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What causes eczema in babies? 

Childhood eczema is very common, with 15% of children under 18 years old suffering from this chronic condition. In this article we are going to give you a few tips on how to reduce the risk of your child suffering from eczema and cover topics including: 
 

What is eczema? 

Eczema is an umbrella term for different forms of skin irritation.  
 
Common types of eczema include: contact dermatitis, atopic dermatitis and seborrheic dermatitis (cradle cap).  
 
Each form is slightly different, but ultimately leads to itchiness, inflammation and dry skin. 
 
Here we’re going to explain the different types of eczema and what causes them. 
 
Atopic Eczema - atopic eczema is an immune response to an irritant. Simply put, this is where the body has detected something it doesn’t like and is reacting to it.  
 
Atopic dermatitis in children usually occurs on the face, elbows and knees, but can affect all areas of the body. Not to be confused with nappy rash, where the skin is reacting to a wet irritant, atopic dermatitis will cause dry flaky skin to form and although both cause redness, nappy rash is not associated with dry skin
 
Atopic means allergic, so if your child has atopic eczema they are having a small allergic reaction to something that has come into contact with their skin.  
 
This causes the immune response and the skin to become red and inflamed. The dryness comes from the damage caused by the immune response to the skin’s layers. 
 
Damaged skin will now let water molecules out at a much higher rate than healthy skin, which is why the skin feels dry. Sufferers of atopic dermatitis are 60% more likely to go on to develop other allergic conditions such as hay fever and asthma. 
 
Contact dermatitis - contact dermatitis is the skin’s response to something it has come into contact with. The reaction is similar to atopic eczema, with redness, inflammation and dry skin.  
 
The difference is contact dermatitis is easier to fix, as your skin has come into contact with a substance and had a reaction.  
 
By finding the substance that caused the reaction, you can limit your exposure to it by completely avoiding it, find an alternative without the offending ingredient, or wear protective equipment if you have to come into contact with it. 
 
Seborrheic dermatitis – this form of skin irritation is commonly known as cradle cap. 
 
Unlike contact dermatitis and atopic eczema, seborrheic dermatitis is not caused by an allergic reaction; however, the actual cause is still unknown.  
 
It is thought to be a combination of factors which cause cradle cap, including: genes, natural occurring yeast which forms on the skin, climate, and chemical irritant exposure. 
 
Seborrheic dermatitis in adults is known as dandruff and can be a chronic condition. 
 
This condition is most prevalent in areas with a large amount of oil producing glands and most commonly affects children on the scalp. This is because the face and scalp have the most subaceous glands on the body. 
 
Seborrheic dermatitis will usually go away on its own between the ages of 6-12 months, but not in all cases. If the cradle cap persists, then there is a relatively simple way to get rid of it: 
 
Roughly one hour before the child’s bath, apply edible oil to the affected area. We would recommend natural oil, such as coconut or olive oil, and allow the oil time to seep in. 
Place the child in the bath and wash their hair using warm water and a small amount of a gentle soap. This should remove most or all of the skin flakes. 
You can also use a very soft brush to gently massage the flakes off, using a circular motion. Do not worry if all the flakes do not come off on the first try and do not distress the child by scrubbing too hard. Some children have very thick cradle cap and this process can be repeated over a number of days until the cradle cap has gone. 

Why it's important to treat eczema 

Eczema is an umbrella term for dry skin conditions which can be caused by a number of different ways.  
 
The reason it is so important to treat eczema is the inflammation of the skin has damaged the layers of skin. These layers are basically walls, layered on top of each other, which stop moisture from leaving and also prevent bacteria and viruses from entering. 
 
By allowing these ‘walls’ to remain damaged for longer increases the risk of infection. There are some bacteria that live on our skin and they can cause nasty infections if they are allowed to get past our initial defence (the skin).  
 
One particular bacterium, which is very common and resides on our skin, is called staphylococcus aureus and can cause some nasty infections. As well as bacteria, fungi and viruses can also enter our skin through the damaged walls and cause infections. 
 
