Medically Reviewed on 4/19/2023

What is diaper rash?

There are several causes of diaper rash.
Diaper rash is very common in babies and is not a sign of parental neglect.

Diaper rash is a generalized term indicating any skin irritation (regardless of cause) that develops in the diaper-covered region. Synonyms include the following:

  • Diaper dermatitis (dermatitis = inflammation of the skin)
  • Napkin (or "nappy") dermatitis
  • Ammonia dermatitis

While there are several broad categories of causes of diaper rash, contact irritation is the most common culprit. While diaper rash is generally thought to affect infants and toddlers, any individual wearing a diaper (for example, an incontinent adult) is a candidate to develop this dermatitis.

Is diaper rash a sign of neglectful care?

No, not at all. Parents often incorrectly feel that the rash is a visual representation of poor caretaking skills. However, parents need to understand that the basic causes for this common kind of skin irritation are still under active debate in the field of dermatology and that neglectful parenting is not among the possible factors.

In the United States, diaper dermatitis represents about 10%-20% of all skin disorders managed by a general pediatrician. While the rash may develop as early as the first week of life, the most frequent period is between 9-12 months of age. Studies have indicated that, at any point in time, between 7%-35% of children in this age range are experiencing such a skin rash.

What is the main cause of diaper rash?

Contact Dermatitis

There are several categories of causes for this dermatitis. First and foremost is "irritant" or "contact" dermatitis. Skin involvement may vary from mild redness (similar to a sunburn) to erosion of the top layers of the skin. A characteristic differential point of contract diaper dermatitis from other causes of diaper rash is that it rarely involves the skin fold regions -- therefore, it spares areas, not in contact with urine/stool.

Skin Infections

Skin infections compose the next most common category of diaper rash. Bacteria (staph and strep) and yeast/fungi (Candida) are common causes of diaper rash. Generally, both of these types of infections tend to result from a disruption of skin integrity and overwhelm the natural defense mechanisms of skin in this diaper region. Staph and strep bacterial infections are commonly termed impetigo. Classic descriptions of impetigo include small (1-2 mm) tiny blisters (vesicles) and pustules that tend to easily rupture leaving multiple erosions in a sea of generalized skin irritation.

Candida diaper dermatitis also has several distinguishing patterns. The rash is characterized by zones of bright red skin with a series of discrete 2-4 mm "satellite" lesions at the borders of the confluent irritated skin. In contrast to contact dermatitis, Candida is generally only found in the skin folds' creases and often around the anal region. Infectious causes of diaper dermatitis can generally be diagnosed by visual inspection alone. If confusion exists, laboratory studies of swabs of the involved areas may be obtained.

Allergic Reactions

Allergic reactions are a less common cause of diaper rash. Commonly proposed allergens are fragrances and components of the diaper and wipes. These regions often have well-defined zones of redness with superficial vesicles and erosions. If the diagnosis of allergic skin reaction is suspect, skin-patch testing may be done to identify the offending agent. This is rarely necessary.

Other Causes

In addition to the commonplace causes of diaper rash, there are also a few very unusual causes of this problem. Unusual infections, metabolic and nutritional deficiency states, and immunodeficiency states and malignancies can all be implicated. Unfortunately, child abuse (hot-water immersion, extreme neglect of infant hygiene) can also feature a diaper rash.

What are diaper rash symptoms and signs?

A diaper rash is a change in the skin enclosed by a child's diaper. Most commonly, the involved skin is red and may or may not have erosion of the superficial skin layers. Pustules or small blisters may be present. If the irritated skin is sensitive, diaper changing may be mildly uncomfortable for the child.

How do doctors diagnose the cause of a diaper rash?

Most diaper rashes are a result of skin irritants (urine and/or stool) inflaming immature, vulnerable skin. Such a rash is termed a contact skin irritant rash. Two types of infections may occur independently or be a complication of a contact diaper rash. Staph and strep bacterial skin infections may be associated with pustules or tiny blisters. A Candida yeast infection may also develop in the diaper region and around the anal area.


Newborn babies don't sleep very much. See Answer

What treatments are recommended for diaper rash?

