Vernix: More than just a white cheesy substance

More than just a white cheesy substance found on the skin of newborns….

White cheesy substance
Vernix Caseosa

Vernix is Latin for varnish

Caseosa is Latin for cheese

You have waited 10 long months to meet your baby, and she is finally here. You get lost in the beauty of her face and hold her close to your chest.  Instant love has enveloped your heart.  She is perfect.

As minutes tick by you decide to get a closer look. You count her fingers and toes, kiss her nose and comment on her rosy lips. You notice some white sticky substance covering her body but you do not mind it because she is yours.

After some skin-to-skin time and her first feeding session, she is gently moved to the warmer for a more thorough assessment and you quietly ask what that white substance is all over her body.  The nurse explains that it is called vernix caseosa.

What is vernix?

The dictionary definition of vernix caseosa is “the thick white substance composed of sebum and desquamated epithelial cells that provides a protective covering for the skin of the fetus.”  

Most commonly called vernix, it plays an important role in protecting your baby in the womb.  It serves many purposes but the two main ones are:

1) coats baby’s skin to protect it from wrinkling

2) it helps regulate the baby’s temperature in utero and after birth

Can you imagine what your skin would look and feel like if you floated in water for 10 months straight? I would be a wrinkled mess and probably have some badly chapped skin.  Babies take a while to be able to regulate their own temperature, so rubbing some of the vernix in is a natural body temperature stabilizer after delivery and for the first 24-48 hours.

Benefits

It is also beneficial to your baby’s skin as it contains antioxidants, anti-infection and anti-inflammatory properties that helps with their immature immune system. Vernix also helps act as a lubricant to decrease friction upon passing through the birth canal and helps to give babies their soft smooth skin.

The closer you are to your due date or if you go past it, the less vernix your baby will likely have.  However, expect more of the cheese like substance on the skin of premature babies.  It likes to hide in the creases and folds on your baby: under arms, crease in elbows, around the neck, in the ears, behind the knees, near the folds of the genitalia and inside the labia.

The World Health Organization (WHO), National Association of Neonatal Nursing (NANN) and the Association of Women’s Health Obstetrical and Neonatal Nursing (AWHONN) advise delaying baby’s first bath but the choice is ultimately yours. Eventually, testing is necessary, but an immediate bath is not! Do not be afraid to speak up about when and where you want your baby’s first bath to take place. Some parents like it to be done right away while others want to do it themselves once they get home.  Share your decision with the staff, your partner, doula or any other support person in the room.

Don’t wash it off, rub it in!