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What's making my child's skin so dry?
Babies and children can get dry skin just like adults do. In fact, because young skin is more delicate, it's more susceptible to becoming dry.
Cold, dry outdoor air and indoor heating can rob skin of its natural moisture in the winter. And if your child is prone to dry skin, he'll break out in dry patches in the summer as well, because the summer sun, air conditioning, salt water, and the chlorine in pool water can all be drying.
What can I do about my child's dry skin?
Cut back on bath time
Bathing dries a child's skin because it removes the skin's natural oils along with the dirt. But as long as you take a few precautions, even daily baths shouldn't be a problem, says Seth Orlow, director of pediatric dermatology at New York University School of Medicine.
Instead of a 30-minute bath, cut bath time down to about 10 minutes. Use warm water – not hot – and soap up sparingly. In fact, Orlow suggests using a fragrance-free, soap-free cleanser, which is much less harsh than regular soap.
Let your child have her playtime in the tub before you wash her, so she won't be sitting in soapy water. And don't leave the cleansing bar floating in the tub. You'll probably want to cut bubble baths out of your child's routine – or at least limit them to special occasions.
While bath oils may seem like a good idea, they can make the tub dangerously slippery, and most of the oil slides down the drain anyway. Applying an emollient (skin moisturizer) after bathing is a better route.
Slather on the moisturizer
Once you take your child out of the bath, quickly pat him dry with a towel, then apply moisturizer immediately. Applying the moisturizer within minutes of taking your child out of the tub will seal in the water that's still in his skin from the bath.
As far as moisturizers go, the general rule is the thicker the better. If your child's skin is still dry even with daily moisturizing, try switching from a lotion to a thicker cream or ointment. (Ointments are best at keeping moisture in the skin, but they can feel greasy. Just use small amounts and gently rub it into the skin. Creams rub in without leaving a greasy feel on the skin.)
You might also want to consider moisturizing twice a day – once after bathing and once during the day. If your child doesn't have the patience for a midday slather, you might let him listen to a favorite song or watch a video while you apply the moisturizer. Or, if he's old enough, let him do it himself, if that makes the routine more agreeable.
Don't let salt or chlorine dry on her skin
Chlorine and salt water can both be very drying. After a swim in the pool or ocean, rinse off your child with tap water, and then apply moisturizer while her skin's still damp.
Run a humidifier
If the air in your home is dry, use a cool mist humidifier in your child's room.
Keep your child well hydrated
Dry skin lacks moisture. Offer your child plenty to drink year-round to replace the moisture that's evaporating from his skin. (If your child is still a baby, stick with breast milk or formula for at least the first six months, unless his doctor advises otherwise. Read our expert's answer to "When can my baby drink water?"
Keep in mind that drinking a lot won't do anything if you don't moisturize as well. It's like pouring water into a bucket with a hole, says Orlow. Without moisturizer to hold in the water, your child's skin won't properly hydrate.
Protect your child from the elements
Make sure your child wears mittens or gloves in cold weather to keep her hands from becoming dry and chapped from the cold and the wind. No matter what the season, take steps to protect her from windburn and sunburn.
Avoid drying or aggravating ingredients
Don't use powders or perfumes on your child's skin, and consider using unscented laundry products. If your child's skin is especially sensitive, you may want to rinse his clothes twice, to remove all traces of soap residue.
If your child's skin is very sensitive, don't dress him in clothing that's tight or rough. Also keep in mind that some fabrics, such as wool, can be especially irritating to dry skin.
Be diligent about keeping your child's nails clean and short if itching is a problem.
Could dry skin be a sign of some other kind of condition?
If your child has itchy red patches on her skin, it's possible she has eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis. Sometimes even eczema will clear up with regular moisturizing, though, so you needn't rush to the doctor unless the patches don't get better or your child seems itchy or uncomfortable despite your efforts.
In rare cases, dry skin can indicate a genetic condition called ichthyosis. Ichthyosis shows up as dry skin with scaling and occasionally redness. It's also generally accompanied by a thickening of the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. If your doctor suspects that your child has ichthyosis, he'll probably refer you to a dermatologist evaluation and treatment.
Should I talk with the doctor about my child's dry skin?
At your child's next visit to the doctor, ask for recommendations for battling dry skin. Schedule a visit if you think your child has signs of eczema or ichthyosis, as described above. Also call for an appointment if your child's skin doesn't improve with home treatments or you see any signs of infection, like a yellow discharge or swelling around a crack in his skin.