The best treatment for diaper rash is avoidance of the precipitating agents which led to contact irritation and regions becoming secondarily infected by skin bacteria or yeast. Frequent diaper changes limit stool and urine exposure to the area and remain the foundation for the prevention and management of diaper dermatitis.

Should a rash develop, simple cleansing with water and soft cloths tends to be less irritating to the injured skin than disposable wipes. Frequent application of one of the many diaper-area ointments containing either petroleum jelly (Vaseline) or zinc oxide (Desitin) provides an effective barrier against skin irritants and lessens friction to irritated skin. If the diaper rash is especially irritated by the rubbing necessary for proper hygiene, then using a non-sticky cream or ointment (such as Vaseline) as a barrier may be an important consideration. If sticky stool hinders hygiene, it may be more easily removed after the application of mineral oil to the area. Most pediatricians find no benefit to using cornstarch or talcum powder. The risk of possible aspiration of these powders underscores their general lack of significant efficacy. High-concentration baking soda or boric-acid baths are to be avoided due to the possibility of toxicity associated with an increased rate of absorption due to skin breakdown.

Weather and/or carpet permitting, open-air exposure of irritated skin is also extremely effective in helping clear up diaper rash. Many children have a therapeutic response to merely sitting in a warm-water bath twice daily for 15-20 minutes per session. The value of additional agents (including baking soda) added to the bath water is debatable.

Should these measures not provide a solid response within two to three days, the possibility of a secondary bacterial or yeast infection must be considered. The diaper region should be examined by a pediatrician unless the parent is confident in correctly making these diagnoses. Several topical antibiotic ointments are available for therapy in these situations.

Are there home remedies for a diaper rash?

Home remedies for diaper rash include the following:

  1. Air exposure (such as no diapers for short periods),
  2. Extra bathing (10-15 minutes in warm water),
  3. Application of topical barriers to the diaper region.

Petroleum jelly (Vaseline) and zinc oxide (Desitin) are often helpful. Powders are not recommended. Neither are high concentrations of baking soda or boric acid baths.

Common Questions About Treating Diaper Rash Naturally

How about not using disposable diapers?

Parents often wonder if switching from disposable to cloth diapers will lessen the likelihood of contact-type diaper rash. The opposite seems to be true. The absorbent gel material found in most of today's disposable diapers draws moisture away from the skin area, thus helping to promote a healthy diaper area.

How should an allergic rash be treated?

Water cleansing of the skin and a switch to another brand of disposable diapers or using cloth diapers instead is usually therapeutic.

How about using cortisone cream?

A minimally concentrated hydrocortisone cream may be recommended in certain cases. However, the excessive usage of minimally concentrated hydrocortisone cream and the use of increased potency hydrocortisone preparations are notorious for causing secondary side effects. They should only be used under the guidance of a pediatrician or another physician who is fully familiar with their application to infants.

How about using Neosporin?

This ointment (and others containing the topical antibiotic neomycin) should be avoided since neomycin is a very common allergen promoting an allergic skin reaction. Instead of helping the situation, such medication may complicate and confuse the situation.

What is the prognosis for a diaper rash?

The prognosis for diaper rashes is excellent. The routine therapies above should provide a rapid and effective response. The lack of such an improvement should raise a red flag to have a pediatric evaluation to rule out unusual conditions associated with a diaper rash. Unfortunately, diaper rashes may recur.

Is it possible to prevent a diaper rash?

Several approaches can help prevent a diaper rash. These include timely changing of soiled diapers, experimentation with alternative diaper brands to address the possibility of a unique sensitivity reaction, air exposure, and extra bathing. Parents need to appreciate that development of a diaper rash is not an indictment of their parenting skills. Rather, it is one of the many challenges of parenthood.

Medically Reviewed on 4/19/2023
Janniger, Camila K., Schwartz, Robert A., Szepietowski, Jacek C., and Reich, Adam. "Intertrigo and Common Secondary Skin Infections." American Family Physician 72.5 Sept. 1, 2005: 833-838.

Kalra, Monica G., Kim E. Higgins, and Bruce S. Kinney. "Intertrigo and Secondary Skin Infections." American Family Physician 89.7 Apr. 1, 2014: 569-573.