin also protects us by promoting the growth of beneficial bacterial species that keep out harmful microorganisms. These bacteria make up our skin’s microbiome and have an important role to play in maintaining good skin health. When a baby is born, the skin is rapidly colonised by bacteria, and their composition has a major effect on the health of the baby’s skin.
Mature healthy skin has a pH of around 5, creating an ‘acid mantle’ that discourages the growth of harmful bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus. The pH of newborn skin is higher than mature healthy skin - around 6.3-7.5 (1) and this generally drops to a pH of around 5 within a few days of birth (4).
The skin microbiome and skin pH are strongly linked. For example, skin that has a pH of around 5 and supports a broad range of bacterial species is associated with good skin health, whereas skin affected by eczema, or atopic dermatitis, has a higher pH and a more narrow range of bacterial species (3).
How to keep your baby’s skin healthy
When caring for your baby’s skin, the aim should be to protect its barrier function - this means maintaining the correct skin pH, not removing protective lipids from the skin, and minimising the use of any product that will alter the skin’s microbiome. At the same time the skin must be kept clean and free of irritants, and should not contact any potential toxins. When choosing skin care products, it is important to remember that the younger your baby, the more easily her skin will absorb chemicals. For this reason it is important to take extreme care when choosing the products that come into contact with your baby’s skin.
Newborn babies are covered in a creamy substance known as the ‘vernix’ which is made of water, lipids, proteins and antimicrobial molecules. Maintaining this layer on the skin rather than washing it off is linked to better skin hydration, a lower skin pH and better maintenance of body temperature after birth (1).
Most health professionals recommend that baths should be short - no longer than 5 minutes - to protect the skin’s barrier function. They should also be infrequent, around twice a week according to some (2), with routine attention to face and nappy areas between baths. Rubbing of the skin with sponges or cloths should be minimised as this can also damage the skin’s barrier. Use of soaps and detergents in the bath is controversial and some recommend avoiding detergents altogether. Harsh detergents like sodium lauryl sulphate are potent skin irritants that also damage the skin’s lipid barrier and should not be used (2), and to some extent, all detergents risk removing the lipid content of the skin that creates the skin’s physical barrier.
What to avoid in skin products
Many baby creams and shampoos contain synthetic ingredients that pose a particular risk to babies. The preservatives that are added to water-based creams, shampoos and conditioners are potential irritants, and the paraben preservatives, which are absorbed more easily into permeable newborn skin, should be particularly avoided because of their oestrogenic effects on the body (you can read our blog on the dangers of paraben preservatives here).
However it is not just the irritant and toxic effects of preservatives that can cause problems. Preservatives are powerful antibacterial and anti-fungal agents that keep water-containing skin care products free of microorganisms. These preservatives are still active when applied to the skin, and so they have the potential to alter the baby’s skin microbiome. For babies at risk of eczema or atopic dermatitis, this could have significant impacts.
Water-containing skin care products also contain emulsifiers, which are detergent-like molecules that stabilise the water/oil emulsion. Emulsifiers can irritate the skin, set up allergic responses and can also damage barrier function. You can read more about the problems associated with emulsifiers here.
Fragrances and dyes of all types should be avoided in the first year of life because of the risk of sensitisation and the development of allergic type reactions (2).
What’s wrong with mainstream baby products?
Firstly, virtually all mainstream baby products contain preservatives, emulsifiers and fragrances. For those not familiar with the chemical names of the ingredients listed on skin care products, finding a product lacking these ingredients requires a lot of research. Basically, any product that contains water, or aqua, will contain both a preservative and an emulsifier. And any product that smells floral or fragrant or includes the word parfum will contain synthetic or natural fragrance. Even products that claim to be ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ or ‘pH balanced’ may contain preservatives, emulsifiers and fragrances.
How Mokosh baby products are different
All Mokosh products are made without preservatives and emulsifiers, and we have created a range specifically suited to babies which also lack fragrance. Because they are made without synthetic ingredients, using only organic botanical oils, they will not harm baby skin if absorbed through the skin’s permeable barrier. They will also protect the skin’s barrier function because they are free of emulsifiers, and will not alter the microbiome because they lack preservatives.
We believe it is important to minimise the use of soaps with babies because any detergent has the potential to harm the baby’s barrier function. However some form of detergent may be needed around the nappy area and when babies start moving and getting into real dirt. Although our olive oil soap is extremely mild, its pH is alkaline, like all true soaps, and contact time with the skin should be minimised. We suggest thoroughly rinsing away soap with warm water and following with our balm, cream or massage oil to help restore the skin’s pH.