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What stops a baby’s skin getting waterlogged in the womb?

March 24, 2009

After a long soak in the bath or spa our skin starts to resemble the wrinkles and indentations of a coral reef. This is because the skin can only take so much moisture before something gives! The skin on your toes and fingers is a lot thicker than other skin, when it is exposed for long periods to water the protective oil layer (Sebum) gets washed away and the thick keratin layer that makes up the epidermis swells up unevenly as it becomes waterlogged.  The wrinkles are formed as a result of this un-even water logging effect. Once you get out of the water the skin starts to return to normal!  The rest of your skin is thinner and is also covered in fine hairs. The thinness prevents wrinkling and the hairs help to maintain some of the sebum on the skin (so maybe we are hairy as we used to spend more time in water?)

Anyway,  what I became interested in is why doesn’t a baby come out of the womb all wrinkly? Well, my two week over cooked child no 1 came out pretty dry and devoid of any vernix whereas my second child that was only a week late was relatively wrinkle free  having still retained some of her waxy layer.  Vernix is the answer and Professor Joke Bouwstra of Leiden University, The Netherlands agrees!

Vernix Caseosa is the name given to the waxy substance that covers the fetus and newborn. It is this thick waxy layer than prevents the baby’s skin from getting waterlogged when in the womb. That, along with the ambient temperature and lack of de-fatting agent (no bubble bath in the womb) make for a happy baby.  The properties of Vernix are being studied at the Leiden University in order to try to replicate this magical substance for use as a cream for troubled skin.

So far the study has done a good job of chemically analyzing the properties and make-up of Vernix and have managed to replicate its fatty and waterproof structure by using some of the fats found in lanolin (also known as wool fat from sheep).  Vernix does much more than just keeping the water out of the babies skin. It also acts as a skin nutrient and bacteriaside, keeping out underirables and allowing the skin to mature and develop to the point that it can cope with the outside world. The market for a manufactured cream with these qualities is emmense. People with eczema, psoriasis, burns, skin disorders and many other skin conditions would be greatly helped by the addition of such a natural moisturising factor – something that is almost always compromised in the above situations.  The work to develop a commercially viable Vernix substitute is ongoing with future clinical trials lined up. In the meantime there are a few things that we can do to help keep the right moisture balance:

1) Be sure to drink enough water  it is the best (and still one of the cheapest) health beverages around.

2) Go easy on the caffiene and alcohol as neither of these drinks do much for your hydration levels.

3) Avoid hot baths and long spa’s.  The hotter the water the dryer your skin will become.  Spa chemicals can also strip your skin of moisture due to the washing off of the oily layer.

4) If you like to swim, be sure to moisturise after. Again, the pool chemcials and shear time in the water play havock with skin moisture levels. Using a very basic aqueous cream (moisturiser) straight after your shower will help to re-hydrate the epidermis.

5) Keep a tub of aqueous or sorbolene cream in your bathroom and apply regularly. Top up with something more fancy once your skin has recovered and re-hydrated!

With skin moisturisation everyone is different. If you already suffer from dry and flaky skin lengthy hot baths are definately something to avoid. Adding bubbles will just compound the problem as the bubbles strip the oily layer even more efficiently. However, if your skin is pretty robust your skin should naturally adjust and re-fat its self once you step out of the bath. We recomend very basic creams for adding onto problem skin immediately after the bath or swimming as this is the time that your skin is most vunerable. Slathering on your favourite perfumed moisturiser at this time may irritate already stressed skin. Give it at least 15 or so minutes before going there!

If you want to read more about the Leiden University trial click this link – interesting stuff.  You have to marvel at our amazing human bodies! Our bodies know just what they need, we just need to learn to listen….

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