Topical therapy to enhance skin barrier function may be a simple, low-cost, effective strategy to improve outcome of preterm infants with a developmentally compromised epidermal barrier, as lipid constituents of topical products may act as a mechanical barrier and augment synthesis of barrier lipids. Natural oils are applied topically as part of a traditional oil massage to neonates in many developing countries. We sought to identify inexpensive, safe, vegetable oils available in developing countries that improved epidermal barrier function. The impact of oils on mouse epidermal barrier function (rate of transepidermal water loss over time following acute barrier disruption by tape-stripping) and ultrastructure was determined. A single application of sunflower seed oil significantly accelerated skin barrier recovery within 1 h; the effect was sustained 5 h after application. In contrast, the other vegetable oils tested (mustard, olive and soybean oils) all significantly delayed recovery of barrier function compared with control- or Aquaphor-treated skin. Twice-daily applications of mustard oil for 7 d resulted in sustained delay of barrier recovery. Moreover, adverse ultrastructural changes were seen under transmission electron microscopy in keratin intermediate filament, mitochondrial, nuclear, and nuclear envelope structure following a single application of mustard oil.
Conclusion: Our data suggest that topical application of linoleate-enriched oil such as sunflower seed oil might enhance skin barrier function and improve outcome in neonates with compromised barrier function. Mustard oil, used routinely in newborn care throughout South Asia, has toxic effects on the epidermal barrier that warrant further investigation.