Mineral Oil in Your Cosmetics. What You Really Need to Know!

There are still many myths about skincare! Not so long ago I heard a sales consultant trying to convince a customer that, if she still wanted to look good in twenty years time, she should buy a particular cosmetic product containing that special ingredient costing more than two hundred euros. A little later the young woman left the shop with, not only, the product in question, but also, an eye cream, serum, night cream, mask and toner from the same brand. Although I’ve written more often in my blog about the myths surrounding eye creams, night creams, wrinkle creams, serums and “green” cosmetics, I’ve not yet written about mineral oils. There are lots of ridiculous stories about this too. High time we clear this issue up, with the risk of receiving piles of “hate mail” from ardent mineral oil opposers…

Mineral oils; natural or not?

The mineral oils used in cosmetic products are derived from petroleum (fossil fuel). Petroleum is made from the residue of plant and animal life (plankton and algae), that have been exposed to extremely high pressure and temperature deep within the Earth’s crust. So far it sounds quite natural, doesn’t it? When crude oil is taken out of the ground, it first needs to be purified before it can be used. This is also known as refinement. The oil used for household purposes or cars has already been well purified, but the mineral oil used in skin care products undergoes such extensive purification that there is hardly anything left of the original material afterwards. This purified material is also used in the development of medicine. Incidentally, it is useful for you to know that plant oils are also purified before being suitable for use on skin.

Where won’t you find it?

The cosmetics industry is a big fan of mineral oil. The fact is that mineral oil is cheap, fragrance free and colourless, doesn’t oxidize and can easily be kept for a long time. The result, it gets used in very many cosmetic products. In fact; almost all baby oils consist almost entirely of mineral oil. And if you think that you don’t use any mineral oil, just take a good look at the labels. Liquid paraffin, liquid petroleum, paraffin oil, paraffinum liquidum, petrolatum liquid, petroleum oil, white mineral oil and white oil are all mineral oils. Vaseline (Petrolatum) is a sister; it has a waxy structure and so it’s not as runny, but still belongs to the same family. It’s the main ingredient in the renowned 8 hour cream from Elizabeth Arden.

The rumour…

Mineral oils have been used in cosmetics for several decades, but around 15 years ago it went wrong. Gradually increasing rumours emerged that mineral oils caused acne, suffocated the skin and could cause all sorts of bad health problems. According to supporters of “natural” cosmetics, plant/vegetable oils are a lot more safe and better for the skin than natural oils. You would think that where there’s smoke there’s fire. It’s time, then, for some literature research!

Long live the mineral oil!

I’ve already written in my blog that ‘plant‘ doesn’t necessarily mean that an ingredient or product is good or even safe. There are a great deal of plant oils with a poorer safety profile than mineral oils, some examples are named on the website http://www.essentialoils.co.za/toxic-oils.htm. There may also be some damaging substances contained in plant/vegetable oils such as, for example, 3-Chloropropane-1,2-diol; this substance is carcinogenic (abstract) and can be found in unprocessed oils (oils which haven’t been purified). What’s more, in the past the authenticity of plant/vegetable oils has been tampered with; in order to make it cheaper, improperly purified mineral oil was sometimes added to it. Mineral particles are even found in oil which hasn’t been tampered with. This can be not only, by contamination of the product (e.g. packing material), but also because mineral paraffin particles occur naturally in plant/vegetable oils (abstract).

Very much research has been carried out into the safety of cosmetic mineral oil (see also the report by the European Food Safety Authority) and from the research it is clear to see that purified cosmetic mineral oil is not toxic. Thankfully, as you consume a lot of this substance via your diet each day. Recycled packaging materials for food are especially notorious. The rumour that mineral oils can cause cancer is also untrue. That relationship has been made with poly-aromatic hydrocarbons which may occur in the original crude material, but these substances are not present in the purified oil which is used for cosmetic and pharmacological purposes (abstract). If you are still in doubt then it is good to know that if you apply mineral oil onto your skin it actually stays on your skin and therefore almost no substances can get in your blood. Because mineral oil stays on top of the skin and forms a layer of insulation there, it is more difficult for moisture to evaporate and dry skin will recover quickly. Research has shown that mineral oil is very good at this (abstract and abstract). And for the people who are afraid of the sealing effect; mineral oil doesn’t give you spots. Sebum can come out of skin and doesn’t block your pores! In fact, several studies have demonstrated that even 100% mineral oil on the skin won’t cause spots (abstract). This sealing effect will not even prevent oxygen uptake through the skin. Skin (in contrast to what is often claimed) does not breathe; oxygen reaches the skin through the blood and not through air! Dermatologists are happy to prescribe mineral oils, they can prevent skin irritation caused by external irritants and help to restore the skin barrier. An additional advantage is that the chance of allergies is minimal. That’s why mineral oils are often used in the treatment of eczema patients as well.

Or maybe not?…

There are, however, also disadvantages. Mineral oils are not really “cosmetically” elegant. The thicker the consistency of the oil added to the product, the less pleasant it feels on the skin. Thin mineral oils are more runny, hydrate the skin less well but are a lot nicer to use. Another disadvantage of mineral oil is that it can “over hydrate” the skin. Sounds strange, but mineral oils can retain moisture so effectively that the skin will become too moist. Your skin will look good at first (because the lines are stretched out), but in the long run various cellular processes will work somewhat less efficiently. Eventually this will lead to your skin not being able to protect itself and you find yourself in a vicious circle; your skin quickly dries out if you don’t put any cream on and so you keep applying it. Luckily this can be avoided by looking carefully at your skin. If you have a more dry skin then apply some , if you don’t have dry skin then a product with a high concentration of mineral oils can be omitted. Products with a high concentration of mineral oils are not recommended for use if you sweat easily, for example, due to working in a warm environment or do intensive physical training. Some people may have liquid bumps on their facial skin due to the sweat not being released properly (miliaria rubra). That immediately brings me to the following point; mineral oils do nothing more than hydrate.They do not contain beneficial substances such as anti-oxidants or soothing ingredients which can penetrate into the skin and be effective. So if you have a cream containing only mineral oils you are missing an important element of good skin care. Check to see if active ingredients have been added to a product with mineral oil. Even better, if you are suffering from dry skin, is to apply a cream with active ingredients and then apply the mineral oil over the top. In this way, the active ingredients are able to penetrate into the skin more easily and do their work. Another important point; although purified mineral oil is not toxic, and almost no particles absorb through the skin, a recent study found that hydrocarbons from mineral oil could be retrieved from body fat and breast milk (abstract). It is unclear if they were there due to food, inhalation of polluted air or even by cosmetic products (perhaps via damaged skin). In my opinion not a direct reason to panic since these particles, as far as we know, cause little harm (in contrast to what we know about certain preservatives, sun filters or fragrances) but a reason to still look critically at the cosmetics products you are applying onto your skin. My advice; only use skin care products which really make your skin more beautiful and stronger and leave all the unnecessary stuff out. It is not only better for your body, but also for your purse and not forgetting the environment!

Regards Jetske

(Dr. Jetske Ultee-Research Physician Cosmetic Dermatology)

You can also read:
Research Has Shown That…‘,
Myth; A Nightcream Is Specifically for Night Time’,
Is an Expensive Moisturizer Better?’,
Do Anti-Oxidants Also Really Work in a Cream?‘ and
Anti-Wrinkle Creams’.