Although babies commonly develop rashes and minor skin problems, sometimes it can be difficult to diagnose and identify their cause. And, because everyone’s skin is unique, skin conditions can present themselves differently in every infant. Understanding the distinctions between baby acne and baby eczema will enable you to treat your baby’s skin correctly and minimize their discomfort.
Unfortunately for parents, both conditions bear similarities, so it can be difficult to tell them apart. Here we’ll explain the signs, symptoms, and treatments of baby acne and baby eczema, so you can help to prevent discomfort.
Baby acne and baby eczema are both skin conditions which appear in young infants, usually within the first six months after birth. While baby acne will typically disappear on its own relatively quickly, eczema can linger long into your baby’s childhood or adult life, so it’s important to know the difference between them and treat accordingly.
Spotting the signs of baby acne
Baby acne, or neonatal acne, usually occurs about two-to-four weeks after birth due to fluctuating hormones. This is relatively common amongst infants, with around one-in-five babies being born with baby acne or developing it within their first six weeks. It can usually be attributed to the baby’s skin adapting to life outside the womb and the mixture of oils and bacteria it now encounters.
As with adult acne, baby acne presents itself as tiny white or red bumps on your child’s cheeks, nose, and forehead (though it can also appear on a baby’s scalp, neck, back, and chest). According to one study, neonatal acne is characterised by a mostly facial eruption of inflammatory and non-inflammatory lesions, which most people refer to as ‘pimples’ or ‘zits’. There is also evidence of some babies presenting whiteheads and blackheads (non-inflamed white or black dots on the skin resulting from clogged pores).
If your baby develops acne after six weeks of age, we advise you to visit a doctor, as this will usually be classed as infant acne. Infant acne typically lasts between six months to one year, though it can persist into childhood and early adolescence.
One main difference between baby/infant acne and baby eczema is acne won’t be itchy, so it shouldn’t cause any discomfort.
Spotting the signs of baby eczema
Eczema, also referred to as atopic dermatitis, generally develops in infants between the ages of six months and five years. It’s a common skin condition which causes dry, red, itchy, and sometimes painful rashes. Eczema is not contagious and more than 50% of children with eczema will outgrow it by the time they’re teenagers. However, there is currently no cure so spotting the signs of eczema and learning how to ease symptoms is essential.
In babies of up to six months, eczema commonly presents itself on the cheeks, forehead, face, chin, and scalp. However, as your child grows, eczema may also develop on their elbows, knees, and other skin creases. (Baby eczema does not occur in the nappy area, so a rash in this region may be nappy rash.)
Usually, eczema flare-ups occur when the skin is dry. This means eczema can worsen in the winter due to the drying effects of central heating. However, the summer can also be difficult because the heat causes sweating, triggering irritation around the skin’s folds and creases. Another common trigger for eczema is contact with an irritant such as pet hair, dust, strong chemical detergents, household cleaners, or itchy fabrics.
Symptoms of eczema can include:
- Dry, itchy skin
- Redness, scales, and bumps that can leak fluid and then crust over
- The fluctuation between calm and irritated skin (flare-ups)
- Worsening at night.
How to treat baby acne
Generally, baby acne is mild and will resolve itself as androgen levels naturally decrease between 6-12 months of age. However, infant acne may take longer to clear, and some children will even experience acne up until their teenage years.
To help baby acne heal faster, regular home care should be taken. This includes:
- Wash your baby’s face daily with a gentle, hypoallergenic soap
- Don’t irritate, scrub, or pinch the affected areas
- Don’t use acne wash or treatments you would use on yourself – these are too harsh for a baby’s sensitive skin
- Avoid lotions and oily face products.
If you’re concerned that your baby’s acne isn’t healing, visit your paediatrician who can prescribe safe treatments including antibiotics or cream to prevent scarring.
How to treat baby eczema
While there is no cure for eczema, there are several ways to manage your baby’s symptoms. Common advice for those suffering from baby eczema includes:
- Give short, lukewarm baths (between five-to-ten minutes) using a mild, unscented, hypoallergenic soap and pat skin dry
- Use a thick cream, emollient, or ointment as a moisturizer (consult your pediatrician for advice on the best products)
- Use unscented laundry detergent and rinse clothes twice to ensure any harsh chemicals aren’t lingering within the fabric
- Identify triggers such as fabrics, pet hair, heat, or dust, and avoid exposure to them
- Dress babies in clothing made of soft, breathable fabrics such as cotton or silk, and avoid those made of rough or synthetic fabrics like wool and polyester
- Buy eczema mittens for young children to stop them scratching at night
- Keep children’s fingernails short to prevent skin damage from itching
- Identify any food which could be causing an allergic reaction – do this by eliminating and reintroducing different products.
When to contact your doctor
If your baby’s eczema is severe, you can visit a paediatrician to request a steroid ointment that can reduce inflammation. Similarly, before using any home remedies, please speak to a doctor and follow their direction.
If you notice any early signs of skin infection such as fever, pus-filled bumps, cold sores, or blisters, you should contact your doctor right away to determine the cause and receive treatment.
While baby acne and eczema may look similar, their lifespan and treatments vary. Neonatal acne is usually harmless and will clear up on its own, whereas eczema can be a lifelong condition which will require continuous management and treatment. By understanding what your child is experiencing you will be best placed to treat their symptoms and ensure you are able to do all you can to ease their suffering.
If you’re unsure, it’s always best to visit your pediatrician.