Even after nine months soaking in the watery, warm environment of a womb, a newborn’s skin is smooth – unlike an adult’s in the bath. A natural, protective cream called Vernix caseosa (VC) covers the fetus and the newborn, aiding in the growth of skin. VC provides "waterproofing" in utero, allowing skin to grow in wet conditions, while after birth it hydrates and cleanses. Yet not all newborns have nine months in the womb. Having babysat a child who was born prematurely at just over 2 lbs, I am always interested in new discoveries and methods aimed at helping pre-term babies transition into the world. Premature birth occurs in between 8 percent to 10 percent of all pregnancies in the United States.

Professor Joke Bouwstra of Leiden University produced a synthetic version  of the buttery ointment, which could help pre-term babies develop essential protection against temperature changes, dehydration, and infection. Mostly water, VC's outstanding properties come from the addition of just 10% each of lipid molecules and corneocytes (dead skin cells). X-ray diffraction measurements from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF ) allowed the Leiden researchers to find the proportions of the various forms in the cream. Electron microscopy revealed the structure of VC, characterized by corneocytes embedded in lipid domains.

The corneocytes were synthesized at Utrecht University. Lanolin - the oil found in sheep's wool - is a readily available source of the sort of fat molecules needed. The team isolated the fats that were closest match to the measurements of VC, and used them to create a synthetic solution with the same behavior. When combined, the synthetic ingredients made a cream that looked the same as VC (using both X-ray measurements and light microscopy). Clinical trials showed that disrupted and underdeveloped skin barriers recovered much more quickly when synthetic VC was applied. Future studies will take place to prove the benefits of artificial VC in treating all healthy, dry, and diseased human skin, which is welcome news to anyone wishing to leave an especially cold, dry winter - and its effects on skin - behind.