Ask Ugly: I’m getting ads for beauty products for my baby. Infants don’t need skincare – do they?

<span>Illustration: Lola Beltran/The Guardian</span>
Illustration: Lola Beltran/The Guardian

Hey Ugly,

My question is about beauty culture showing up for literal infants. My daughter is seven months old and pretty much since birth I’ve been getting ads for products to get rid of her cradle cap (a totally normal and 100% harmless thing that has the appearance of large dandruff-type flakes on her scalp) and treat her baby acne (also an extremely normal and harmless thing among newborns).

I’m curious to know if you’ve come across this, the market reach of these purely cosmetic products for babies, and your thoughts on transferring our beauty-obsessed culture to our babies.


Annoyed New Mom

Related: Ask Ugly: now that I’m a mother, I’m mourning my old, ‘pretty’ self. Is this normal?

When I think “baby,” I think “beauty ideal”.

Lotions sold to adults have long promised baby-softness. Collagen creams claim to deliver plump, bouncing baby cheeks. The skincare industry boasts a bestseller called Babyfacial (an exfoliating treatment), a brand called Bejbi Skin (pronounced “baby skin”), and a column called “Operation Goo Goo Gah Gah” (an ode to anti-ageing, once penned by Ziwe for Into the Gloss).

Interested parties can also choose between multiple face masks inspired by vernix, the waxy, white substance newborns come out coated in: perhaps Mutha’s Rebirth Vernix Mask, $110 or Biologique Recherche’s Creme Masque Vernix, $209. And to think your womb manufactures the real thing for free!

But what the industry builds up, it eventually tears down. Lately, it’s encouraging customers to surgically suck the “baby fat” from their faces via buccal fat removal and – as you’ve noticed, Annoyed New Mom – slather their once-idealized infants in serum.

Does this make sense? No! And it doesn’t have to, as long as it makes money. Category entrants like toddler-sized “rejuvenating” sheet masks and a $115 Baby Dior “hydrating milk” moisturizer helped the baby and child skincare sector earn a $250m valuation this year. That number is expected to grow to $380m by 2028.

This is concerning, mostly because babies do not need skincare. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

To address the specific issues you mentioned, New Mom: The St Louis Children’s hospital agrees cradle cap is “harmless” and adds that it’s “perfectly okay to leave it alone”. The Cleveland Clinic calls baby acne “a common skin condition that affects newborns … and usually goes away on its own without treatment.” As a baby’s delicate skin evolves into a fully functioning organ, it’s normal to experience (literal) bumps in the road. No big deal.

While baby skin conditions are generally harmless, the opposite can be said of baby beauty products: dermatologists agree they can be actively harmful.

“We’re doing too much to our children,” Dr Sandy Skotnicki writes in her 2018 book Beyond Soap. “Bathing too much. Scrubbing too much. Soaping too much.” She cites research showing the daily application of soap and other skincare products in infancy and childhood is “now thought to have contributed to the steep rise in cases of eczema, asthma and hay fever”.

That’s because skin is part of the body’s immune system. It’s the immune system’s first line of defense, actually, thanks to two core components: the skin microbiome, or the collection of one trillion microorganisms living in and on the skin, and the skin barrier, or the skin’s outermost layer.

Skincare products can threaten the health of the barrier and microbiome at any age, and may eventually make users more prone to all sorts of issues: dryness, oiliness, dehydration, sensitization, dermatitis and inflammatory conditions like acne, eczema, psoriasis and rosacea. If this trend continues, I predict epidemic levels of inflammatory skin conditions in adolescents about 10 years from now. (The science behind this is fascinating and complex; I recommend reading both Beyond Soap and Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less by Dr James Hamblin for more in-depth explanations.)

So if baby skincare is not advisable for babies – and I repeat, it is not advisable for babies – why is it so popular? Because these products are not for babies. They’re for parents.

Adults are obsessed with beauty products. Adults have not heeded warnings that all of those products are making their skin worse. Adults have been conditioned to believe skincare is self-care. Adults believe basic human features like pimples, wrinkles and dead skin cells are not only physical failings, but moral failings, too.


And adults are projecting their beliefs on to their babies.

Are you familiar with “Almond Moms”? The term took off earlier this year on TikTok to describe mothers who are “obsessed with food and diet culture”, and foster this obsession in their children.

I believe the baby skincare boom suggests the emergence of a new type of mom: the Serum Mom. Like the Almond Mom, the Serum Mom is obsessed with meeting a certain standard of beauty, and nurtures the same obsession in her children.

A common defense of these offerings is something to the effect of, “It’s only lotion!” But lotion is never just lotion. Skincare also “carries the burden of what we as a society consider pretty, what we consider clean, what we consider worthy of admiration”, writes author PE Moskovitz. A product’s purpose eventually informs its user’s purpose: to brighten the complexion, to tighten the pores, to be petite and pretty and never, ever get old (or look like it).

Of course, beauty culture is everywhere and kids will encounter and absorb these dictates over time anyway. But I imagine they’re more powerful – harder to question, harder still to opt out of – when applied by the hands of a parent, and from the moment of birth.

To be clear: the Serum Mom, like the Almond Mom, is not to blame for her own existence! She is but a product of the beauty-obsessed culture around her. She probably “wants to be seen as a good parent,” as Dr Skotnicki puts it. (This in itself – prioritizing the appearance of good parenting over good parenting – is a side-effect of beauty culture.) The Serum Mom also likely believes she’s protecting her child by preparing them to live in a world that will value and devalue them based on their adherence to an oppressive appearance ideal. If my baby is always beautiful, they won’t ever have to feel bad!

Unfortunately, that is not how beauty standards work. See the already-thin people taking cosmetic Ozempic, the wrinkle-free 14-year-olds with anti-ageing regimens, Marilyn Monroe.

Whether or not individuals meet society’s standard of beauty, studies show they are psychologically affected by the pressure to do so. Beauty standards are associated with increased instances of anxiety, depression, dysmorphia, disordered eating and self-harm. Seeing a bottled-up beauty product – just the packaging, no impossibly pretty model necessary – is enough “to remind consumers of their own shortcomings” and “make them view themselves more negatively”, the New York Times reported. Today’s teens use more skincare than ever before, and they also now name “skin” as their primary source of negative body image, according to a CS Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health.

The best thing a parent can do for their baby’s developing skin and psyche – and it sounds like you’re already doing it, Annoyed New Mom – is leave their skin alone. Visit a dermatologist if you’re concerned or confused. Re-evaluate your own relationship to skincare and beauty standards. When you feel yourself veering into Serum Mom territory, stop. Smell your baby’s head (famously the best smell in the world, even without Dior’s $230 pear-scented baby perfume) and repeat after me: I will not buy the baby skincare.