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What’s the vernix, and why does it matter?

All your questions answered about the vernix caseosa, newborns’ (amazing!) built-in moisturizer.

If you’ve ever seen newborns right after birth, you might have noticed a creamy white layer covering them, a little like icing. If you’ve given birth yourself, maybe your hospital or caregiver told you it was important to leave it on your baby—or maybe they bathed your baby right away, and you never even noticed it. But what is it, really? And what does it do for babies’ skin? We’re so glad you asked. That coating is the vernix caseosa—vernix for short—and as it turns out, it’s kind of a miracle of Mother Nature. To get in-depth answers to all of your vernix questions, we spoke with Marty O. Visscher, PhD, professor of skin pharmaceutics at James L Winkle College of Pharmacy at the University of Cincinnati, who’s been studying the beneficial properties of the vernix for over twenty years.

 

Q: Why do babies develop the vernix caseosa?

A: Think for a second about what happens if you stay in water for even just an hour: your skin gets pruney and soft. If it’s exposed even longer than that, water begins to cause damage to your skin and can make you more susceptible to infection and irritation. And yet despite being submerged for months on end, babies come into the world with their skin in pretty terrific shape. This was researchers’ central question when they began studying the vernix, says Dr. Visscher: “How does a newborn emerge at birth with their skin in excellent condition, despite being in water and amniotic fluid for 9 months?” It’s all thanks to the vernix’s protective layer, which coats babies’ skin in the last ten weeks of gestation. “Its role in allowing the skin to develop is fascinating,” says Visscher. “Vernix provides a ‘waterproof’ covering so the skin can mature, and also prevents materials from the amniotic fluid, such as enzymes, from reaching the developing skin and causing damage.”

 

Q: What’s the vernix made of?

A: “Vernix is a thick, opaque, viscous white cream,” says Dr. Visscher. “It contains about 80% water, 10% protein, and 10% lipid materials.” Those lipids are key to the protective, hydrating shield between the amniotic fluid and babies’ skin, and one of the most abundant ingredients in that lipid barrier is super-moisturizing molecule squalene. That’s exactly why we chose squalane, our sugarcane-derived version of squalene as the cornerstone of all of Pipette’s formulas, from Baby Oil to Baby Wipes to Baby Shampoo & Wash. In addition to being an incredible natural moisturizer, squalane is quite literally made for babies: babies’ skin has been intimately acquainted with its nurturing benefits since before birth, and their skin instantly recognizes it and absorbs it on contact.

 

Q: What are the benefits of the vernix during delivery?

A: The genius of the vernix doesn’t stop with squalene: “Vernix also contains antioxidant vitamin E and antimicrobial materials,” says Visscher. “In the transition from in utero to a dry outside environment, infants are exposed to microorganisms and bacteria. The antimicrobial materials in the vernix help protect infants once they enter our microbial-laden environment.” Researchers also believe the vernix provides important lubrication through the birth canal during delivery. Not only that, the vernix also has wound-healing properties (!), and may even assist in wound healing for the mother if injury occurs during the birth process.

 

Q: The vernix looks a little….weird. Can I just wash it off after my baby is born?

A: We know, we know: a coating of thick white cream may not be the loveliest look for your baby. For decades, it was standard procedure for nurses in hospitals to wash the vernix off shortly after delivery—after all, you want to see that cute baby skin without all that white stuff, right? Not so fast. The benefits of leaving vernix on babies after delivery are rather remarkable: “When vernix is allowed to remain on the skin surface after birth, babies’ skin is more moisturized, the antimicrobial materials help protect from harmful organisms, and it results in a lower skin surface pH,” says Visscher. That lower pH ensures that babies’ skin gets colonized with good bacteria and not the bad ones. The vernix may also help with heat insulation, providing newborns with a bit of additional warmth at a time when their little bodies haven’t yet mastered temperature regulation. The World Health Organization now recommends leaving the vernix in place and postponing bathing for at least six hours (and ideally 24 hours) so newborns can take full advantage of the vernix. Treat it like the extra-luscious moisturizer that it is, and gently massage it into your newborn’s skin.

“When vernix is allowed to remain on the skin surface after birth, babies’ skin is more moisturized, the antimicrobial materials help protect from harmful organisms, and it results in a lower skin surface pH.”

 

Q: Wait! My baby didn’t have vernix! Is that normal?

A: Totally normal. Every baby has different amounts of vernix, and babies who are born later often have less. “When an infant’s lungs are mature and ready for breathing air, the lungs produce lung surfactants that are secreted into the amniotic fluid,” explains Dr. Visscher. “These surfactants interact with the vernix on the baby’s skin and cause some of it to come off.” The later a baby makes its debut, the more vernix sloughs off—so if your baby is born at, say, 41 weeks, there might not be any visible vernix left. Because of this, late-term babies often experience more skin dryness and peeling in the days after birth (a common newborn skin issue. You can combat dryness with a nontoxic daily moisturizer like our Baby Oil or Baby Lotion, which are both rich with our proprietary plant-derived squalane to restore babies’ hydration levels. For persistently dry areas or sensitive zones like the diaper line, our velvety Baby Balm delivers a serious dose of moisture, and mimics the concentrated richness of the vernix.

So let’s sum up all the good the vernix does:

  • Protects babies’ skin in utero
  • Helps with lubrication during delivery
  • Helps with wound healing for moms
  • Moisturizes babies’ skin after birth
  • Helps babies regulate their body temperature
  • Wards off bad bacteria and microorganisms

Protecting, moisturizing, wound healing, lubricating, bacteria-fighting—is there anything the incredible vernix can’t do?

 

The information provided by Pipette is intended solely for educational purposes. The information is not to be used for medical diagnostic purposes and is not intended to serve as a recommendation for treatment and/or management of any medical/surgical condition. Most of all, this information should not be used in place of a physician or other qualified health provider. If you believe you or your child have a medical condition, please contact your physician immediately.

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