Vernix: Don’t Wash It Off, Rub It In

You’ve just given birth to your beautiful little baby and you’re all ready for cuddles. You’ve been waiting for 9 months for this moment!

But wait… What’s that white, waxy, cheesy substance coating baby’s skin? Yeesh, that’s kinda gross.

That waxy stuff is called vernix

And yes, the sticky, white, cheese-like coating covering your precious little one may not look that appealing. Which is why birth center or hospital staff may want to wash baby off right away.

Don’t let them!

Vernix offers a number of benefits for baby when you leave it on or rub it in.

What is vernix?

Vernix begins to form on the unborn baby at about 27 weeks gestation, in the third trimester. Unlike skin cells, vernix is more mobile and fluid. It is also more permeable to the transport of water and other small molecules to the baby. (source)

Even though it helps protect baby’s skin from amniotic fluid, the creamy vernix itself contains about 80% water. There are plenty of beneficial components to the vernix. Scientists have identified lipids, amino acids, proteins, antibacterial, and antimicrobial compounds including:

  • wax and sterol esters
  • ceramides
  • squalene
  • cholesterol
  • triglycerides
  • phospholipids
  • and amino acids, asparagine and glutamine

About 61% of the proteins found in this white substance, can only be found in vernix. And humans are the only ones that produce it, making it truly unique. (source)

Vernix begins to form on the unborn baby at about 27 weeks gestation, in the third trimester.

Germ fighting superhero

One of the primary purposes of vernix is to protect the infant from unwanted pathogens, both in the womb, and out of it. The mucus plug, and amniotic sac both help protect baby from harmful bacteria, but the vernix is truly the last line of defense.

It’s a skin cleanser and antioxidant. It also offers a protective covering while going through the birth canal. This allows baby to pick up good bacteria as well as potentially avoid overgrowths of bad bacteria, viruses and fungi in the mother’s vagina including:

  • E. coli
  • Group B Strep
  • Staph aureus
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa
  • Candida albicans
  • Listeria monocytogenes
  • Serratia marcescens
  • Klebsiella pneumonia

These pathogens can cause things like diarrhea, meningitis and pneumonia in newborn infants.

Protects from meconium exposure

When baby has his first poop, it’s not your traditional brown color, but a green, tar-like substance. This first poo, also called meconium, consists of “amniotic fluid, secretions of the intestinal glands, bile pigments, fatty acids, and intrauterine debris.” While it’s a pain to clean out of a cloth diaper, it can become dangerous if it’s passed before birth in some instances. The vernix plays a key role in helping to protect the baby from early exposure.

Controls temperature

Most hospitals will put infants under special lights if their body temperature is too low, or baby is having a hard time maintaining warmth. (Only recently have hospitals rediscovered the power of mama’s chest to regulate baby’s body temperate, even better than fancy equipment!)

But, vernix, with its thick, waxy coating, helps to insulate the baby. Infants who have it immediately washed off have a significantly higher rate of heat loss. Although there is some disagreement as to how much of a role the vernix plays in keeping newborns warm, it is a factor. (source)

Minimizes birth trauma

Birth can be a traumatic or stressful time for a baby. The vernix acts as a lubricant in the vaginal canal. This helps baby make his transition into the outside world, and decreases friction during birth. (source) Vernix also smells of mama, which may provide comfort and ease of bonding post birth.

Who has it, who doesn’t?

When your baby is born, the vernix may be thick and very noticeable, or it could be so thin that it’s only in the creases of the skin. Why the differences?

  • Babies born via C-section have more as the vernix hasn’t been rubbed off during delivery through the vaginal canal
  • Babies born after 27 weeks, but earlier than full gestation also retain more
  • Early preemies (pre-27 wks), full-term babies, and those born after 40 weeks will have less

The breastmilk connection

The immune proteins found in the vernix and amniotic fluid are very similar to the ones found in breastmilk. During the end of pregnancy, vernix thins and some of it sheds into the amniotic fluid that baby is now breathing. This antimicrobial, peptide-rich mixture enters the baby’s lungs and digestive tract, and helps prepare the digestive tract for the similar peptides found in breastmilk. This helps prepare the baby’s body for the transition to the outside world by prepping, and nourishing their digestive systems. (source) Amazing!

