Dr Gary Darmstadt and his team at the John Hopkins University , US, conducted their study on a random selection of 497 babies premature born in Bangladesh between 1998 and 2003. Premature babies are particularly susceptible to infection and medical complications - a fact that lent the study particular pertinancy.
The study, which was published by the Lancet medical journal, concluded that massaging low birth weight babies with sunflower seed oil is a low cost intervention that can protect them from infections.
The skin of a preterm baby is immature and lacks vernix, a protective cutaneous film with antimicrobial properties. Infections and complications resulting from premature birth are responsible for more than half of all neonatal deaths.
Preterm babies weighing less than 1500 g are particularly vulnerable to a variety of medical complications, leading to mortality rates of 50 per cent upwards in both hospital and community settings in developing countries.
The babies were randomly assigned to be treated with sunflower seed oil, an ointment called Aquaphor - petrolatum, mineral oil, mineral wax, and lanolin - or no intervention. The treatment was applied to the entire body of the babies apart from scalp and face three times daily for the first fourteen days then two times daily until discharge.
The babies were assessed daily for signs of infection. Infants treated with sunflower oil had around seven infections per 100 days in hospital, while controls had around 10.8 infections per 100 days. Overall, infants treated with sunflower seed oil were 41 per cent less likely to develop infections than controls.
The effect was even greater when treatment was started within 24 hours of birth - in these babies, bloodstream infections were reduced 56 per cent. Aquaphor did not significantly reduce the risk of infection overall (7.2 infections per 100 days), but when treatment was started on the first day of life, it reduced infection by 61 per cent.
Dr Darmstadt said: "Evidence is emerging that the skin is much more important as a barrier to infection than previously recognised, particularly in preterm infants whose skin is underdeveloped."
Dr. Darmstadt also pointed out that in many developing countries in Asia mother's traditionally massage their new-born babies with mustard oil. However, he claims that this process can delays recovery of the skin barrier and can indeed have a toxic effect on the skin.
In light of the research team says that new born babies should be treated with sunflower oil as it is a low-cost and safer alternative.
Sunflower oil is extracted from sunflower seeds and is commonly used in a selection of popular cosmetic and personal care products. Because it is colourless and virtually odourless it is commonly used in aromatherapies, fragrances, liquid make-ups, sun tan and body oils, soaps and pressed powders.