Johnson and Johnson, who were involved in funding this study, have used the findings to denigrate ALL natural oils in their advertorial above. The truth is you do need to be careful with your choice of oils for delicate baby skin, particularly where there is already sensitivity or a tendency to eczema or allergies, but well-chosen plant oils can have very positive benefits for the skin.
I know about the issues with olive oil and it was one of the main motivations for developing a baby skincare range without it. Advice from my baby massage association IAIM (The International Association of Infant Massage) regarding suitable oils for babies recommended that “babies be massaged with a high quality, preferably organic, unscented, cold pressed vegetable oil”. Specialist certified infant massage instructor and neonatal care expert Cherry Bond brought to our attention concerns regarding oleic fatty acids by highlighting the work of Professor Michael J Cork and colleagues, including the results of their recent study regarding olive oil and it’s potential to adversely affect an infant’s immature skin barrier.*
The study found that “olive oil significantly damages the skin barrier, and therefore has the potential to promote the development of, and exacerbate existing, atopic dermatitis” and concluded that its use in infant massage should be discouraged.
So what’s the alternative?
Mineral oils are certainly not the best. Sharon Trotter BSc, Midwife, baby skincare advisor and founder of TIPS advises that they can have the following disadvantages –
- They create a greasy and sticky texture that is not a good medium for massage
- They create a film or barrier on the skin which means skin cannot breath properly or eliminate toxins, which in turn could lead to allergies or skin dryness
- They do not absorb into the skin, leaving a layer of oil on the skin which is slippery
- They provide no ‘nutritional’ value to nourish the skin
I would add that it is usually artificially fragranced (itself a cause of sensitivity and irritation) and as a by-product of petroleum production it is a highly refined and unsustainable ingredient.
Plant oils by contrast have many advantageous qualities –
They penetrate easily and, as they are edible, are chemically similar to the fats under our skin.
They carry fat soluble vitamins, sterols, carotenes, etc into the skin which help to nourish
They enhance the skin’s protective functioning, holding moisture and preventing drying but without blocking the pores and affecting its ability to breathe.
Certain oils can help meet the body’s essential fatty acid requirements and supply GLA which is converted to anti-inflammatory prostaglandins, resulting in softer skin less prone to eczema.
Plant oils are a renewable and sustainable resource meaning low environmental impact.
So which oils are suitable for baby skin?
Oils which are low in oleic fatty acids (the component thought to be responsible for olive oils adverse effect) and high in linoleic fatty acids such as sunflower, starflower and evening primrose or coconut (a saturated fat) are the most suitable and favourable for baby skin. Starflower and evening primrose are also rich in GLA which is particularly beneficial for dry, irritated skin and cradle cap. On a cautionary note it is possible to buy sunflower oil which has been created to have a high oleic fatty acid content to make it more stable for cooking at high temperatures – so make sure you avoid this too.
To take up another point in the J&J advertorial. Plant oils are indeed vulnerable to oxidation from light and heat. By virtue of their structure, which confers all the healthy benefits, they are susceptible to damage. Mineral oil by contrast is inert. It is very stable because it contains no nutrients. Provided plant oils are stored in a cool place away from direct light and are used by their best before date there is no issue. And use your nose – it is always a good idea to sniff an oil before you use it, rancid oil smells unpleasant making it easy to detect if an oil has turned. A manufactured skincare product containing high levels of oils or butters should contain vitamin E which acts as an antioxidant to counter oxidation, so look for this in the ingredients listing. These products will also have undergone stability testing and will display a use by date on the packaging for your guidance.
Parents don’t just want products for massage they also need to cleanse their babies, deal with skin issues such as cradle cap, dry and chapped skin and to protect against and soothe nappy and dribble rash. In practice it can be very difficult to find baby skincare products which fulfil the criteria outlined by IAIM. When I was researching baby skincare I found that even after rejecting those which contain mineral oils and synthetic chemicals the vast majority were fragranced and many contain olive oil and other oils high in oleic fatty acids or potentially sensitising nut oils. So I set out to make a range that was unfragranced, avoided tree nut oils and those high in oleic fatty acids and emphasised nourishing linoleic and GLA rich oils. The resulting products: Nom Nom Baby Oil, Baby Butter and Baby Bath are therefore perfect for all babies, including those under three months (Baby Bath from 1 month) and those with sensitive and eczema prone skin, having been designed specifically for them!
* EFFECT OF OLIVE OIL AND SUNFLOWER SEED OIL ON THE ADULT SKIN BARRIER: IMPLICATIONS FOR NEONATAL SKIN CARE
Danby SG, Alenezi T, Sultan A, Lavender T, Chittock J, Brown K, Cork MJ
Academic Unit of Dermatology Research, Department of Infection and Immunity, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health, University of Sheffield Medical School, Sheffield, UK.
Pediatr Dermatol. 2013 Jan;30(1):42-50. doi: 10.1111/j.1525-1470.2012.01865.x. Epub 2012 Sep 20.