Why we shouldn’t be advising olive oil for newborn’s dry skin

Why we shouldn’t be advising olive oil for newborn’s dry skin

One of the most common questions I get asked from new mothers is, ‘What can I put on my baby’s dry skin?’  or ‘What can I use for my new-born’s dry skin?’  It is very common for newborns to have flaky, dry skin, it’s almost like they need to peel off a layer and start again.  In most cases, it is temporary and resolves itself, but in some cases it can lead to cracks in the skin.  The current advice in the UK for bathing newborn babies is to leave them for 7 days initially and then bathe as you want to, but every day isn’t necessary.  Since I began my training in 2002 I have been advising women to use olive oil on their newborn baby’s dry skin, but a new study shows that this can damage the natural barrier and actually increase the risk of eczema.  Eczema is on the rise, with 30% of 2-15 year olds suffering today compared to 5% in the 1940’s.

Why we shouldn't be using olive or sunflower oil on newborns

A group of midwives at St Mary’s Hospital, Manchester, conducted a study of 115 babies and split them into groups of using olive oil, sunflower oil and no oil over a 4 week period.  They used a few drops of oil to massage into the skin.  They found that the oil groups had more hydrated skin, but that they had

significantly less improvement in lipid lamellae structure compared to the no oil group.”

Put simply, if you imagine our skin cells like building blocks with cement, the lipid lamellae structure is the cement, so if this is impaired, then it is more likely to lose water and let in foreign bodies.  The oil prevents this cement from developing properly and could be linked to the development of Eczema.  Premature babies in developing countries, however, can benefit from the anti-microbial effects of sunflower oil.

It is unclear at what point olive or sunflower oil is safe to use, such as in baby massage, and more research is needed with perhaps a larger group, but at present we are changing our advice where I work. As a guide, wait for at least 8 days if possible before bathing your baby, and four weeks before using products like creams, lotions or oils and talc or baby talc is not advised at all. Once baby is old enough, and you want something to use for dry skin or baby massage, coconut oil is good, or a specific baby massage oil. Some are almond oil based, so if there is a history of nut allergies, you need to be careful. I explain more and give how to bathing and skincare tips in my Bathing and Skincare for Babies post.

What do you think?  Did you use an oil on your baby’s skin and do they suffer from Eczema?  If you are a health professional, what do you advise?

References:

Alison Cook et. al: Olive Oil, Sunflower Oil or no Oil for Baby Dry Skin or Massage: A Pilot, Assessor-blinded, Randomized Controlled Trial (the Oil in Baby SkincaRE [OBSeRvE] Study)

DOI: 10.2340/00015555-2279

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Disclosure: may contain affiliate links. Not intended to replace medical advice. All information correct at time of going to press.

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48 Comments

  1. January 20, 2016 / 2:25 pm

    That’s really interesting to me. I suffer with eczema, so was cautious about using anything on my little boy when he was tiny, though I was advised by both my midwife and health visitor to use olive oil. Luckily he doesn’t appear to suffer with it so far (although I’m aware that it may develop later). It’s interesting to see how research changes over the years – hopefully by the time I have another baby there will be a more conclusive opinion on this.

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      January 20, 2016 / 2:28 pm

      Yes I hope so, it’s so difficult to know what to advise and things change all the time, we can only do our best at the time with the information we have available. let’s hope your son is ok x

  2. January 20, 2016 / 2:33 pm

    Ah my best friend’s little girl has been suffering really badly with eczema, so this is really interesting. I’m not sure what she was advised beforehand but poor little Emily was so distressed with her poorly skin, and stressed Mum out to no end as she didn’t know what to do for the best. Luckily, she’s doing much, much better now and her skin seems to be healing nicely but not nice for anyone.

