Dry Skin Treatments for Babies and Older Children

Learn the best treatment options

Finding the right treatment for your kids' xerosis (dry skin) can be tricky. Children's skin is delicate and dries out more easily than adults' skin, so they're more likely to have itchy, red, rough, or peeling skin. Dry skin can be caused or made worse by swimming, sweating in the heat of the summer, or the cold, dry air of winter.

Age is an important consideration when looking at moisturizers, too. That soft, smooth baby skin is thinner and more permeable, handles moisture differently, and is less able to keep itself moist and healthy than adult skin. This makes treating and preventing dry skin in children especially important.

Teenage Skin

By the time most kids reach their teen years, their oil glands become more active and dry skin is less of a problem.

Girl applying cream in mirror

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Moisturizer

Moisturizers are a must for treating or preventing dry skin in your child. However, not all products are created equal.

  • The greasier, the better: In general, ointments are usually better than creams, and creams are usually better than lotions when it comes to moisturizing dry skin.
  • Avoid alcohol-based moisturizer: Alcohol dries the skin, so choose a non-alcohol product, such as Aquaphor Baby Healing Ointment or Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream.
  • Lactic acid is beneficial: Look for lactic acid in the ingredients list because it promotes hydration of the skin. Lac-Hydrin (available in both OTC and prescription strengths) or Eucerin Intensive Repair Creme for Very Dry Skin are good options.
  • Consider a specialty moisturizer: These contain multiple ingredients and tend to be more expensive than more common brands. They include Vanicream Moisturizing Skin Cream, Cutemol Emollient Cream, Mustela Dermo-Pediatrics, Stelatopia Moisturizing Cream, or Burt´s Beeswax Lip Balm.

Reapply moisturizers on your child's hands every time they wash them. On other dry areas, use a moisturizer at least two or three times a day.

Talk about products with your pediatrician. If your child's skin is extremely dry, isn't improving with moisturizing, or shows signs of eczema or another skin problem, your doctor may recommend a prescription moisturizer.

Lotion

Lotions may not be the best option for your kids.

  • Because children's skin lacks oil, lotions may simply not be strong enough.
  • According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), lotions can be irritating, so creams and ointments may be better choices.

Creams and Ointments

Whereas lotions are a thick liquid, creams are defined as semi-solid emulsions of water and oil. Ointments are more oily than creams. The AAD recommends creams or ointments that contain one or more of these ingredients:

You may prefer a cream for your child since they're less greasy to the touch. They may also be more comfortable than heavy ointments during hotter times of the year.

Why Do Some Children Have Dry Skin?

Many children have an inherited tendency for dry skin or sensitivity to certain things that can make their skin dry. Often, habits can dry the skin—such as using harsh soaps, not using moisturizers often enough, or using alcohol-based moisturizers.

Soap

Most people grew up using soap in the bath or shower, but soaps remove the skin's natural protective oils and leave the skin vulnerable to drying and irritation. Some pediatricians recommend bathing children in just warm water, and only twice a week. When they reach their teen years, they can start using soap only where they develop body odor (armpits, feet, and genitals). Never use soap on skin that's itchy or has a rash.

While it may be disappointing for your kids, it's best to avoid bubble baths. They can be one of the more damaging things for your child's skin.

If you do choose to use soap, use the type meant for that part of the body. Facial soaps and cleansers are typically gentler than hand soaps, which may be gentler than those meant for the whole body.

Also choose mild soaps such as:

  • Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser
  • Dove Sensitive Skin Body Wash
  • Purpose Gentle Cleansing Wash
  • Dove Sensitive Skin Unscented Beauty Bar
  • Cetaphil Gentle Cleansing Bar

What is Eczema?

Eczema is a skin condition that causes red, itchy skin with inflammation. It is common in children. It's different from simple dry skin and requires different treatment. If your child has symptoms that could point to eczema, talk to their doctor about the best way to treat it.

Hydrocortisone

Sometimes hydrocortisone creams, which are available over-the-counter (OTC) in milder strengths and by prescription for stronger formulations, are used for treating dry skin conditions associated with inflammation.

These creams can have side effects, so it's common to start with a low-potency product before advancing to a stronger one.

