Is it safe to use natural oils on your baby's skin?

Rosie Taylor

Are natural oils safe to use on baby skin? Logically you’d think so – but they could actually be doing your baby harm. Rosie Taylor explains.

It’s easy to see why parents might be cautious about using some branded skincare products on their baby’s skin. Many are synthetic – often made from petroleum derivatives – and very few go through rigorous clinical testing, as skincare products do not have to pass the same safety tests as medicines.

So logically you’d assume that natural oils would be a good alternative. And for years parents and midwives have recommended using natural oils like olive or sunflower oil instead on baby’s dry baby. It seems to make sense: natural olive or sunflower oil is much less processed than many moisturisers and artificial oils on sale. Plus we eat these oils all the time, so they can’t possibly be harmful, right?

Sadly, no.

Recently, British scientists have discovered that natural oils actually damage the skin of babies, making it more susceptible to dryness and cracking – and could even cause eczema.


The study, presented at the Royal College of Midwives conference 2016, was based on 115 newborn babies who were treated with either olive oil, sunflower oil or nothing for four weeks. Afterwards, tests showed both olive oil and sunflower oil delayed the development of the skin’s protective barrier.

This is because the oil breaks down on the skin, causing fatty acids to penetrate and damage the lipid lamellae. The lipid lamellae is a fatty layer which holds the skin cells together to form a protective ‘wall’. If the structure is compromised, then the barrier breaks down letting irritants in.

University of Manchester researcher Dr Alison Cooke, who led the study, said: “If the skin barrier function is a wall with bricks made of cells, then the lipid lamellae is the mortar that holds it together. If it isn’t developed enough then cracks appear which let water out and foreign bodies through.

“Oil prevents this mortar from developing as quickly and this could be linked to the development of conditions such as eczema.”


Describing the results as “astonishing”, Dr Cooke added: “To avoid harm to babies, until further research is available, those two topical oils – olive oil and sunflower oil – should not be recommended for treatment of dry skin or for baby massage.”

Possible eczema link?

The researchers are now carrying out further tests to see whether there is a clear link between using the oils and eczema.

In the 1940s, just one in 20 children developed eczema but now it affects one in ten babies. Experts think environmental factors such as pollution levels could be to blame, but some also suspect the condition could be accidentally triggered by well-meaning parents using inappropriate products on young children’s skin.


So what can you do if your baby develops dry skin?

Dermatologists on Dr Cooke’s team recommend using a “50:50” ointment – a lotion made of half liquid paraffin and half soft paraffin to treat dry skin in babies. The cream is readily available from pharmacies and chemists in either a pot or a tube.

However, if you suspect the problem may be eczema it is important to see your GP. Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition which can causes itchy, red rashes. It usually starts within the first six months after a baby is born. It affects boys and girls equally and can occur on any part of the body, although it is most common around the elbows, knees, wrists and neck.

Each child is different and may need a combination of treatment including creams and medication, which is why it is important to see a specialist and not attempt to treat the condition yourself.