Is Laundry Detergent Causing Your Child’s Skin Rash?

Steps to prevent eczema in children
Closeup of a hand holding a laundry detergent pod with washer open in the background

Patches of red, scaly skin on your baby may be as unwelcome as a 3 a.m. diaper change, but they’re about as typical. Up to 30% of children under age 2 have atopic dermatitis (eczema), says pediatric dermatologist Joan Tamburro, DO.

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Eczema is an inflammation of the skin that tends to run in families. It’s most common in those with a personal or family history of asthma, hay fever or other allergies.

Most children outgrow the condition, although flare-ups (flares) can recur throughout life. And dry, sensitive skin may always be a concern.

Eczema or just dry skin?

“Eczema can start as dry skin, but it’s more than dryness,” says Dr. Tamburro. It’s red, scaly, extremely itchy skin lesions that can ooze at its most severe presentation. Sometimes scratching can cause the skin lesions to bleed and crust.”

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Eczema can appear anywhere on the body, but location often changes with age. It can turn up on:

  • Face, scalp and legs in infants.
  • Arms, legs and face in toddlers.
  • Elbows, wrists, creases of hands, knees, ankles, feet and neck in teens and adults.

While dry skin can trigger flares, so can environmental factors, including:

  • Allergens, like pollen and pets.
  • Skin irritants, like laundry detergents, dyes, fragrances and other chemicals.
  • Clothing fabrics.
  • Heat and sweating.
  • Stress.

Preventing flares

But how can you stop eczema itching in your baby? In addition to avoiding triggers, good skin care is the best way to prevent the dry, itchy skin that can provoke eczema flares. Dr. Tamburro recommends parents help eczema in kids and toddlers by:

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  • Bathing daily. “People used to think that bathing less was better for dry skin, but that’s no longer true,” says Dr. Tamburro. “Today, soaps, cleansers and washes are more mild and don’t strip skin of hydration.” Use lukewarm (not hot) water and mild soaps or products that are “fragrance free,” “hypoallergenic” or “for sensitive skin.”
  • Slathering on moisturizing cream. Do it immediately after bathing to seal in the most moisture, and then reapply moisturizer two or three times throughout the day. Studies show that moisturizing creams with ceramides — molecules that reinforce the outermost layer of skin — are most effective.
  • Stopping itches from intensifying. Itching begets scratching, which begets more itching, which begets more scratching. Ward off scratching before it gets out of hand with over-the-counter hydrocortisone ointment or prescribed medications from your pediatrician or dermatologist. Finding things to keep your child’s hands and brain busy can also help distract from the itch.

While it’s not curable, eczema can be controlled. Those who have had flares, even as infants, need to protect their skin for the rest of their lives.

“Some parents are aggressive at treating other health problems but disregard their child’s eczema, thinking skin problems are no big deal,” says Dr. Tamburro. “When children are itchy every day of their life, it is a big deal. Kids suffer with it. Eczema needs to be treated.”

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