Baby massage has become one of the most common ways for parents to bond and communicate with their new babies. All you need to get started is a warm location, a couple of towels and a suitable massage oil. Now comes the science bit!

Not all oils are alike. Current guidelines from official bodies like the International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM) recommends that unscented vegetable oils (preferably organically grown and cold pressed) should be used where possible.

This is because research into the use of olive oil on babies has found the natural occurring fatty acids in the oil can have a harmful effect of their delicate skin.

Why olive oil isn’t recommended

A study carried out by dermatologists at the University of Sheffield looked at the potential of olive oil to affect a baby’s immature skin barrier.

The study compared the effects of olive oil and sunflower seed oil on adults who had a history of dry, itchy skin conditions.

Following a negative reaction among the volunteers, the research team determined that olive oil “should not be applied to most healthy babies as it could break down their fragile skin barriers.” This is because substances in the oils that can break down scaly skin conditions such as seborrheic dermatitis (cradle cap) can also have a similar effect on healthy skin.

Anything which breaks down a baby’s skin barrier could contribute to the development of atopic dermatitis (eczema).

Playing it safe with baby’s skin

Summarising their findings, the research team said: “The use of olive oil for the treatment of dry skin and infant massage should therefore be discouraged. These findings challenge the unfounded belief that all natural oils are beneficial for the skin and highlight the need for further research.”

Although baby massage and skincare professionals have not yet agreed which oil is best to use on a baby’s skin, general guidance states that any type of vegetable oil is currently the safest option. They also say it’s a good idea to patch test the oil on a small area of your baby’s skin for a few days first before using it all over their body.

However, it is always down to parents to decide which massage oil is most appropriate for their child. Mums and dads remain the experts in their baby’s care and personal circumstance should be taken into account until further research is carried out.