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Diaper Rash

  • Author: Rania Dib, MD; Chief Editor: Kirsten A Bechtel, MD  more...
Updated: Aug 17, 2015


Diaper rash, or diaper dermatitis, is a general term describing any of a number of inflammatory skin conditions that can occur in the diaper area. These disorders can be conceptually divided into 3 categories:

Allergic contact dermatitis is exceedingly rare in the infant and is not discussed here. The focus of this article is on the pathophysiology, diagnosis, and treatment of the rashes in the first category. By definition, these are truly diaper rashes because they present as a rash in the diaper area and can be cured by a change in diapering practices. The dermatoses within the other 2 categories do not typically appear as a diaper rash alone, and they do not necessarily respond to diapering modifications. These more generalized diseases are mentioned in terms of helping the emergency physician make the correct diagnosis. However, details about their etiology and management are beyond the scope of this article.



The precise etiology of most diaper rashes is not clearly defined. They likely result from a combination of factors that includes wetness, friction, urine and feces, and the presence of microorganisms. Anatomically, this skin region features numerous folds and creases, which present a problem with regard to both efficient cleansing and control of the microenvironment.

The main irritants in this situation are fecal proteases and lipases, whose activity is increased greatly by elevated pH. An acidic skin surface is also essential for the maintenance of the normal microflora, which provides innate antimicrobial protection against invasion by pathogenic bacteria and yeasts. Fecal lipase and protease activity is also greatly increased by acceleration of gastrointestinal transit; this is the reason for the high incidence of irritant diaper dermatitis observed in babies who have had diarrhea in the previous 48 hours.

The wearing of diapers causes a significant increase in skin wetness and pH. Prolonged wetness leads to maceration (softening) of the stratum corneum, the outer, protective layer of the skin, which is associated with extensive disruption of intercellular lipid lamellae. A series of diaper studies conducted mainly in the late 1980s found a significant decrease in skin hydration following the introduction of diapers with a superabsorbent core.[1] Recent studies confirm that this trend is ongoing.[2, 3, 4] Weakening of its physical integrity makes the stratum corneum more susceptible to damage by (1) friction from the surface of the diaper and (2) local irritants.

The cycle of diaper rash is shown in the illustration below.

Diaper rash pathophysiology scheme. Diaper rash pathophysiology scheme.

At full term, the skin of infants is an effective barrier to disease and is equal to adult skin with regard to permeability. Some studies reported infant's transepidermal water loss to be lower than that of adult skin. However, dampness, lack of air exposure, acidic or irritant exposures, and increases in skin friction begin to break down the skin barrier.

The normal pH of the skin is between 4.5 and 5.5. When urea from the urine and stool mix, urease breaks down the urine, decreasing the hydrogen ion concentration (increasing pH). Elevated pH levels increase the hydration of the skin and make the skin more permeable.

Previously, ammonia was believed to be the primary cause of diaper dermatitis. Recent studies have disproved this, showing that when ammonia or urine is placed on the skin for 24-48 hours, no apparent skin damage occurs.

A series of studies has shown that the pH of cleansing products can change the microbiological spectrum of the skin.[5, 6] High soap pH values encourage propionibacterial growth on skin, whereas syndets (ie, synthetic detergents) with a pH of 5.5 did not cause changes in the microflora.  A study looked to explain the relationship between skin barrier function in 4-day-old infants and the occurrence of diaper dermatitis during the first month of life. The study concluded that early neonatal skin pH may predict the risk of diaper dermatitis during the first month of life. These results may be useful in devising strategies to prevent diaper dermatitis.[7]


Obstruction of eccrine sweat glands when the stratum corneum becomes excessively hydrated and edematous is believed to cause miliaria.


Intertrigo occurs when wet skin, which is more fragile and has a higher coefficient of friction, becomes damaged from maceration and chafing.

Contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis is most likely made up of some combination of intertrigo and miliaria. In addition, it has been shown to result from the irritating effects of mixing urine with feces. Urine in the presence of fecal urease becomes more alkaline due to the production of ammonia. This alkaline urine causes activation of fecal lipases, ureases, and proteases. These, in turn, irritate the skin directly and increase its permeability to other low molecular weight irritants.

Candidal diaper dermatitis

Once the skin is compromised, secondary infection by Candida albicans is common. Between 40% and 75% of diaper rashes that last for more than 3 days are colonized with C albicans. Candida has a fecal origin and is not an organism normally found on perineal skin. Amoxicillin was found to increase the colonization by Candida and worsens the diaper dermatitis.

Bacterial diaper dermatitis

Bacteria may play a role in diaper dermatitis through reduction of fecal pH and the resultant activation of enzymes. Additionally, fecal microorganisms probably contribute to secondary infections when they occur. This is particularly evident with bullous impetigo in the diaper area, which causes bullae that are flaccid but sometimes tense due to Staphylococcus aureus infection, or a cellulitis due to cutaneous streptococci, or even a folliculitis due to S aureus infection.

Polymicrobial growth is documented in at least half of diaper rash cultures. Staphylococcus species are the most commonly grown organisms, followed by Streptococcus species and organisms from the family Enterobacteriaceae. Nearly 50% of isolates also contain anaerobes.