By treating the eczema and not allowing it to get out of control early, the risk of skin infection is much reduced. If left unchecked, the skin infection can become painful, swollen and will probably result in a visit to the doctors for treatment. 
 
There are a multitude of factors that can cause eczema, some are out of our control such as hormones and genes.  
 
There are also factors which we can control. In the next section of this article we are going to go over some of the things we can control which is split into three sections of common eczema triggers. 

Food that causes eczema in babies 

Most of the foods to avoid on this list are also high on the list of food people are allergic to. For instance milk, wheat and gluten are all included within this list. 
 
Dairy - milk, cheese and any product that contains milk, including chocolate. 
Eggs - eggs not just in their raw form but also when they are included in products as binding agents. 
Gluten - found in many household staples such as bread and pasta, it’s hard to avoid, but with gluten-free products becoming more prominent, it’s becoming easier. 
Soy - soy allergies are particularly prevalent in younger children, with most developing a tolerance by late childhood. 
Citrus fruits - this is mainly for contact dermatitis, which comes from touching the peel of the fruit rather than ingesting. Although citrus allergies are rare, it would be best to eliminate this food from the diet just to be safe. 
Spices - vanilla, cloves and cinnamon are amongst some of the most common in causing an allergic reaction, so it’s probably best to avoid all spiced food. 
Nuts - nuts are one of the top causes of allergies, and unlike some other allergens, you are unlikely to develop a tolerance to them. Clinical trials are currently being undertaken on finding treatment for certain nut allergies, but until a treatment has been verified safe, they are best to be avoided. 
Tomatoes - although this allergy is rare and hard to avoid, it could be the cause of the allergic reaction for some people, usually from touching the fruit as it releases histamines which could be the cause of the reaction. Worth eliminating, especially if you are suffering from contact dermatitis. 
 
All of the foods listed above are common allergens which can cause an eczema flare up. Physicians will often refer eczema sufferers onto a food elimination programme, where patients remove food from their diets to test the reaction their skin has.  
 
Once the offending food has been found then this can be eliminated from the diet. 
 
To reduce the risk of childhood eczema, it is worth considering the diet of your child and noting what they are eating by keeping a diary. This is because food allergies can take 48-96 hours to show up on the skin after ingesting. 

Chemicals to avoid 

In commercial personal care products there can be a cocktail of chemicals which can irritate skin and cause very dry skin and eczema. We’re going to list some of the most common culprits and how you can avoid them. 
 
Detergents - sodium lauryl sulphate is a chemical detergent used in many over the counter personal care products. There are also a vast array of derivatives and alternatives of this detergent that are included in products, such as: sodium laureth sulphate, sodium coco sulphate, sodium olefin sulfonate.  
 
All of these detergents are classed as surfactants, which mean they can break down oil and grease and allow them to easily be washed away. 
 
Our skin produces natural grease called sebum, which is part of the glue holding our skin cells together and preventing moisture loss.  
 
When skin, which is prone to eczema, comes into contact with these detergents, the oil in between the skin cells is broken down and washed away. By washing away the sebum which holds the skin cells together, gaps form in the skin’s layers, allowing water to pass through the skin and out of our body more quickly. 
 
By removing all detergents from your child’s personal care regime, you will notice a large improvement in their skin. We’ve compiled a list of the most common household items with detergents in your child may regularly come into contact with: 
 