What purpose does it serve?

In the womb

  • Prevents loss of electrolytes and fluids
  • Seals the skin to prevent the amniotic fluid from permeating it
  • Acts as a microbial barrier from unwanted pathogens
  • Provides a protective layer to facilitate skin growth underneath

Out of the womb

  • Decreases skin pH and helps form the protective acid mantle
  • Protects from pathogens
  • Moisturizes and keeps skin soft, and supple
  • Contains that new baby smell to help mom and baby bond during breastfeeding

Why do nurses rub it off right away?

The vast majority of nurses either immediately scrub the vernix from the baby, or do so after some brief, skin-to-skin bonding time with mom (like in my second birth). These hospital policies developed out of our germaphobic culture. (And, it does look pretty gross, so wiping it off looks better for newborn pictures.)

Old school nurses were even taught that vernix was a biohazard and needed to be rubbed off to avoid germ exposure. That’s ironic since it’s both antibacterial and antimicrobial in nature. If necessary, blood, amniotic fluid, and other vaginal secretions can be gently wiped off of the baby, without disturbing the vernix very much.

Lastly, briskly washing and drying the newborn was thought to stimulate proper breathing in the baby. Even though American hospitals especially have held onto many outdated practices, removing the vernix isn’t necessary. Professional groups like the World Health Organization, and the National Association of Neonatal Nursing actually recommend leaving it on. (source)

Skin pH

Humans have what is called an acid mantle on our skin. This protective barrier develops on a newborn shortly after birth, and helps prevent infections from bad bacteria. The vernix is thought to facilitate proper development of the acid mantle, and baby’s skin pH regulates more quickly when it isn’t removed.

World’s best moisturizer

Quiz time. What locks moisture into skin better than coconut oil, shea butter, and everything else? Vernix, of course. Not only does it provide a waterproofing barrier in the womb, but it helps baby’s skin retain moisture better than any lotion or cream. In fact, it does such a good job, that scientists are trying to create a synthetic version for preemie infants, burn victims, and those with dry skin. (source)

Vernix benefits for mom

Not only is this magical substance awesome for baby, but it’s good for mom too. Because it’s antibacterial and antimicrobial in nature, it can help prevent infection of the vaginal canal as the baby passes through. It also has superior wound healing properties, and has even been shown to help perineal tears heal better. (source)

Does a water birth wash vernix off?

Even though the vernix is 80% water, this water is trapped in a matrix. The vernix is actually a very hydrophobic barrier, so it doesn’t wash off easily. It takes a lot of scrubbing to remove it from the skin, so a water birth alone won’t wash it off. Your baby has been floating in amniotic fluid for 9 months, so a little water won’t do much to the vernix!

How to rub vernix in

As soon as baby is born, it’s natural (and good!) for both mom and baby to have skin-on-skin bonding time right on mom’s chest. This is the perfect time to gently massage the vernix into baby’s skin. It’s easy to do, and rubs in just like body butter.

Okay, so when should I give my baby his or her first bath?

The majority of the vernix is absorbed within the first day, so anytime after the first 24 hours would be okay to give baby his first bath.

Vernix doesn’t fully absorb until day 5 or 6, so it would be best to wait until then. In the meantime, gently wipe off any spit up, baby poo, and other messes with warm water and maybe a mild soap. (source)

How about you?

When did your baby get their first bath? Let us know in the comments below!

References

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2763724/

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-2494.2006.00338.x/full

https://www.scienceandsensibility.org/p/bl/et/blogid=2&blogaid=220

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40 Comments

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  1. Would it be okay to leave the vernix on the baby even if the mom was diagnosed with HPV via a routine pap during pregnancy?

  2. I would like to be able to inform the hospital and my doctor that I do not want to have them wash my baby right away or cut the cord right away. I have felt bullied into it with my last two. My question is what if the baby is born with meconium all over. They say they need to wash this off and also apply the erythromycin ointment as well. What is the best thing to do?

  3. I’m a bit confused… I recently read that baby seals and some other semi aquatic mammals are also born with vernix? Also that preterm babies gemerally lack vernix all together. Do you have any insights or references? Thank you 😊

  4. My nurses were awesome and did all the right things as far as vernix even though I was largely ignorant about it and suggested giving my baby a bath during the first few hours. They left it on/rubbed it in to my daughter’s skin when she was first born and didn’t give her her first bath until at least 24 hours to try and keep all of the benefits. I’m so thankful that they knew about the benefits of vernix even though I didn’t!!

