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

By Jenny from Midwife and Life

One of the most common questions we get asked as midwives is, ‘What can I put on my baby’s dry skin?’  or ‘What can I use for my newborn’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.

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.

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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