There’s nothing like the soft feel of your newborn’s skin. But when your infant’s skin goes from perfect to peeling just days after birth, it’s natural to be concerned.
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“Newborn skin has a lot of adjusting to do after going from the uterus to the outside world,” says pediatrician Marni Turell, MD. “The trick is knowing what’s normal and how to handle it.”
Peeling skin may feel unexpected but it’s not uncommon. Dr. Turell shares what you need to know about peeling newborn skin and how to care for it.
Is it normal for newborn skin to peel?
All newborns undergo a peeling phase during the first two weeks of life. It typically happens on the arms and legs, but you may also see peeling on their belly, back or butt. If you only notice flaking skin on their scalp, it’s likely your newborn has cradle cap — a harmless buildup of scaly patches on the scalp.
The degree of newborn peeling can vary, and it’s not necessarily a sign your infant has dry skin. The outer layer of peeling skin may be dry, but the skin underneath may not be.
“Peeling skin on newborns is similar to molting,” Dr. Turell notes. “The outer layer of skin is peeling off for the under layer of healthy skin to take over.”
But some babies have peeling skin and dry skin. Here’s how you can tell the difference: Newborn peeling generally ends after two weeks, while dry skin can stick around for a long time or be a chronic issue. If the dryness doesn’t go away, see your healthcare provider.
Why is my newborn’s skin peeling?
Peeling skin can happen with newborns for several reasons — some more common than others.
Peeling skin due to pregnancy and birth
The peeling that occurs because of pregnancy and birth typically goes away on its own in a couple weeks. Pregnancy can cause peeling skin due to:
- Not enough exfoliation in the uterus: Newborns are surrounded by amniotic fluid while in the uterus. It does a great job protecting the fetus while it grows, but too much exposure to amniotic fluid can be harsh on sensitive skin. That’s why fetuses develop a thick, pasty coating (vernix) about halfway through pregnancy. But the protective coating also keeps the skin from shedding. After birth, when the nurse typically cleans your baby to wipe away any amniotic fluid and blood, the vernix goes with it. With that protective coating gone, babies are likely to shed a few layers of skin.
- Exposure to amniotic fluid: Vernix gets thinner with time. Babies with a longer gestational period (born full-term or later) typically arrive with less vernix — and less protection from amniotic fluid. “When babies are in the uterus longer, they’re more exposed to the fluid in the uterus,” Dr. Turell explains. “Babies born past their due date tend to have more peeling because of that exposure.”
When peeling is a sign of a skin condition
Sometimes, peeling may signal a skin condition. Your pediatrician (or a dermatologist) can help diagnose these conditions and offer safe, effective treatments. These skin issues include:
- Baby eczema: Eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is rarely diagnosed right after birth, but it does happen. Sixty percent of people with eczema develop it before their first birthday. Flare-ups of eczema typically cause red, irritated and itchy skin. But as it heals, their skin may flake and peel, allowing new, healthy skin to emerge. Baby eczema typically affects the face or scalp. You’ll rarely find it in the diaper area.
- Ichthyosis: Babies born with ichthyosis have an extra layer of skin. As that additional membrane cracks and peels off, it flakes and itches. Ichthyosis is a genetic condition. Severe cases may require care in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where infants may spend time in a high-humidity chamber until the condition resolves.
- Psoriasis: Psoriasis is an inflammatory skin disease. It typically develops after age 15 but rarely can affect infants. Approximately 33% of psoriasis cases begin during childhood. People with psoriasis have raised, itchy scales on their skin, much like the scales associated with cradle cap. If your baby has cradle cap that isn’t improving, it could be a sign of psoriasis.
How to treat newborn peeling skin
The peeling that happens to newborn skin doesn’t usually need special medical treatment. It should stop on its own within a couple of weeks. But here are five tips to help protect your baby’s skin during the peeling process.
1. Don’t peel or exfoliate newborn skin
When you see peeling skin, your first instinct may be to help it along. Avoid that temptation.
“Don’t peel or remove the skin because it’s protecting new skin underneath,” Dr. Turell states. “The best thing you can do is let it fall off on its own.”
2. Keep newborn skin moisturized
Add moisture if you want to do something helpful during the peeling phase. “Slather on an emollient such as Vaseline® or Aquaphor® or any petroleum-based moisturizer,” Dr. Turell suggests. “It’s probably not going to make the skin look better, but it won’t hurt.”
Adding moisture also helps keep the new skin healthy and protected. In the early weeks and months — even after the peeling phase has passed — continue to care for their new skin by:
- Bundling up in the cold: Dry air can pull moisture from an infant’s delicate skin.
- Moisturizing daily: Use lotion two to three times daily, especially after bathing, to help with dryness.
- Using a humidifier: Exposing your baby to moist air can help prevent skin from drying out.
3. Be gentle when washing your newborn
You should wash your newborn with a sponge bath (that is, using a soapy washcloth to clean them up, rather than putting them in water) until the umbilical cord falls off and the circumcision (if your baby had one) heals. But be gentle to avoid pulling off too much of their peeling skin.
“Only use a soft washcloth or your hands,” Dr. Turell advises. “You don’t need to scrub the skin.”
Use lukewarm water to keep the skin from becoming dry. Baths should be short — no longer than 10 minutes.
4. Avoid chemicals and fragrances
Harsh chemicals can irritate delicate baby skin. When choosing shampoo, soap and lotions, look for fragrance-free products.
Stick to gentle products when laundering baby’s clothing, too. Chemicals and fragrances in a newborn’s clothing can also irritate their skin.
5. Keep your baby hydrated
Hydrating from within is as important as moisturizing the surface of their skin. Make sure your infant is getting enough breast milk or formula. But never give a baby water to drink during the first six months of life. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have concerns about how much your baby is eating.
When to see a healthcare provider for your newborn’s dry skin
Most peeling will improve on its own, but Dr. Turell notes that there are a few instances when you should seek medical care. Call your pediatrician if your infant’s skin:
- Looks red, bloody or irritated.
- Peels longer than three weeks.
“If the skin looks angry and red or your infant is uncomfortable or has a fever, make an appointment with your pediatrician,” Dr. Turell stresses. “It may be a sign of infection or a more serious condition.”