Granuloma gluteal infantum

Granuloma gluteal infantum is a rare disorder.[8] It is not very well understood, but it probably represents an unusual inflammatory response to long-standing irritation, candidiasis, or fluorinated corticosteroids.




United States

Diaper rash is the most common dermatitis found in infancy. Prevalence has been variably reported from 4-35% in the first 2 years of life. Incidence triples in babies with diarrhea. It is not unusual for every child to have at least 1 episode of diaper rash by the time he or she is toilet-trained.

Because fewer than 10% of all diaper rashes are reported by the family, the actual incidence of this condition is likely underestimated if office visits are used as the screening site.

The incidence is lower among breastfed infants—perhaps due to the less acidic nature of their urine and stool.

Babies wearing superabsorbent disposable diapers with a central gelling material have fewer episodes of diaper dermatitis compared with their counterparts wearing cloth diapers. However, keep in mind, that superabsorbent diapers contain dyes that were suspected to cause allergic contact dermatitis (ACD). One study reviewed the effect on the skin of dye-free diapers as compared with dye-containing diapers.[9] A patch testing result with dye similar to that in diapers was positive in 2 out of 4 patients. This study also reported improvement with dye-free diapers for all of the patients. This would support the hypotheses that these children had allergic contact dermatitis attributable to the various dyes in the diapers. The patterns of eruption and the responses to dye-free diapers support a diagnosis of allergic contact dermatitis. Colors are added to diapers primarily for aesthetic purposes or absorbency potential.


Few investigations have been reported regarding prevalence outside of the United States. However, one study performed in Italy showed a prevalence of 15.2%, and a peak incidence of 19.4% in those aged 3-6 months.[10]

One large British study reported diaper dermatitis in 25% of children aged 1 month.

A Nigerian study conducted in 1995-1996 identified diaper dermatitis in 7% of children.

A study in Kuwait noted that diaper dermatitis occurs in 4% of pediatric dermatology cases.

These studies do not distinguish between common or generic diaper dermatitis and secondary diaper dermatitis.


See the list below:

  • This disease is not usually life threatening; however, it may cause significant distress for parents.
  • Morbidity for the child mostly is in the form of pain and itching in the affected areas.
  • In one report, diaper rash accounted for nearly 20% of pediatric office visits.


Atopic dermatitis and related diaper dermatitis are more common among African American patients.


No sexual predilection exists.


See the list below:

  • Diaper rashes can start in the neonatal period as soon as the child begins to wear diapers.
  • The incidence peaks in those aged 7-12 months, then decreases with age.
  • Diaper rash stops being a problem once the child is toilet trained, usually around age 2 years.
Contributor Information and Disclosures

Rania Dib, MD Pediatric Senior Specialist, Procare Riaya Hospital, Al Khobar, Saudia Arabia

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


A Antoine Kazzi, MD Deputy Chief of Staff, American University of Beirut Medical Center; Associate Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, American University of Beirut, Lebanon

A Antoine Kazzi, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Wayne Wolfram, MD, MPH Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, Mercy St Vincent Medical Center; Chairman, Pediatric Institutional Review Board, Mercy St Vincent Medical Center, Toledo, Ohio

Wayne Wolfram, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American Academy of Pediatrics, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Kirsten A Bechtel, MD Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Section of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine; Co-Director, Injury Free Coalition for Kids, Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital

Kirsten A Bechtel, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Jerry R Balentine, DO, FACEP, FACOEP Vice President, Medical Affairs and Global Health, New York Institute of Technology; Professor of Emergency Medicine, New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine

Jerry R Balentine, DO, FACEP, FACOEP is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, New York Academy of Medicine, American College of Osteopathic Emergency Physicians, American Association for Physician Leadership, American Osteopathic Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Diaper rash.
Diaper rash.
Diaper rash.
Diaper rash pathophysiology scheme.
Table. Skin Care Ingredients Found in Diaper Rash Creams, Ointments, and Pastes
Several products are available for the care, management, and maintenance of skin integrity. The following are examples of ingredients frequently found in skin care products.
Petrolatum Skin protectant, water repellant, a barrier
Zinc oxide Skin protectant, soothes irritated skin
Dimethicone Skin protectant
Vitamins A and D Skin conditioner
Karaya Viscosity modifier and absorbs moisture
Mineral oil, lanolin, glycerin Emollient, softens and soothes irritated skin, a lubricant

Humectant, hygroscopic (brings water to the surface of the skin producing a moisturizing effect)

Vitamin E acetate Skin conditioner
Isopropyl palmitate Skin conditioner
Purified water Diluent
Chloroxylenol (PCMX) Antimicrobial, kills or inhibits bacteria
Isopropyl alcohol Antimicrobial
Miconazole nitrate Antifungal
Carboxymethylcellulose sodium Viscosity modifier
Methyl glucose dioleate Emulsifier, added to water-oil preparations to prevent the oil from separating from the water
Stearate acid Emulsifier
Butylparaben Preservative, prevents breakdown of product and destroys or prevents growth of bacteria
Methylparaben Preservative
Triethanolamine pH adjuster (normal pH of skin is 4.5-5.5)
Aminomethyl propanol pH adjuster
Cetyl alcohol Emollient and thickening agent
Adapted from Pediatr Nurs. 2004 Nov-Dec; 30(6): 467-70.[11]
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