    Fingers crossed when Pickle comes along, he’ll follow my lead of having oily skin and no dry problems! Apart from I don’t think they’ll thank me when they’re a teenager!
    Little Pickle’s Mom recently posted…Marathon vs. Pregnancy -The Build UpMy Profile

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      January 20, 2016 / 2:37 pm

      Ha ha, yes I don’t know what’s worse? There’s so much we don’t know and more research needs to be done.

  3. Jo
    January 20, 2016 / 5:34 pm

    I’m a midwife and advise Coconut oil , my daughter uses it on her eczema too .

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      January 20, 2016 / 6:15 pm

      Thank you, I’m going to advise coconut oil instead now as so many have said it’s better but more trials are needed

  4. January 20, 2016 / 6:08 pm

    I used it as part of baby massage which were nhs classes. Assumed it was for the best.

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      January 20, 2016 / 6:16 pm

      I think when they’re older its not so bad but theres no guidance on it. I’ll keep an ear to the ground.

  5. Adelaide
    January 20, 2016 / 6:46 pm

    You should avoid most things like baby bubble bath etc, all that can cause eczema. All these baby soaps are really naff for skin.

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      January 20, 2016 / 6:56 pm

      Yes I’m not a fan of all the supposed ‘baby’ products out there.

  6. January 20, 2016 / 7:04 pm

    I agree that coconut oil MAY be a better option anecdotally, but we don’t have enough research to know for sure! It may be that using ANY oil on a baby’s skin damages the lipid layers…I work as a postnatal doula, and would LOVE to know what is best to use…more research please!!

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      January 20, 2016 / 7:48 pm

      I agree, I’m going to look into coconut oil as an alternative, it’s also quite expensive and needs to be warmed.

      • Sue Fesche
        January 22, 2016 / 10:26 am

        Makes me smile saying it needs to be warmed. I live in Far North Queensland and have to refrigerate it to get it solid !! I use it as a face moisturiser and know many women who use it for baby massage. Am unaware of any research done however. Pacific island people will have used it for generations. Maybe a good place to find data.

        • Midwife and Life
          Author
          January 22, 2016 / 10:45 am

          Thank you for this – ha ha regional differences!

  7. January 20, 2016 / 8:04 pm

    Maybe it’s like all things in life, use in moderation. Just use olive oil on dry spots not as an all over massage. I’m sure it’s been used for this purpose for thousands of years. I would like to see more research as in does the inhibition of this layer cause any ill effects in babies? Does it rectify itself? What effect does coconut oil have? So many questions!

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      January 20, 2016 / 8:39 pm

      I’m going to do some more digging… watch this space!

  8. Keikimama
    January 21, 2016 / 4:46 pm

    DD had extremely dry and cracked skin in the few weeks after she was born. We used olive oil, albeit extra virgin because that was what we had in the house. She has always had great skin and doesn;t suffer from any problems with her skin at all. Maybe there needs to be some research into whether the type of oilve oil makes a difference. lol

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      January 21, 2016 / 4:53 pm

      Yes I agree more research is needed!

  9. Elaine Johnson
    January 22, 2016 / 2:01 am

    I’m a Midwife and mother of 20+ years. I, like you, have been advising mothers to use olive oil for dry skin for years. I learnt this ‘treatment’ from Mediterranean mothers who learnt it from theirs. Can I suggest doing some research in middle aged and older people born and bred in Cyprus. This should show long term affects as this is one country I know has been using olive oil for years.

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      January 22, 2016 / 6:53 am

      That seems like a good idea!

  10. January 22, 2016 / 2:14 pm

    I didn’t know anything about this, I never used any oil on my kids skin (I don’t like the feeling of it) but I had no idea it could lead to eczema, great post! 🙂

  11. January 22, 2016 / 2:38 pm

    I was interested to read this, as I had the baby massage nurse come round to demonstrate to me when my baby was a few weeks old. We used olive oil for that, but I noticed after a few massages that my baby was developing eczema type patches! When I took him to the doctors, I was told to stop doing the baby massage and it cleared up! I used aqueous cream on his flaky skin when he was brand new, and that seemed to work well. Thanks for hosting #showandtell, I’m looking forward to linking up (hopefully) often 🙂

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      January 22, 2016 / 9:07 pm

      Thankyou! That’s interesting, I think Olive oil is definitely too much for new babies.

