Why Your Newborn’s Skin Is Peeling

We often think of a newborn’s skin as soft and smooth. Your baby will most likely grow into baby-soft skin, but it may not happen right away. It’s common for newborns to experience dry or peeling skin for a variety of reasons. You may notice flaky or peeling skin on your baby’s hands and feet. While flaky skin is normal for most newborns, there are a few underlying skin conditions to look out for.

Closeup instep or foot of a newborn with a skin peeling on white cloth. Skin allergies in newborn called Vernix. the concept of health care and medical.

Prot Tachapanit / Getty Images

Normal Causes of Peeling Skin

When your baby is born, you’ll notice that they are covered in fluid. This is usually a mix of amniotic fluid, the fluid they’ve been living in, as well as the mother’s blood. Your nurse will dry your baby off with warm, clean towels. A newborn can quickly lose body heat, so your child will be placed under a heat lamp during this process. Because your baby has been living in fluid for months, it’s natural that their first one to two layers of skin will flake off in the coming weeks. 

One of the liquids that the nurse will wipe off of your baby after birth is called vernix caseosa. This is a thick, cheese-like substance made up of the baby’s shed skin cells and secretions. Because your child has been living in fluid, the skin cells form a thick paste that covers parts of the body. Once the vernix is gently wiped away, you may notice your baby’s skin has already begun to flake; this is more common in babies born after 40 weeks.

As a rule of thumb, the more vernix a baby is born with, the less their skin will peel later on. Babies who are born with more vernix may peel less because their skin is protected. This explains why premature babies, who are born with more vernix,  tend to have less peeling than those born after 40 weeks. 

Other Causes

Most cases of skin peeling in newborns are normal and will resolve within a few weeks. There are other causes, though, that may need to be evaluated by your pediatrician or dermatologist. 

Eczema

Eczema is a skin condition that causes red, dry patches of skin. The skin is usually irritated and can flake off. Also known as atopic dermatitis, it often begins when your infant is under 6 months old. Infants usually develop baby eczema on their faces or scalps. It can spread to other body areas, but usually does not affect the diaper area. 

While doctors do not always know why an infant develops eczema, it’s possible to manage it. Look for triggers like allergies or detergents that seem to make the outbreaks worse. Keep bath times to a minimum since water can worsen eczema symptoms. There is no cure for eczema, but it often clears up by the time your child is ready to start school. If you need help managing the symptoms, talk with a pediatric dermatologist about treatment options like over-the-counter creams, prescription medications, and phototherapy.

Ichthyosis

Infants who have ichthyosis are born with an extra layer of skin on their bodies. This extra layer is called the collodion membrane, and is made up of skin cells that are usually shed before the baby is born. This membrane sometimes resembles a plastic wrap and can keep your baby from being able to move easily.

It can take several weeks for the membrane to crack and peel off. Newborns with ichthyosis are usually cared for in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and placed in a high-humidity chamber. Babies usually need extra calories since this sloughing process requires a lot of energy. Your medical team may recommend extra feedings throughout the day. This rare condition puts infants at risk of infection, and they will continue to be monitored in the NICU until they are stable. 

What Is Cradle Cap?

If you notice that your infant’s scalp is flaking, your baby may have cradle cap, also known as seborrheic dermatitis. It is common in the first three months of life. Like peeling skin, it usually resolves on its own without any treatment. If it starts to get worse or lasts longer than a few months, talk with your pediatrician. 

At-Home Treatment

Peeling skin is a normal process for newborns and usually resolves on its own within a few weeks. Some at-home treatments, such as using a hypoallergenic moisturizer, can help your baby avoid dry skin. 

To treat your baby's dry skin:

  • Reduce your baby’s bath time to just five to 10 minutes. Sitting in warm water can strip the skin of its natural oils, so the shorter the bath the better.
  • Bundle up your little one any time you leave the house in the winter. Dry, cold air can pull moisture from our skin, resulting in dry, flaky skin. Make sure your baby’s hands and feet are always covered in the cold.
  • Use a humidifier in your baby’s room overnight to add moisture to the air. 
  • Cover your baby’s skin with light garments and a hat when heading out in the summer. Sun protection is important for a baby’s sensitive skin, so stick to short outings in the shade.
  • Apply a gentle moisturizer to your baby’s skin. Look for a hypoallergenic lotion and apply it after bath time to seal in moisture and avoid dry skin.
  • Keep your baby hydrated with breastmilk or formula. Babies should not drink water or other liquids until they are at least 6 months old. Talk with your pediatrician if you’re concerned about dehydration. 
  • Avoid chemicals and fragrances whenever possible. Babies have sensitive skin, so opt for unscented laundry detergents, fabric softeners, and soaps. 
  • Less is more when it comes to your baby’s skin. Minimize the use of any products, and keep the number of baths to just twice or three times per week.

Most babies will experience some degree of peeling skin, so there’s no need to see your doctor right away. If you notice that your little one seems uncomfortable and is itching or in pain, talk with your doctor about skin solutions. 

A Word From Verywell

Most newborns will experience peeling, flaky skin after birth. The peeling usually clears up on its own without the need for treatment or other intervention. Talk with your doctor if your baby seems uncomfortable or the skin starts to become red and inflamed. At-home treatments to avoid dry skin, like limiting bath time and applying a gentle moisturizer, may help.

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Article Sources
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  1. MedlinePlus. Skin findings in newborns. Updated October 2, 2019.

  2. Kids Health. Looking at Your Newborn: What’s Normal. Updated January 2018.

  3. National Eczema Association. Eczema in Children. Updated 2021.

  4. Foundation for Ichthyosis and Related Skin Types. Ichthyosis Care.

  5. John Hopkins Medicine. Newborn Skin 101.