Soap - some over-the-counter soaps from your supermarket or pharmacy contain high levels of detergent within them. As well as detergents they can also contain high amounts of palm oil, which is drying in soaps. Using a 100% natural soap bar, as an alternative to detergent based soap, will gently wash your child but without breaking down the natural grease your skin cells need to tie them together and prevent water loss and dry, damaged skin. 
Bubble bath - lots of children like to have bubbles in their bath, but the bubbles are actually created by the detergents which also act as foaming agents. Bath salts can be a great alternative for older children, but for younger children we recommend baths with no bubbles. 
Shower gel - shower gel, like most liquid cleaners, use sodium lauryl sulphate or similar detergents as their cleansing agent. These are best avoided if your child does use shower gel. 
Shampoo- like other liquid wash products shampoo’s use sulphates for their cleaning agent. Shampoo’s can contain high amounts of sulphates which can be harmful to people who suffer from contact dermatitis or have sensitive skin. Shampoo bars can be even worse than shampoo’s and can contain up to 90% sodium lauryl sulphate, in a solid noodle/needle form. 
Hand wash/liquid soap - the liquid soaps that are common in the pump bottles, aren’t just bad for the environment, they contain detergents which can strip your hands of the oils they need and make them particularly dry. 
Washing up liquid - not something children would come into contact on a regular basis, but worth noting, washing up liquid can contain very high amounts of detergents as they are designed to make grease easier to remove. Remember to wear gloves whilst washing up and try to not let your child come into contact with it. 
Laundry detergent - there can be high amounts of detergents and irritants in washing powder and liquid solutions. Non bio is better for eczema sufferers, but there are also natural alternatives such as natural washing powder
Moisturising cream - some of the top brands for moisturising creams and emollients still use sulphates in their products. They have removed the sodium lauryl sulphate and replaced them with lesser known derivatives, but they still cause skin irritation. It is for these reasons these products may cause your child to have contact dermatitis. Try switching to a natural alternative without sulphates in, such as body butter or creams without sulphates. 
 
Fragrance 
 
Fragrance or parfum is commonly listed on the ingredients list of scented products, and these fragrances can contain a cocktail of chemicals used to enhance the properties of the fragrance, such as phthalates to help the scent stay stronger for longer. 
 
Unfortunately fragrances are exempt from disclosing their actual ingredients, protected by the European Chemicals Agency, which has allowed fragrance producers to keep their ingredients and recipes secret, due to competition and the fear of competitors copying the scents. 
 
Fragrance sensitivity is seen in 1-4% of the general population and up to 15% of people who suffer from contact dermatitis.  
 
They are chemical compounds with dozens, if not hundreds, of ingredients and some of the synthetic ingredients can cause reactions with your skin. A reaction due to fragrance is most likely to be from contact with it rather than ingestion, so to avoid the risk of contact dermatitis it is recommended to avoid all contact with any fragrances. 
 
This is easily identifiable as ‘parfum’ or ‘fragrance’ on the ingredient list of the product. Alternatively there are products on the market which are scented using essential oils and contain no allergens, such as patchouli essential oil scented products.  
 
These products are safe to use as they have no allergens. Before using any new product, especially if you have sensitive skin or suffer from eczema, you should always peform a patch test and wait 2-4 days to check for any reaction. 
 
Fragrances and detergents/surfactants are two of the most likely chemicals your child may come into contact with, but there are a few others listed below to create a comprehensive list for you to check against if your child has a flare up of eczema. 
 
Other chemicals include: 
 
Formaldehyde - common in fragrances and household cleaning products, but can also be found in anti-wrinkle clothing such as school uniforms. Also it can be found in the artificial sweetener, aspartame, which is used in many sugar free soft drinks. 
Antibacterial - ingredients bacitracin and neomycin can be a source of allergic reaction which can lead to eczema. They are commonly used in antibacterial creams and ointments, some of which are used to treat eczema. 
Cocamidopropyl betaine - commonly found in cosmetic soap, shampoos and shower gels, but also can be found in wet wipes and baby wipes. 
Isothiazolinones - used in products to prevent oxidization and discolouration of the products; they are also commonly found in wet wipes and baby wipes. 
Paraphenylene-diamine - this chemical is not designed for products that touch the skin and is normally used in hair dyes, but can be found in unregulated products, such as temporary tattoos which are popular with younger children. 
Materials to avoid 
There are a few different everyday materials which can irritate eczema ranging from fabrics to metals. We’re going to tell you which materials to avoid and where they are most commonly found. 
 
