That bathing soap could be harmful to your baby

Mild and soft, gentle on your skin, lasts longer, keeps germs away from your body! These are some of the slogans that soap manufacturers are splashing across various media platforms to attract customers.

Mild and soft, gentle on your skin, lasts longer, keeps germs away from your body! These are some of the slogans that soap manufacturers are splashing across various media platforms to attract customers. Indeed many have been quick to embrace any soap that has a nice scent, ‘lovely’ colour (depending on one’s preferred colour) and attractive packaging. However, experts warn against rushing to buy bathing soap for babies without doing due diligence because it could cause more harm than good to the child.

Medicated soap not a must for children

“Only children with skin problems such as eczema or similar skin diseases may require medicated soap but not all children need special soap,” explains, Dr Lisine Tuyisenge, the secretary general of the Rwanda Pediatrics Association.

Dr Tuyisenge further explains that the use of medicated soaps must only come after medical consultation.

“Individuals concerned with the skin health of their children have to first consult a dermatologist before reaching out for any soap or shampoos to avoid danger,” Tuyisenge adds.

Stanley Ngarukiye, a lecturer of Public Health at Mount Kenya University, points out that for any bathing soap, chemical composition should be everyone’s concern.

“All products, including bathing soap, have details of the chemical components in a table placed outside the package and any customer must be keen to watch out for the active ingredients,” Ngarukiye advises.

He also explains that certain chemicals within certain soap may be harmless to adults but harmful to infants.

“Some of the chemical compounds in soap could evoke allergic reactions in some individuals and that should be a concern for babies too,” he adds.

Every baby's skin has an individual tolerance to different soaps. How much soap, how often, and which kind can be determined only by trial and error. 

Avoid the hype about soap

According to Dr Rachna Pande, an internal medicine specialist at Ruhengeri Hospital, as long as baby soap is not regularly used due to the hype created by extensive marketing, it can be satisfactory.

“Soap is okay for removing dust and grime and giving a sense of being fresh but because of the propaganda created by extensive marketing, people think that soap is very essential for babies as well as for adults,” Pande explains.

She, however, warns that some properties in certain soaps may contribute to microbial resistance.

“Large usage of antiseptic products in soaps has also contributed to growing resistance in microbes against antiseptic agents; hence they are no longer effective. Moreover one has to rub the soap for at least 10 seconds for it to have any effect, whereas in reality people just apply it and wash it away,” Pande says.

“Antiseptic substances regularly will prevent building of immunity of the body and create resistance to microbes.

Soap can be used for washing a baby but it can be in a small quantity. Washing with clean, soft luke warm water alone or even with natural herbal products like turmeric is also good enough,” she adds.

Choice for a baby cleanser

Dr Elisah Agaba, a dermatologist at University Teaching Hospital Kigali (CHUK), emphasises that choice for baby soap depends on the age of the child.

“At zero years, children have a soft skin that is highly permeable and only hardens as they grow. They should not be subjected to common soap, they should be subjected to cleansers instead and moist cleansers that are not soap based are the best,” Dr Agaba explains.

He adds that on top of the skin being permeable, it is subject to microflora attack hence a good cleansing agent is one that is slightly acidic.

“When the PH of the skin is altered, its physiology is also altered and this may promote the growth of harmful bacteria. This is why a good cleanser should have PH slightly below 7 (below neutral PH) that destroys cell membranes of bacteria,” he advises.


Dr Agaba also warns that chemicals present in soap can enhance moisturizing or dryness of skin and make it itchy in those who are prone to it.

“Baby skin is more soft and sensitive than an adult skin and baby cleansers maintain this equilibrium. Poor ingredients can cause dryness and manifestation of bumps on the skin,” Dr Agaba warns.

Whereas most parents prefer using scented soaps, US Mayo Clinic also points out that there’s no need to use special soap for a baby bath. In fact, plain water is fine for newborns and if need be a mild moisturizing soap. Bubble bath and scented soaps should strictly be avoided.

