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J Invest Dermatol. 2000 Nov;115(5):875-81.

Characterization of vernix caseosa: water content, morphology, and elemental analysis.

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  • 1The Skin Sciences Institute and Division of Neonatology, Children's Hospital Medical Center, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.

Abstract

Recent studies have prompted interest in the use of epidermal barrier creams as protective biofilms for very low birthweight preterm infants. The key to understanding the role of epidermal barrier films is an elucidation of their interaction with water and a basic knowledge of their composition. In this study, we investigated the morphologic properties and elemental composition of the naturally occurring biofilm, vernix caseosa. This biofilm is typically lacking in preterm infants and its production coincides in utero with terminal differentiation of the epidermis and formation of the stratum corneum. Significantly, vernix (80.5+/-1.0% H2O) had a much higher water content than other barrier creams (Eucerin: 17.1+/-0.6%, Aquaphor: 0.33+/-0.03%, Ilex: 0.19+/-0.02%, petrolatum: 0.03+/-0.01%; all p<0.05). Phase contrast microscopy of vernix showed multiple cellular elements with nucleic "ghosts" embedded in a putative lipid matrix. Transmission electron microscopy revealed flattened structures approximately 1-2 microm in thickness with distinct cellular envelopes indicative of differentiated corneocytes. Compared with mature corneocytes in adult stratum corneum, vernix corneocytes appeared swollen, the density of the keratin filaments was less, and there was a relative lack of tonofilament orientation. Cryofractured specimens were examined by cryoscanning electron microscopy with subsequent elemental localization by X-ray beam analysis. The findings indicate the high water content of vernix is largely compartmentalized within fetal corneocytes. These results are consistent with the novel view of vernix as a "fluid phase" stratum corneum consisting of a hydrophobic lipid matrix with embedded fetal corneocytes possessing unique biomechanical and water-binding properties.

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