The Skin They're In: Skin Care Tips

Tips on the Care and Feeding of the Body's Biggest Organ

As parents, one of our biggest jobs is protecting our children. That's also the main job of their skin. As the body's largest organ, skin's function on the outside is to keep everything inside safe, so it's worth taking care of.

Skin Care from the Inside

A healthy outside layer of skin starts with what you put inside your body, says dietitian Marilyn Tanner-Blasiar, R.D., of the American Dietetic Association. She offers a list of skin-friendly vitamins:

    Vitamin A - Helps form skin cells and maintains healthy skin. Sources include carrots, apricots, asparagus, cantaloupe, eggs, milk, pumpkin, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and watermelon.
    Biotin - Helps in the formation of fatty acids, which keep the skin hydrated, and helps prevent dermatitis. Sources include bananas, eggs, oatmeal, almonds, cashews, butter, cheese, chicken, green peas, meats, milk, peanut butter, peanuts, salmon and tuna.
    Riboflavin - Preserves the integrity of the skin, promotes normal growth and development. Sources include bananas, dairy, eggs, fortified cereals, enriched breads, ham, pork and tuna.
    Vitamins C and E - Help protect against free radicals that cause aging of the skin, and might even decrease the risk of sunburn. Sources include citrus fruits, avocados, broccoli, corn, fortified cereals, peanuts and sunflower seeds.

Proper hydration is also essential for healthy skin. Try to make water your children's main beverage - especially when they are exercising or the weather is warm. Limit caffeinated beverages, which dehydrate the body, to an occasional treat.

Bugs, Plants and Other Irritants

Outdoor recreation is another great way to keep the body healthy, but slather on some protection against the sun, bugs, and maybe even a noxious plant or two.

Sunscreen is a must for all kids ages 6 months and older, as is an insect repellent with a child-approved dose of DEET. The best blockage, however, comes from the right clothes: long sleeves and long pants, a hat and sunglasses.

The extra clothing can also help protect against poison ivy and poison oak. Itchy rash with tiny blisters can develop anywhere from hours to days after exposure to the sap of this plant, which will cling to the skin and clothes and spread from one area to another.

If you think your child has been exposed to poison ivy or poison oak, Andy Nish, M.D., an allergist with the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, recommends the following:

  • Wash the area immediately with soap and water. 

  • Calm the itch with an age-appropriate oral dose of an over-the-counter antihistamine such as Benadryl; cool baths plus a dose of anti-itch additive, such as Aveeno; or topical medicines, such as calamine lotion.

  • Call your doctor if your child's rash is on the eyes or mouth, covers a large area (such as an entire arm or leg), is so itchy that your child can't sleep, or comes with a fever or other symptoms.

The treatment is similar for bug bites or insect stings. Nish recommends oral antihistamines, calamine lotion or 1 percent hydrocortisone cream. If the bite or sting area is oozing, crusty or otherwise looks infected, or if it doesn't go away in a few days, get medical attention.

Don't Do Anything Rash

Another common source of itch for kids is eczema. Also known as atopic dermatitis, this scaly rash affects up to 17 percent of American children, according to dermatologist Sarah Chamlin, M.D., of the National Eczema Association (NEA).

Eczema is usually diagnosed by age 5, and half of the children who have it will outgrow it at some point. That's the good news. The bad news is that there isn't another way to make eczema permanently go away.

"This is a disease with good treatment options, but no cure," Chamlin says. And no one knows what causes it. While food or environmental allergies can sometimes "trigger" or worsen eczema flares, they are almost never the cause.

Chamlin begins eczema treatment by tackling the most difficult part: the itch.

"Eczema is called 'the itch that rashes,'" she explains, "and an important part of treatment is breaking this itch-scratch cycle." To do this, she prescribes topical corticosteroids, and antihistamines at night to help kids itch less and sleep more.

She also advises limiting baths to five to 10 minutes, and applying prescription medicines and a thick layer of moisturizing emollient creams immediately after the soak to lock moisture into the skin. Avoid skin-care products with fragrances, which can aggravate eczema.

If your child's skin becomes crusty or if pustules form, this could be a sign of infection, which requires antibiotic treatment.

Beyond the itch, many kids find eczema embarrassing. It can help, Chamlin says, for them to meet other kids dealing with the same problem. The NEA runs an annual meeting for children with eczema and their parents; this year's meeting is scheduled for July 26-29 in Washington, D.C. (Reservations can be made online  and the deadline is June 29.) Another great tool is a free online book, Under My Skin, by Karen Crowe. It includes tips from kids, for kids, and covers the physical and emotional aspects of dealing with eczema.

A Word About Hives

Even when they don't trigger episodes of eczema, foods, pet dander and other substances your child might be allergic to can cause itching - in the form of hives. These small, red, round bumps sometimes grow together to make bigger lesions. And unless you already know what your child is allergic to, the cause can be hard to pinpoint. If you're not sure what caused them, Nish recommends thinking carefully about what your child might have been exposed to during the past few hours. Give your doctor a call to discuss causes you might not have considered.

Hives generally last less than 24 hours, and you can treat them at home with an oral dose of Benadryl. Get medical help immediately if your child has hives and is wheezing, coughing or short of breath, or has trouble speaking or swallowing. These are signs of a life-threatening allergic reaction.

Does This Look Infected?

Everyone's skin - allergic or not - is susceptible to the occasional invader. In children, one of the most common skin infections is warts, according to Andrea Cambio, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology. Warts are caused by a strain of the human papilloma virus, and are easily spread and difficult to prevent. They can occur anywhere on the body, but in children are most often seen on the hands and feet.

If your child has a wart, Cambio suggests first trying an over-the-counter wart treatment that contains salicylic acid (aspirin). These can take a few weeks to be effective, but sometimes do the trick. Don't wait too long for over-the-counter relief, however, because warts can often bring on a secondary skin infection. And because children tend to pick at them, an untreated wart will often multiply quickly. So if the wart is spreading or becomes painful or inflamed, get medical attention.

Ultimately, keeping children's skin healthy is a matter of common sense. With proper nutrition, protection from sun and bugs, and treatment of infection and itch, their skin will be around to protect them even when you're not.