Newborns emerge from the womb covered with a waxy substance called the vernix, which protects their skin from drying, and researchers have begun to realize that the vernix also helps babies adapt to life outside the womb by stimulating cells in the skin to make water-resistant lipid molecules.
Scientists at Leiden University in the Netherlands, led by Joke Bouwstra, a professor of Drug Delivery, Skin Research Group, at the Division of Drug Delivery Technology, thought it might be possible to harness the vernix to treat adults with skin problems. They formulated a lotion based on lipids found in the vernix and tested it on the skin of healthy volunteers.
In a study in the Journal of Lipid Research, the researchers showed that disrupting the water barrier on healthy volunteers’ arms using tape caused a change in the lipids that make up the barrier. With the new, shorter-chain lipids, more water could escape through the damaged skin. Applying the lotion sped up recovery by returning the lipid profile to normal. The researchers found changes to the synthesis of lipids that were not included in the lotion, suggesting that the lotion could mimic the vernix by changing how the skin makes lipids.
The researchers have not yet determined which ingredient drives the changes, but the lotion, or one similar to it, might someday help treat itchy skin rashes like eczema that are driven by irritants crossing a broken skin barrier.