New mums can rest easy over their babies’ skincare thanks to research from The University of Manchester.

Trials into the effects of specific branded products like bath wash and baby wipes show they are as safe as water. But olive oil can damage the skin barrier, promoting and exacerbating atopic eczema.

As a result of the study many hospital neonatal units have removed it from their store cupboards – and midwives and health visitors have changed their advice to mothers.

Professor Dame Tina Lavender
Professor Dame Tina Lavender

Professor of Midwifery, Dame Tina Lavender, who led the research team at Manchester, said eczema affected around 30% of babies and was on the rise – partly because of environmental factors.

Yet there was no real evidence-based research into products parents could buy from supermarket shelves.

“Eczema has been a growing issue in midwifery and there have been huge debates in the media about whether you should use any products on your skin or whether water is best,” said Dame Tina.

“I became interested in it in terms of getting the evidence out there so parents could make informed choices.

“The NICE guidelines, which are outdated now, recommended water only but there wasn’t any robust evidence out there.

“We worked with mums, midwives and health visitors to find out what they thought about skin regimes and it became clear there was a lot of conflicting advice.

“Women were using products but trying to hide it from health professionals. It seemed wrong that they were feeling guilty about using a product that’s on the shelves – branded for babies.

“They wanted to use baby wipes because it was convenient. With bath products some mothers felt their baby was cleaner and it helped with bedtime routine. Even midwives and health visitors were saying ‘we’re not supposed to recommend anything, but…’.

“That was the starting point. There were clearly important questions that needed answering.”

Dame Tina’s team used clinical observations and sensitive biophysical assessment tools to trial the products of market leader Johnson and Johnson – who part-funded the research.

The test were designed to show whether they were equivalent to water and measured skin hydration, PH, and water evaporation. Mums were asked to keep a diary and midwives recorded blemishes on the skin.

It’s thought that as a result of the findings NICE may change its guidelines next year.

“There were clearly important questions that needed answering.” 

Dame Tina Lavender / Professor of Midwifery

Dame Tina moved to Manchester five years ago because of its reputation for nursing and midwifery research. The main focus of her work is prolonged labour and she has worked across Africa, where it accounts for one in every 22 maternal deaths.

She believes the link between academia and industry is valuable provided research is conducted rigorously with eminent researchers in the field.

“Most commercial companies will do their own in-house investigations but have never subjected their baby products to a randomised pragmatic clinical trial,” she says. “We would have reported regardless of the results. The impact of this is that parents can choose what’s best for them. It’s the way we should go.”

Discover more