  5. I did test positive for GBS and am not really wanting the abx. I am going back and forth about this because I want to protect my baby from developing the infections. I want to use the vernix to help, but am wondering and hoping if that will suffice from the positive GBS results.

  6. I’m sorry but for me it’s coming off after initial bonding time. Baby is out of womb. It’s necessary to protect the child in the womb. After baby has exited, it’s just not necessary in my opinion. Just how I feel. 🙂

  7. When I had my first she had it on the swell of her back and before I could do anything the nurses rubbed it off… I talked to one of my midwives about it recently (I am 37 weeks) and they said the nurses need to stimulate the baby by rubbing and that I can wait to bath my son ( We didnt bath my daughter for several days after). How necessary is it to “stimulate” baby with a towel? I kinda figured that if baby is awake and breathing after birth then no stimulation was required just a dry towel to keep baby warm…

  8. When i was in the hospital i asked them if i could just do it at home and they were like woah what??? No one has ever asked this question to them. I insisted they wait. He had his bath after about 30 hours and they said if i refused the bath completely i would have to sign a waiver. Ridicuous!

  9. This was so educational! Thank you! My little was born via Cesarean and had SO much vernix. I wasn’t aware what it was at the time, and they left a majority of it on her when they placed her on my chest. Thankfully I chose a baby-friendly Hospital to deliver in, so they never bathed her for the days we were there. And I didn’t bathe her for the first 3 1/2 weeks. Mostly due to an umbilical granuloma. But after reading this, I’m so grateful I didn’t do it sooner. She’s now 8 weeks old, and gets a bath about every 2 weeks. (Much to my mother’s discomfort.) 😂

  10. Very good article……you are going to love this. I was explaining to my husband that I did not want to wash our son when he was born. My husband was like “What!?!?!” I shared some of the info from this article with him and he finally went “so it’s like the bloom on our chickens eggs? If you don’t wash it off it naturally protects it.” ROFL yep he understands now. 🙂 Gotta Love farm life!

    • Rebekah, this made me laugh so hard, because it sounds like the perfect way to explain it to my farmer husband! 🙂

  11. Your post says that the vernix is fully absorbed after 5-6 days so I’m curious why some mamas wait even longer. thank you for writing such a well thought out post on this. I knew I wanted to leave the vernix on but I was still kinda grossed out by it, but when you described it as being like body butter it totally stopped grossing me out lol so thanks for that.

  12. wow. All my baby pics I have a really really bad full body rash. I have a lot of allergies and it was just assumed I was allergic to the hospital detergent (born in 1980) No doubt my red baby body was due to the vernix being washed off and having extremely sensitive skin. mind blown.

  13. this article was phenomenal, being pregnant with my first I am trying hard to find the best way to care for my unborn soul and when he/she is born into this world. I am definitely going to leave on the vernix now knowing the great benefits behind it! i’m still contemplating water birth as well and your articles have helped with that I will watch videos at home when i’m not at work in the office 🙂 haha! I am terrified yet so excited being an new mom, like most moms are I feel.. but I will definitely remember this website! and if you have any articles on primrose oil and the effects it has when taken and massaged into the perineum that would fantastic!! 😀 thanks ladies and you Genevieve of course!

  14. I rubbed the Vernix into my last babe and didn’t give him his 1st bath until he was over 1 month old. 🙂

  15. I didn’t bathe my most recent baby for a week and a half. I love how newborns smell!

  16. Is this OK to do if you are GBS positive?

  17. I am an L&D nurse at a prominent hospital in Maryland and we, too, would bath our babies within an hour or 2 of birth. Last year we started waiting until 24 hours. We will bath babies after a minimum of 6 hours, but only at the parent’s request (and after we counsel them on the benefits of waiting).

    • And even from a personal standpoint, my 8 year old does not bathe everyday…usually more like every 2 to 3 days. His skin just gets so dry!

      I’m due with my second in august. I will likely not wait days like other commenters have. I’ll probably do it before we leave the hospital.

