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Infections and complications from prematurity cause a majority of global neonatal deaths. Recent evidence has demonstrated the life-saving ability of topical emollient therapy in resource-poor settings. With the potential to reduce infection and neonatal mortality by 41 and 26%, respectively, emollient therapy is a promising option for improving newborn care. While application of oil to the newborn is nearly universal in South Asia, little is known about this behavior in Africa. This article draws on literature regarding neonatal skin care in Africa to describe behaviors, motivations and potential for introducing topical emollients. Oil massage does not appear to be universal. When oil massage occurs, substances of unknown toxicity and possibly damaging massage practices are used; thus, there is scope for introduction of improved therapeutic practices. Overall, more research is needed to develop the evidence base of current neonatal skin care behaviors in Africa, and to determine emollient therapy effectiveness there.