By Drs. Sally Robinson and Keith Bly

The skin is a wonderful covering to have for our bodies. It's soft to the touch and sensitive to a range of emotions through touch. It allows easy and complicated movement. If you cut it, it immediately starts to heal. If you get an infection, cells come swarming to neutralize the invader. It protects us against infections caused by bacteria and viruses, and its pigments protect us against the sun's ultraviolet rays. It keeps the body cool by allowing sweat to evaporate from its surface. It keeps the body warm by closing the pores. Skin mediates between the ideal environment inside and the conditions in the world around us, and we don't have to give it a thought.

So what do parents need to know about their children's skin?

For the newborn, consider that the baby has been bathed in amniotic fluid for months - without soap. Water makes up a large part of this fluid, and it follows that moisture, or water, is important to healthy skin. Water is also the most important ingredient in cleaning a baby. Here are some tips to follow when bathing newborns:

· Until the umbilical cord falls off, sponge bathing is sufficient.
· Daily bathing isn't necessary, but the diaper area must be cleaned with gentle soap and rinsed adequately.
· Be sure any diaper wipes you use are alcohol free.

When washing the skin of older babies and small children, use lots of water and little soap. The overuse of cleansers - either too often or in too great an amount - dries skin, resulting in irritation, itchiness and flaking. Here are some tips when bathing infants and toddlers:

· When bathing a small child who looks forward to playtime with tub toys, keep the water soap-free until the cleaning part of the bath begins.
· Avoid bubble baths. Evidence shows that they increase the incidence of urinary tract problems.
· When drying a child blot the skin, don't rub.
· Avoid powders that the baby might inhale.

A number of substances babies bump into in the world after birth, irritate or dry the skin. Babies needs to avoid these, so choose products labeled baby- and child-safe. Avoid the following:
 
· Adult products - Many of these are harsh on a child's skin. (Lots of smart moms realize this and use baby products on their own skin.)
· Antibacterial cleansers and soaps.
· Dyes and fragrances
· Alcohol-containing products that dry and irritate the skin.

Before washing a baby's clothing, don't forget to check your laundry detergent. Again, opt for a product that is free of fragrance, dye and preservatives. If necessary, do a separate wash for baby clothes, using less soap and an extra rinse.

Think of washing skin as a way of nourishing, moistening and supporting it for all of the functions it does for us, not as punishing it for getting dirty. With the proper care, it will aid and protect your child for a lifetime.

Dr. Sally Robinson is a pediatrician in the division of children's special services at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She teaches medical students about caring for children with chronic medical conditions. Dr. Keith Bly is a hospitalist and assistant professor of pediatrics at UTMB.

The Your Health column is written by health and medical experts at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The column focuses on topical health issues that we believe are of interest to your readers. It is e-mailed every Tuesday. If you have any questions about the column, or would like to suggest topics, please contact John Koloen, media relations specialist, at (409) 772-8790 or email jskoloen@utmb.edu.