Nickel - this metal is one of the most common to cause an allergic reaction and contact dermatitis.  
 
This metal is present in a vast array of everyday items that a child may come into contact with, such as: jewellery, mobile phones, watches, pens, dental braces, keys and clothing zippers. It can also be present in certain foods, including: 
 
black tea 
chocolate, cocoa powder and soy milk 
whole grains, whole pasta and cereals, canned vegetables 
fresh vegetables (including broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, spinach) 
pulses (including lentils, peas, and chickpeas) 
nuts 
soy based products (including tofu and soy milk) 
fruit (including bananas, pears and all canned fruit) 
 
Nickel is hard to avoid, as it is embedded in our everyday lives in many of the products and food we use or consume on a regular basis.  
 
Consult your physician for a test on the nickel allergy, which will usually involve a patch test of the skin to see if the skin becomes inflamed. 
 
Zinc - another potential allergen, zinc is present in many foods, such as: beef, pork, chicken, shellfish, almonds, cashews, fortified breakfast cereals and dairy products.  
 
These foods can be staples of our diet and therefore it is advised to check with your physician and ask for an allergy test before removing all of these items from your diet.  
 
Zinc can also be found inside your mobile phone on the circuit board. 
 
Cobalt - this mineral is a key component of vitamin B12 and is highly concentrated in: milk, green leafy vegetables, meat, poultry, breakfast cereals, rice and pasta. 
 
It is in most foods with vitamin B12 and is almost impossible to eliminate from a diet. Consult your physician for a test to eliminate cobalt as a source of irritation. 
 
If your child does have an allergy to cobalt, there is a way to minimise irritation by changing their diet so that they only get the minimum amount of vitamin B12 they need to maintain good health. 
 
Chromium - also known as Chrome, this metal is another that is present in a large amount of everyday foods, such as: meats, whole grains, legumes, nuts, yeast and black pepper, as well as a long list of others.  
 
Chromium contact dermatitis is common among construction workers as it is present in cements, mortars and paints. It can also be present in everyday household objects such as stainless steel cutlery and other stainless steel products. 
 
If you suspect a chromium allergy consult your physician who will arrange for a patch test to check. 
 
Wool and polyester - also known as textile dermatitis, some materials, dyes, resins and chemicals in clothes can cause an itchy rash and eczema.  
 
The safest option for clothing is usually cotton, silk and bamboo, so a top tip is to only buy clothes made from these materials for your child.  
 
These fabrics are the best because they are natural and breathable fibres. Silk and bamboo are also antibacterial which is why they are highly recommended for eczema sufferers but can also be a lot more expensive which is why cotton is also a great option. 
Putting it into action 
Now we’ve told you all about what can cause childhood eczema, it’s time to take action. One of the simplest changes you can make is to remove the everyday irritants your child will regularly come into contact with. 
 
These will be your common soaps, shampoo’s, bubble bath and hand wash. Even if these are not the cause of the eczema, by removing these harsh detergents from contact with the skin, it will reduce healing time.  
 
Try switching to more natural alternatives which don’t contain sulphates or artificial fragrance as these are common causes of irritation in cosmetics and personal care items 
The next step is to evaluate your child’s diet and keep a food diary. By keeping a detailed diary of what they eat, you can narrow down the source of the irritation to skin and eliminate or limit this in their diet. 
 
Location of the irritation is important; if the eczema is only located on one part of the body, such as the legs, then check your child’s clothing, it could be those easy iron trousers are causing the irritation possibly due to the chemical formaldehyde being used in the clothing. 
 
Finally if symptoms persist, consult your doctor, and ask them about patch testing your child to check for allergies. 
 
Nickel and cobalt are common allergies associated with eczema, and if confirmed, there are dietary solutions that can be put in place. 
 
I hope you have enjoyed this article and have a better insight into childhood eczema and how you can reduce the risk of your child suffering from it. 

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