Compounds used in soap making

Soap is made through a lengthy chemical process known as saponification. This process requires two main raw materials, that is fat and alkali. The fat may either be vegetable or animal fat. Most alkali used today includes: sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide, but a potassium-based soap is more soluble than sodium-based soap, and so it is called “soft soap”. Soft soap, alone or in combination with sodium-based soap, is commonly used in shaving products.

Unlike in the past when animal fat was obtained directly from a slaughterhouse, modern soap makers today use fat that has been processed into fatty acids. The process eliminates many impurities, and it produces water as a by-product instead of glycerin. Many vegetable fats, including olive oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil is also used in soap making.

According to medical experts, after the last stages of the process, there is need to enhance the colour, texture, and scent of soap. It is at this point that fragrances and perfumes are added to the soap mixture to cover the odor of dirt and to leave behind a fresh-smelling scent.

Similarly, abrasives to enhance the texture of soap and improve its scoring effect include talc, silica, and marble pumice (volcanic ash).

Without dye, soap would appear dull but modern manufacturers have learnt what their customers want and therefore decided to produce colour soap to make it more enticing. But even with this attractive appearance, medical professionals warn about random use of soap on babies.


Soap and shampoo to use to bathe babies

Baby’s skin, especially a newborn’s, is sensitive, and all soaps are mild irritants. The function of soap is to suspend particles and oils on the skin surface so that they can be more easily removed from the skin with water.

It is advisable to limit the soap’s time on the skin to less than five minutes to avoid drying or irritating the skin. (Net photos)

Without soap, some oils, dirt, and surface secretions would simply stick to the skin and require vigorous rubbing with a cloth and water to remove them, which in itself would irritate the skin. Every bathing baby’s skin has an individual tolerance to different soaps. How much soap, how often, and which kind can be determined only by trial and error, but here are some general guidelines:

  • Use soap only on areas that are caked with secretions, (such as oil or sweat) which are not easily removed with plain water.
  • When first using soap, try a test rub on one small part of the body. If over the next few hours the skin reddens, dries, or noticeably changes in any way relative to other areas, ban that soap and try another.
  • Use mild soap. Bathing baby soaps are regular soaps with fewer additives such as antimicrobial, fragrances, or abrasives.
  • Limit the soap’s time on the skin to less than five minutes to avoid drying or irritating the skin. Wash it off as soon as possible and rinse the skin well.
  • Above all, avoid vigorous scrubbing of any area of the skin with soap.

If your baby is prone to eczema or has allergic dermatitis, use as little soap as possible, and give as few baths as possible. A special soap formulation prescribed by a dermatologist may be helpful. Babies with particularly sensitive skin should spend very little time in a bathtub immersed in water and are best showered and spot cleaned.

Shampoos are similar to soaps and if overused can irritate the scalp and rob the hair of natural oils. Shampooing once a week is enough for most babies. Use mild baby shampoo; like baby soaps, baby shampoos contain fewer additives than other commercial shampoos. It is seldom necessary to massage shampoo deep into the scalp. If your baby’s scalp is covered with the flaky, crusty, oily substance called cradle cap, after shampooing massage a bit of vegetable oil into the crust to soften it, and then remove it with a soft comb.

Here is a final thought about soaps and shampoos that many mothers have expressed to me over the years.

Sensitive mothers feel that too much soap and shampoo (and scented oils and powders) camouflage natural baby scents that mothers find irresistible. Also, it is better not to mask the mother’s natural scent, which baby needs, and perfume is irritating to some babies.

To use or not use powders, oils on babies

Gone are the days when a baby was sprinkled with perfumed talcum after every bath. Powders and oils are unnecessary since your baby’s skin is naturally rich in body oil and they may be irritating and even harmful.

Emollients (cold-pressed vegetable oil or Soothe and Heal by Lansinoh) may be used only on patchy areas of dry skin; otherwise, they are unnecessary. Powders easily cake and build up in skin creases and can actually contribute to skin irritation and rashes. Also, powders, if inhaled, can irritate your baby’s nasal and air passages.

Cornstarch is not recommended as it can serve as a medium for the growth of harmful fungi.



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