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Whoever coined the phrase “baby soft skin” may not have had much experience with newborns.
It’s actually common for term babies to have dry skin, due to their need to rapidly adapt to life outside the womb and the presence of vernix — a waxy coating that protects baby from amniotic fluid in the womb.
Newborn skin may even peel due to this dryness — or because of baby eczema. (As many as 1 in 5 children under 2 years may get eczema.) Introducing moisture back into the skin can help with these issues.
So what does all this have to do with a plant found in Africa? A lot, it turns out. Shea butter is a popular natural choice for resolving infant skin issues — and for good reason. Here’s the 411.
Like coconut oil, shea butter is a fat that comes from a tree nut — specifically, from the shea nut of the karite tree in western and central Africa.
It’s been used locally for hundreds of years on skin and hair as a natural moisturizer and treatment for variety of ailments, like rashes and insect bites. It’s now become massively popular worldwide.
Shea butter is a solid at room temperature but melts to a liquid once heated. It’s primarily made up of saturated fatty acids like palmitic, stearic, oleic, and linoleic acid. It also contains certain vitamins, like vitamin E.
Shea butter’s use in pregnancy, postpartum, and baby care isn’t new. Those who are expecting may reach for a jar to rub on stretched belly skin and new moms may use it to relieve dry, cracked nipples.
Shea butter has many claimed benefits. Are all the claims true? Well, time and research will tell, but there have been some studies backing up the benefits. They include the following, most relevant to parents of little ones:
Natural treatment for eczema
It may help treat eczema. Obviously, this is a big one for new parents battling this skin condition in their babies.
In one case study (on one person), shea butter reduced eczema appearance and symptoms more than Vaseline. In another small study, about 75 percent of pediatric participants with atopic dermatitis responded well to a cream containing shea butter.
And in a more recent 2019
More study is needed into pure shea butter.
Shea butter is considered to be super moisturizing due to its fatty acids and vitamins (specifically, A and E). So if your little one has dry skin, it might help encourage that famous baby softness.
Most research labels shea butter as an emollient — another word for a moisturizing cream, lotion, or oil often used to soothe dry skin, eczema, or psoriasis.
Shea butter may also have anti-inflammatory properties. This would make it a good choice for skin irritation that can come with rashes and insect bites. (But always see your doctor if your baby has these.)
Harsh ingredients can irritate your little one’s skin and causes rashes or other issues. Remember that baby skin is also thin; the epidermis (outer layer of skin) of a newborn is actually 20 percent thinner than yours!
In other words, baby skin is sensitive. Fortunately, shea butter is considered safe for all skin types — even the most delicate and new. And unlike many store-bought baby lotions and creams, pure shea butter doesn’t contain added chemicals, sulfates, parabens, or preservatives.
When shopping for shea butter for your little one, look for organic, raw varieties. Check the ingredients list for any chemicals or potentially harmful additives — the purest options contain 100 percent shea butter and nothing else.
It’s fine to purchase unrefined shea butter — just don’t be alarmed if you see bits of shea nut in it. To avoid that gritty feeling on baby’s skin, simply heat the butter in a microwave-safe bowl until melted and strain it through cheesecloth.
Prices vary, but expect to pay a bit more for organic, unprocessed products and the peace of mind that come with them.
Similar to how you might use coconut oil, you can heat a spoonful of shea butter in the microwave and then use it as part of a baby massage. Be sure to test the temperature of the liquid first — it should feel pleasantly warm, but not burn-your-skin hot. (And remember, baby’s skin is more sensitive than yours.)
Gently dip the tips of your fingers in the liquid and rub baby’s body, one small area at a time. When using shea butter or any other oil, avoid baby’s eye area and genitals.
For treating baby eczema, you don’t need to heat it up to liquid state. After giving baby a bath (which softens the skin and makes it more receptive to moisturizers), pat the skin dry and rub a small amount into the affected area.
Because shea butter comes from a tree nut, it might stand to reason that allergies would be a concern. But in reality, there are no documented cases of shea butter allergies.
Even so, it’s best to do a test on a small patch of skin before slathering it all over your baby. If you notice any redness or irritation in the test area, go with an alternative that doesn’t contain shea butter.
Also, know that most dry skin in babies resolves on its own after about the first month or so. If your little one’s dry skin persists, don’t just reach for the shea butter or baby oil — talk to your pediatrician. There may be a more serious issue that requires medical treatment.
Some oils containing the same fatty acids as shea butter — for example, olive oil — have been the subject of research into whether they can actually cause atopic eczema. More research is needed, but keep this in mind and watch for any skin changes in your baby.
Shea butter may be just what the doctor ordered when it comes to moisturizing your baby’s delicate skin and relieving eczema.
But speaking of doctor’s orders, talk to your pediatrician about your best options. Chances are, they’ll say shea butter is fine — but it’s definitely worth the ask.
In the meantime, know that dry skin in babies is common. And if you’re going to purchase raw, organic shea butter, know that its antioxidants and other beneficial ingredients may make it a powerhouse for combating dryness — whether baby’s or your own.