  18. Now I know for when my little one comes along, I’m also going to pass this info on to my sister who is due in July. Thanks Genevieve! 🙂

  19. I waited till my baby was 3 1/2 weeks till I gave him a bath and he survived just fine. :). God knew what he was doing when he created us. He is amazing.

  20. I knew vernix was important, but I’ve never seen such a well rounded article on the subject. Great job! My second was born at home at 41+2, and she had tons of it! Even the midwife was surprised.

  21. I am a nurse manager in a hospital that does almost 6000 births per year. We have not bathed our babies until 24 hours of age – if at all! – for about 4 years. It was a huge culture shift for our staff and created quite a stir! Changing ingrained practices is difficult but the if evidence is there we really have an obligation to our moms and babes! I really encourage all those involved in birth to really examine the true evidence behind even the most simple of procedures we do. It can be daunting to change a culture, but armed with evidence, our passion, and love for our moms and babes – it’s amazing what you can accomplish.

    • Yay, yay, yay!!!!! Love that your hospital is so cutting edge!!!! Thank you for sharing 🙂

    • Hello,
      I am pregnant with my first child. It’s a girl! I’m giving birth in a hospital that I’m concerned may be a little old age in their OB practices. I’m also a RN. Don’t we just make the worst patients?! lol
      Do you have any suggestions about presenting this idea to my doctor without being construed as a ‘know it all’ or not taken seriously by other nursing staff? I’ve thought about printing the NCBI article referenced in this post, and giving to the staff. I don’t really care what anyone thinks or even if they laugh at me, I just want my wishes honored at the time of the birth of my little one.

  22. Great post, I didn’t realise their were so many benefits! Neither of my two youngest had the vernix wiped off and everyone comments on how beautiful their skin is. With having an induction with both, it was nice to maintain some natural elements to the delivery.

    • I know! It was mind blowing as we dove into all of the benefits 🙂

  23. I remember from your birth of precious Paloma how the nurses were so determined to take her and clean it off. Since seeing that video it’s put me on alert. I hope to be prepared at this birth to stand up for myself and make it really clear that I don’t want the baby taken or cleaned up.

    I love the suggestion of rubbing it in. Thank you so much for always sharing these wonderful tips. Since I know to pay attention for it I feel like I have a better chance of avoiding them removing it.

  24. My son had his first bath at 9 days old. 🙂

  25. My four month old had not had a bath yet ***gasp*** and still smells amazing. I wipes off her hands, neck and diaper area when needed and rub her whole body in coconut oil

  26. Great info Genevieve! Thankfully my sweet midwives left the vernix on my babies. I bathed my 2 youngest babies when they were about 3 weeks old. How dirty can a newborn get?! They smell wonderful even without a bath. I just made sure to keep their diaper area clean, and wiped their little hands and neck from all the milk. That all they really need at that age. I think our culture bathes maybe a bit too much. Even now, (unless they’ve been in mud or are really sweaty) we don’t bathe our 4 children everyday. Too much bathing = dry skin. Thank you for your research!

    • So true! We also limit baths. Too drying for sure! And not good for their immunity 🙂

    • Agreed! My 3 yo boy only bathes about once a week. Even my teenagers (as well as myself) bathe about every 3 days unless super sweaty sports are involved. 🙂

  27. This was VERY helpful! Thankfully I have an amazing husband who actually told me how important vernix is (though neither of us knew what it was called until reading your post:D). Thank you so much for supporting us mamas by providing natural information!

  28. Genevieve and team – thank you for this post! In all that I’ve learned about the passing on of immune protections from mama to baby during birth, via boosting the good bacteria and avoiding abx, etc, since my GBS results changed from positive with babies #1-3 to negative with #4 & 5, and about natural birth since opting for a home birth with #5 after the first four were born in hospital, I don’t recall hearing this amazing piece of the equation in the complex role of the vernix. I will definitely keep this in mind with baby #6 expected in October. There is always more to learn, and the more I continue to learn, the more I’m increasingly blown away by the amazing care and design of our Creator. Thanks again for a great post. xo

    • Well put Lacey! It’s amazing how wonderfully designed the whole birthing process is. And thank you for sharing the story about your GBS results changing over time – we just had a mom in our birth course asking about that.

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