Technically known as “Vernix Casoesa,” vernix is a white substance often found coating the skin of newborn babies.
Vernix is made up of a mixture of lipids (fats), proteins and water, secreted by the baby’s sebaceous glands. It is similar to cream cheese in appearance, but very waxy and difficult to wipe or wash off. It is a great moisture barrier and may protect baby’s skin from the prolonged exposure to the amniotic fluid all around it.
Vernix begins to develop on baby’s skin at around 20 weeks of pregnancy and is produced until about 32 weeks when the amount visible on baby begins to decline.
Full term infants may have very little visible vernix, but it can often still be found in neck creases and underarms. The amount of vernix found on babies at birth varies widely, but a large amount is often associated with prematurity.
Skin Sciences Institute researchers have been studying vernix for several years and found that it is not only a moisturizer but also a wound healer, cleanser, antibiotic and antioxidant.
One study showed that newborn skin with vernix left intact “is more hydrated, less scaly, and undergoes a more rapid decrease in pH than with vernix removed. These beneficial effects of vernix suggest that it should be left intact at birth.”
Another study revealed immune substances present in both amniotic fluid and vernix samples. Tests showed these substances were effective at deterring the growth of group B. Strep, K. pneumoniae, L. monocytogenes, C. albicans and E. coli. Vernix’s apparent antibacterial properties could reduce your baby’s susceptibility to infection; a great concern in a hospital environment.
People usually remove newborn vernix because they view it as “messy”, but evidence is beginning to accumulate of the benefits of leaving vernix on baby’s skin. The World Health Organization’s recent protocol for newborns says “Do not wipe off vernix,” and “Do not bathe the newborn.” The protocol later states that you should wait at least six hours to wash the baby. (due to baby’s inability to regulate its own body temperature). Many other professionals recommend waiting at least 24 hours to bathe baby. In some cultures babies are not bathed in water for several weeks after birth and instead oils are massaged into the skin to cleanse the baby.
In most local hospitals your baby will be vigorously wiped down as they are delivered onto your chest, to clean and stimulate them to breathe. And many will encourage you to bathe your baby or do it “for you” during your hospital stay. If you prefer to have the vernix left intact on your baby it’s important to have that discussion with your support staff before delivery. Things happen rapidly during delivery and if left until then it may easily get over looked. While baby should still be patted dry to prevent rapid cooling, you can ask them not to rub off the vernix. You may choose to leave it on until it wears off, to gently massage it into your baby’s skin, or to bathe it off. It is just one more of the many decisions that you may choose to make before it is made for you.