  12. FHV
    January 22, 2016 / 5:28 pm

    Interesting post, but would hasten to add that Sunflower Oil & Olive oil have a significantly different structure, with sunflower oil having more similarities with the skins natural oils (sebum) than Olive oil (& is not aromatic, thereby not interfering with the mothers- or fathers-natural smell, which is important for baby). Grapeseed oil is also an option. From the research I have seen (much of it funded in some way by Baby oil manufacturers) the jury is out & in some mineral oils are suggested… Which as we know do not adequately allow the skin to breathe. As a balanced view I would say avoid all products on a newborns skin for as long as possible, but the above oils -cold pressed & organic if it’s available (& also coconut or fractionated coconut oil) appear to suitable for most babies & children after the first 2-3 months. Always patch test first though.
    As with the above comments, yes, more valid, reliable & independent research is needed

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      January 22, 2016 / 9:06 pm

      Yes, a sensible approach is best and individuals can make their own choice based on history

  13. Lizzie
    January 23, 2016 / 5:35 am

    My two children suffered with dry skin and eczema but the best thing i have found is pure shea butter (used in africa). In the UK you can get it from L’Occitane. £28 a tub so a bit pricey but i wont use anything else now. I have tried all sorts. Olive oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil, double base, cetraben etc. Also, my children (as lots are) are sensitive to cows milk protein. Goats milk is a better optio for us as the enzymes are easier to digest. I would recommend swapping for anyone who is sufferimg with eczema. If bottle feeding, there is a goats milk alternative. If breastfeeding then mum should not eat cows milk. Just my experience but worth a shot.

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      January 23, 2016 / 8:40 am

      Thank you, I’ll look into whether any research has been done into shea butter.

  14. January 23, 2016 / 10:30 pm

    Funnily enough, this advice changed between my two girls, even though they are only a year apart! I was advised to use olive oil for Toddler’s dry skin & her cradle cap. Baby had very dry skin in the weeks after birth, but I was told to do nothing with it & definitely not use olive oil! Actually, Toddler has had eczema since she was a few months old & Baby has so far shown no signs at nearly 18 months. However, I don’t think that would necessarily be connected to olive oil – it was only ever used on Toddler on a couple of occasions! #showandtell

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      January 23, 2016 / 10:46 pm

      It’s an absolute minefield! I think it may be a contributing factor in babies that are prone to it but more needs to be studied before we take it as definitive proof.

  15. Sebeli
    January 23, 2016 / 10:32 pm

    Thanks for this interesting read. My twins were born at 28wks and the NICU nurses gave me sunflower oil to use on them right from the beginning. I use it in their bathing water, nappy changes and for moisturising their whole body. They are now 10months old and about a month ago started developing eczema patches on their back. The doctor prescribed some emulsifying ointment for them, however, I would prefer to use something a bit more natural. I can’t be sure this is caused by the sunflower oil but am now considering swapping it for coconut oil to see if it will make a difference.

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      January 23, 2016 / 10:48 pm

      My 1 yr old has eczema patches and I used no oil, I think a lot of them are prone to it, especially in the cold weather, with dribbling and wearing bibs all being factors.

  16. Hannah
    January 27, 2016 / 10:48 am

    The midwives at the hostpital bathed my son in the first week with soap and wanted to do it again to which I refused because it had dried out his skin. Once at home, I only water and later used olive oil and milk in his bath water, just a splash and only washed him 1-2 times a week for the first 3 months, never soap and he has fabulous skin. Never needed to oil or moisturise.

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      January 27, 2016 / 11:14 am

      That’s great he has lovely skin, I think genetics play a big part in who’s susceptible to Eczema but they shouldn’t have been bathing him so soon!

