Surgical Spirits, or rubbing alcohol, is still routinely used in South Africa as the standard method of caring for the umbilical cord despite many other countries (such as the United Kingdom) discontinuing the practice due to certain problems it creates. In South Africa, mothers are advised to apply surgical spirits to the base of the cord with every nappy change but alternative practices exist.

The problems with alcohol use

Studies have shown that using Surgical Spirits to clean the umbilical cord increase the time it takes for the cord to fall off, and is linked to irritation of the baby’s skin. In some cases, where the alcohol solution has been liberally applied, the baby has shown signs toxic effects caused by absorption – hemorrhagic skin necrosis, dysfunction of the central nervous system, metabolic acidosis, and hypoglycemia.

Alternative 1

In the United Kingdom, mothers are advised to leave the cord alone completely. They are taught to instead recognise the signs of infection. When leaving the cord alone completely, the following steps should also be taken:

  • Do not immerse the baby in a bath until the cord has fallen off
  • The baby should be “top and tailed” ie use a cloth to clean the baby’s face a bottom
  • At every nappy change, ensure the cord stump has not been contaminated with urine or feces. If it has then clean with warm water
  • Ensure that the cord is dry with no oozing, redness or swelling at the base (speak to your doctor or midwife if there is)

Alternative 2

For those that don’t feel quite so comfortable leaving the cord alone entirely, there are certain other gentle things which may be used in place of Surgical Spirits for cord care.

Wecasin Powder 

Also known as weeping wound powder – it is a herbal remedy that is popular for use in umbilical cord care. Simply apply it when needed to help speed the drying process, as well as knowing the signs of potential infection.

Other options for topical treatment are: