What Can You Use on Children's Dry Skin?

Dry skin affects babies, too!
Dry skin affects babies, too!

Dry, cracked skin is a common problem in babies and young children, and it can be a difficult one to treat. The last thing you want to do is smother chemicals or thick, non-breathable lotions all over your little one, but you also don't want them to experience the itching and discomfort that goes along with severely dry skin. Luckily, there are plenty of safe, effective treatment options for dry skin in all ages, as well as some lifestyle strategies to help you prevent it in the first place.

First things first: If your child has sensitive skin, anything with dyes or fragrance (which can be irritating and drying) is not a good idea, says David McDaniel, MD, assistant professor of clinical dermatology at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Virginia Beach. This goes not just for lotions and creams, but for the detergents in which you wash their bedding and clothing, as well.

The best moisturizers for children are bland, thick lotions and ointments such as Vaseline, Eucerin, Vanicream, Cetaphil, CeraVe or Aquaphilic. These should be applied immediately after washing or bathing, and again throughout the day or before bed, as needed. Ointment may feel greasy and slippery on their sensitive skin, but the key is to use just a small amount, and rub it in well. Many parents choose to slather their children with a lotion or cream during the day and an ointment at night, while they sleep. [Source: McDaniel]

If dry skin becomes a persistent problem with your children, you should visit a doctor to rule out skin condition such as eczema or seborrheic dermatitis (also known as cradle cap in infants, since it often occurs on babies' scalps), both of which are common in children. Both of these can be characterized by dry, flaky skin and may need additional treatment; eczema is often treated with a mild hydrocortisone cream or ointment and seborrheic dermatitis may be soothed by using a dandruff shampoo. Both conditions can be chronic when diagnosed in adulthood, but many children also outgrow them, as well.

Don't bathe kids too often

One thing that new parents are often surprised at is the fact that babies don't need to -- and shouldn't -- be bathed every day. "When kids have dry skin, it's often because they're being bathed too much using too much soap," says Cheryl Karcher, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. "Kids only have to be bathed when they're dirty -- two, three times a week tops."

Between baths, Karcher suggests, use baby wipes on your child's diaper area along with anywhere that gets visibly dirty. When you do bathe your children, the same rules apply to adults with sensitive skin: Limit bath time to less than 10 minutes, avoid too-hot water, do not scrub their skin too hard with a washcloth or sponge and don't use bubble bath or harsh soaps. (A gentle, fragrance-free soap or a soap-free liquid cleanser is your best bet.)

If your children like to play in the tub, allow them to spend a few minutes with their toys in the tub before you actually bathe them, so they're not sitting in soapy water. [Source: BabyCenter] As soon as you take them out of the tub, pat them dry with a towel and apply moisturizer as soon as possible; this will assure that more of the moisture is actually absorbed into the skin.

Chlorine and salt water can also contribute to dry skin, so it's important to rinse your child off and apply moisturizer after he or she plays in a pool or in the ocean. And don't forget sunscreen, which will help prevent painful sunburn and peeling (not to mention deeper skin damage that can raise your child's risk for skin cancer).

Last but not least, make sure your children are drinking enough water, especially during hot summer months when they're running around and sweating (or swimming) a lot. Dehydration can contribute to dry skin, as well as other more serious health issues. In the wintertime, cover their hands, heads and faces if they're going to be outside in the cold for extended periods of time, to help prevent windburn. Running a humidifier in your home can also help restore moisture that's lost when humidity is low, but be sure to clean it regularly so mold doesn't form.

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  • Everyday Health. "Children and Dry Skin." (September 16, 2013) http://www.everydayhealth.com/dry-skin/kids-dry-skin.aspx
  • Healthfinder.gov. "Health Tip: Bring the Moisture Back to Dry Skin." (September 15, 2013) http://healthfinder.gov/News/Article.aspx?id=677142
  • Karcher, Cheryl, MD. Personal interview. September 13, 2013.
  • McDaniel, David, MD. Personal interview. September 15, 2013.
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