  17. January 28, 2016 / 4:49 pm

    This is a awesome info. With number 2 on the way it’s nice to know what the current thoughts are on baby skin care. My toddler has more sensitive skin, but not eczema. I never really had any skin sensitivities myslef but my husband does, so it’s good to know what is recommended.

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      January 28, 2016 / 4:56 pm

      Glad to help, good luck with number 2!

  18. Katie
    January 28, 2016 / 6:39 pm

    I smothered olive oil on my son for the first 3 months of his life until he developed eczema all over his body. I stopped and he still gets patches behind his legs and all over in the winter… I’ve always wondered if the oil had an impact. That and him being a section baby. My daughter was born naturally and I didn’t use oil on her and her skin is fine. My mother in law suffered with eczema though so genetics are also at play, I feel!

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      January 28, 2016 / 6:55 pm

      Definitely genetics plays a part, I think larger and longer studies are needed

  19. Colin
    February 5, 2016 / 4:11 pm

    My wife is from the Philippines and she used coconut oil on our son when he was a newborn. But the coconut oil she used wasn’t store bought though. She would extract it from the fresh coconut meat she’d have me buy from the market. But she only used that for his body. When our son developed a little bit of eczema on his face, she would dab on some breastmilk on the rash and it was gone in less than a week. I would have thought all of that was weird if I didn’t see it work myself. 🙂

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      February 5, 2016 / 4:36 pm

      That sounds the right thing to do, thanks so much for commenting.

  20. Sally
    November 3, 2016 / 11:46 am

    Hi Jenny, am about to start a baby massage course and, after reading about the Manchester study on olive oil, am trying to find out what is best recommended. Baby oil? Coconut oil? There doesn’t seem to be any guidance since the study was published (interestingly, I found out about it after the Daily Mail published the story recently – took them a while to catch on!).

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      November 3, 2016 / 11:52 am

      There hasn’t been much about what to use instead, coconut oil and grapeseed are good oils to use though. The study suggests to use nothing!

  21. March 28, 2017 / 2:17 am

    Hi Jenny,

    This is interesting. I’m a mother of three and they did have had their “flaky skin” moments when they were a couple of weeks old. I had to wait until they were four weeks old and used drugstore baby oil only on the dry parts, gladly I didn’t have to deal with Eczema. My sister, though, has a week-old baby and she’s been asking me which to use, the olive oil or the sunflower oil since her Pediatrician approved using whichever. I will share this post with her. Thank you!

  22. September 3, 2017 / 5:36 am

    Hi,

    My friend gave birth to a little girl and will advise her as soon as possible not to use olive oil or sunflower oil. I think it is better to use coconut oil for her infant. Thanks to science. Thanks also for this information.

  23. October 5, 2017 / 3:54 am

    Thank you for your important information for expecting and newborn mothers. It’s important to stay up to date on research and information regarding your children as we know the science community does not always provide us with answers that pass the test of time and experimentation. Many once faithfully followed scientific teachings later find themselves discarded or irrelevant after just a short amount of time.

  24. Karensa Antif
    February 17, 2018 / 7:12 am

    I GAVe birth twins last October and the midwife told me to use olive oil. At the time, the store didn’t have any so I got almond oil instead. Once that was finished I started with olive oil. The girls developed dry flaky skin on their arms so I took them to the doctor who advised me to continue as i was. The eczema then spread over their whole bodies! I only realised that it could be the oil last week. I feel like I’ve been torturing them!

    • Midwife and Life
      Author
      February 17, 2018 / 8:26 am

      You did all the right things – it’s natural for them to shed some skin. Are they ok now?

      • Karensa Antif
        February 17, 2018 / 10:34 am

        No it’s a lot worse. Scaly and red. I’m using coconut oil and Green Peoples soothingg baby salve but maybe I need to use something specialised now…

        • Midwife and Life
          Author
          February 17, 2018 / 10:37 am

          I would see your GP

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