Parents are being cautioned not to massage olive oil or sunflower oil on their babies after surprising results of a newly published study showed that the oils damaged babies’ skin barrier and increased their risk of developing allergies, eczema and other health complications.
Olive oil and sunflower oil can weaken the skin barrier that blocks infections and allergens and stops water loss, according to the new study that has led researchers to strongly advise against using these oils on babies’ skin, Parent Herald reports.
Researchers at St. Mary’s Hospital in Manchester conducted the study after becoming concerned about the skyrocketing rates of childhood eczema in the United Kingdom, which affected five percent of children in the 1940s and now affect approximately 30 percent of children. They wondered whether the common practice of massaging oils like olive oil on babies’ skin could factor into the change, and recruited the parents of 115 healthy newborns to study the effects of oils on babies’ skin.
The babies were divided into three groups and parents were instructed to massage four drops of olive oil or sunflower oil (or nothing at all) on the babies’ left arm, thigh and abdomen for 28 days. Then skin was studied by using tape to painlessly lift the top layer of dead skin cells from the three areas.
The researchers found that the skin barrier protection was greatly diminished in both oil groups. The skin barrier is composed of blocks of skin cells held together by lipid lamellae, much the way mortar holds stone blocks together in a wall. The skin that had been massaged with olive oil or sunflower oil had weakened skin barriers, which could allow foreign matter in and water out. Weakened skin barriers not only lead to drier skin, but to increased vulnerability to infections and allergens.
Lead researcher Dr. Alison Cooke told the Royal College of Midwives conference she was “astounded” when her study showed strong evidence that oil had an adverse effect on the development of skin barrier, Daily Mail reports.
I thought, ‘What about the baby massage classes? They use these oils all the time. What are we going to do?
She cautioned parents to avoid olive oil and sunflower oil on babies until further research is conducted.
There are no products that have been found to be completely safe for babies’ skin but she recommended the use of a “50/50 cream,” a mixture of liquid and soft paraffin, if a product was required. The British health organization NICE advises against using any products at all on babies’ skin, other than unscented soap if desired.
News of the study is likely to frustrate naturally-minded parents. Many mothers prefer to use natural oils like olive oil and sunflower oil on their babies instead of synthetic products that are composed of petroleum-based oils, artificial fragrances, parabens and other toxins. Many also use olive oil as a carrier oil when massaging their babies with essential oils.
There is no word about whether other natural oils such as coconut oil or almond oil are safe to use on babies or whether these would also interfere with the proper development of the skin barrier.
Eczema is a chronic, inflammatory skin disorder that generally begins on the cheeks, elbows or knees in children under two years old, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, and is commonly linked to genetics and environment. It can appear as blisters that crust over to become itchy rashes, or as dry patches of skin with scales. Eczema typically causes severe itching, and babies may harm themselves by scratching. It is not contagious.
Eczema has no cure, and it can be worsened by irritants such as pollution, artificial fragrances and cigarette smoke. It can be well managed by lifestyle and diet changes, nutritional supplements, herbal remedies, medications and other treatments.
Previous studies have also shown that babies may be less likely to develop eczema if their mothers take probiotics during pregnancy and if they consume probiotics during early infancy.
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