Side effects can include:

  • Thinning skin
  • Stretch marks
  • Acne
  • Unwanted hair growth
  • Changes in skin color
  • Red bumps around the mouth
  • White or red bumps on the skin
  • Burning, itching, or red skin
  • Slowed growth and delayed weight gain

Severe side effects that warrant an immediate call to your doctor include:

  • Severe rash
  • Signs of infection (redness, swelling, pus) where the cream was applied

Side effects from topical hydrocortisone (and topical products in general) are more likely in children than adults because their thinner skin absorbs larger amounts of medication.

OTC hydrocortisone creams are considered safe for children age 2 and older. They should only be used in younger children under the advice and supervision of a doctor.

Hydrocortisone is frequently recommended for treating eczema, rashes, insect bites, and skin allergies, as well.

Non-Steroidal Options

Several nonsteroidal prescription creams are also available, including Eucrisa, Elidel, and Protopic. They're used to treat a variety of skin conditions and may be an option for your child if they can't tolerate hydrocortisone or you want to avoid the side effects. Your pediatrician can help guide you to the best one for your child.

Damp Skin Application

It's best to apply moisturizer to skin that is still damp, such as just after your child gets out of a bath. This can help seal in moisture.

You may also want to consider using a wet-to-dry skin dressing. An example of this is wetting your child's hands, applying a generous amount of moisturizer to them, and then covering them with wet cotton gloves, which you can leave on for a few hours or even overnight. For other areas, you can simply apply a wet gauze over moisturized skin and then apply another dry gauze over it for a few hours.

An oatmeal bath can soothe a child's irritated skin. It's not as simple as just adding oats to the bathwater, though. You can buy commercial products for this use or make your own at home.

Avoiding Irritants

You can help protect your child's skin from becoming dry and irritated by being aware of products that are problematic and taking a few simple steps:

  • Avoid alcohol-based hand sanitizers when possible, as they dry skin. If they must be used, such as at school due to COVID-19 regulations, be sure to use extra moisturizer and look for sanitizers that moisturize, as well.
  • Use fragrance-free skin products, but avoid those labeled "unscented," as they may contain irritating chemicals that hide or neutralize the smell of ingredients.
  • Use gentle, fragrance-free laundry products.
  • Choose clothes made from soft, breathable fabrics (such as cotton) to reduce sweating and irritation.
  • Have kids shower after swimming and then quickly apply a moisturizer to their skin to prevent chlorine rash.
  • Have them wear gloves in the winter to protect their hands from dry, cold air.

Climate Control

You can help ease dry skin or keep your child's skin healthy by using a cool mist humidifier in their room during the winter, when the air in the house may be dry from the heater. If you live in a hot, dry area, you may want to use the humidifier during the summer, too.

Keep in mind that raising the humidity level may help your child's dry skin, but it can also contribute to dust mites or mold, which may exacerbate allergies.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are natural remedies for my baby’s dry skin?

Massaging sunflower oil, coconut oil, or mineral oil into the skin may protect babies from dermatitis. For skin that’s already irritated, try non-chemical treatments such as oatmeal extracts. If you want to avoid using any moisturizer on your baby’s dry skin, focus on keeping your baby well hydrated, and use a humidifier to prevent the air in your home from getting too dry. 

What's the difference between baby eczema and dry skin?

Baby eczema causes a rash that may include rough, red bumps. While dry skin can be itchy, the sensation and discomfort are usually significantly more intense with eczema. Treating eczema may require avoiding substances that cause flare-ups, as well as using moisturizers or other topical treatments. 

Could dry skin be a sign my child has a vitamin deficiency?

It's unlikely. Not having enough vitamin A can cause a variety of symptoms including dry, scaly skin, but this isn't likely to be the cause of your child's dry skin. The daily diet of most children in the United States provides sufficient amounts of vitamin A, as well as other nutrients that support healthy skin. But a lack of vitamin A is a concern in developing countries, where supplements are recommended.

A Word From Verywell

You should call your doctor about your child's dry skin if the condition lasts more than two weeks despite treatment, especially if the skin is cracked. If the area starts to look infected or the symptoms are accompanied by fever, you should also contact your pediatrician. For persistent skin problems, your pediatrician may refer you to a pediatric dermatologist.

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