Askanesthetician's Blog

An esthetician explores skincare issues and concerns

Why Does Mineral Oil Have Such A Bad Reputation? November 5, 2012

A very long time ago a reader asked me to address the issue of mineral oil in my blog.  I am just now getting around to writing this post.  My apologizes to that reader.

Let me start off with information about mineral oil that I found on the holistic lifestyle website The Chalk Board:

Toxic Tuesday Ingredient Focus: Mineral Oil (aka Paraffinum Liquidum)

WHAT IS IT? An extremely cheap & common petroleum derivative (refined crude oil petrochemical) which is found in 98% of skincare products sold in the US.

HEALTH RISK: Petrochemicals contain neurotoxins which damage the nervous system. Mineral oil forms a film on the surface of your skin that can not be absorbed, thereby blocking the pores and the skin’s natural respiration. It traps dirt and bacteria and blocks the absorption of vitamins/minerals/botanicals that may be in a product. John Hopkins University named mineral oil in cosmetics and moisturizers as the number two cause of aging (first being direct exposure to sun). It may also cause allergic reactions and dryness, as well as promote acne and other skin disorders.

Oy!  If I took everything I read at face value I would be throwing out my beauty products right now instead of writing this post.  Scary information, right?  Extreme information, right?  (I recently did a training with a very well known international skincare company during which the trainer repeated the same information about mineral oil that you see above)  So what’s the truth about mineral oil?  What was written above or is it something else?

In his book The New Ideal in Skin Health Dr. Carl Thornfeldt devotes three pages just to the topic of mineral oil.  He debunks the information above (pages 377-380):

One of the most widely used ingredients for moisturizers is the first controversial ingredient we will cover.  Petrolatum (also known as petroleum jelly and white petroleum) and mineral oil have been much maligned from “natural” based cosmetics companies, internet consumer sites and other environmental groups.  These sources erroneously claim that petrolatum and mineral oil are terrible ingredients because they come from crude oil (petroleum) which causes harm to the skin by forming an occlusive oil film, thereby “suffocating” it.  Unfortunately for these sources, this claim defies known human biology. In the body oxygen is transported to the skin by the blood supply, and then diffuses into the epidermal cells – oxygen is not absorbed directly from the air.  Herbal mucilages have been used for wound healing to soothe, protect and heal damaged or abnormal skin for centuries.  These mucilages naturally mimic the occlusive activity of petrolatum and mineral oil.  However, the “suffocating” claim is never used to dissuade use of those types of products.

Mineral oil, also known as soft paraffin, is the liquid form of petrolatum.  All of these ingredients consist of mixtures of hydrocarbons that are byproducts of crude petroleum distillation; thus they are all actually organic, natural ingredients. …

Mineral oil reduces TEWL (transepidermal water loss) by 40%, is equally as occlusive as coconut oil and more occlusive than linoleic acid, yet it does not induce acne.  Mineral oil and petrolatum provide inhibition of excessive inflammatory activity superior to 1% hydrocortisone is treating soap induced contact irritant dermatitis conducted by this author.  It has also been documented these ingredients have anticarcinogenic and mild antibacterial effects.

Many of these misconceptions regarding safety and efficacy of these ingredients are directly related to the quality of the grade.  Technical grade is the least unpurified form of the oil, and is commonly used by machinists to lubricate engines and equipment.  It is known to induce contact reactions in 10-50% of the machinists.  Cosmetic grade is a more purified option.  The highest standard is United States Pharmacopeia (USP) pharmaceutical grade, which indicates that it is essentially free of impurities.  …

Prescription pharmaceuticals and some cosmetic companies do use the highest quality USP grade in their marketed formulations.  Cosmetic companies are not required to use USP grade, even though USP grade mineral oil and petrolatum are considered the safest, least irritating moistutrizing ingredients ever found in the skin care industry.  In addition, they are commonly used as a “vehicle” for most substances used in patch testing by dermatologists due to their nonirritating and nonsensitizing properties.  This is a medical diagnostic process used to determine if one is allergic to ingredients in products applied to the skin.

Neither pharmaceutical nor cosmetic grades of petrolatum or mineral oil are considered comedogenic when using the standardized comedogenicity testing.  With the highest comedogenicity rating at 5, these ingredients have tested at a 0-1 rating.  This rating indicates the increased impurities in lower grades appear to be the major cause of adverse reactions including comedogenicity, contact irritant and allergic dermatitis. …

As to claims that people react negatively even to USP grade petrolatum or mineral oil, to date all compounds used in skin care have at least one documented positive patch test response.  Even purified water applied to the skin may activate hives in people afflicted with a disease called aquagenic pruritus.  Thus, while safety testing is imperative, there can always be the exceptional patient that may react negatively to even the safest known ingredient.

If that information isn’t enough to persuade you that mineral oil in skincare products is ok let me present some more evidence.  The Beauty Brains debunked five long-held myths about mineral oil in their post The Top 5 Myths About Mineral Oil – Part 1:

We often see the advice that people should avoid mineral oil at all costs.

This idea is propagated by numerous “natural” companies. Well, this advice is just bogus. It’s not based on any scientific studies. Mineral oil is a perfectly fine ingredient and has been used in cosmetics for over 100 years.

Here are the top 5 Myths that companies tell people to make them afraid of mineral oil.

Mineral Oil Myths

1. Mineral oil is contaminated with carcinogens. While it’s true that some petroleum derivatives contain carcinogenic materials (like some polycyclic aromatic compounds) the mineral oil that is used in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industry is highly refined and purified. It’s purity is even regulated by the US FDA and other international regulatory agencies. There is absolutely no evidence that cosmetic grade mineral oil causes cancer. And there has been plenty of testing done to ensure that fact. We could find no published reports in any of the dermatological or medical journals indicating a link between mineral oil and any forms of cancer.

2. Mineral oil dries the skin and causes premature aging. Mineral oil works as a barrier between the skin and the air. It acts as an occlusive agent which prevents water from naturally leaving your body through your skin. It will not dry out your skin or cause premature aging. Quite the contrary. It will provide moisturization.

3. Mineral oil robs the skin of vitamins. Since many vitamins are oil based, people assume that mineral oil will pull them out of your skin. There is no legitimate scientific evidence that this is true. Mineral oil has no effect on the vitamin levels in your skin.

4. Mineral oil prevents absorption of collagen from collagen moisturizers. Collagen in your skin lotions and moisturizers is too big to actually penetrate your skin. Therefore, mineral oil will have no effect on whether the collagen gets absorbed or not.

5. Mineral oil causes acne. In some people, mineral oil can exacerbate acne problems. However, most people will not experience any problems.

So, if it is not for safety concerns, why would companies be telling you to avoid mineral oil? We’ll look at that in part 2 of our series.

The Beauty Brains Bottom line. Mineral oil is NOT bad for you or your skin. It is one of the best ingredients available in skin lotions and moisturizers. It is also 100% natural taken directly out of our dear Mother Earth.

Next I’ll turn to the blog Lab Muffin to further debunk a few mineral oil myths (From the posts – Is Mineral Oil Dangerous? Part 1 and Is Mineral Oil Dangerous? Part 2):

Mineral oil comes from crude oil… I’m not putting gasoline on my face! – FALSE

While it’s true that mineral oil comes from crude oil, it doesn’t mean that its properties are the same, or even similar to gasoline!

Crude oil is formed when biological material (from algae and plankton) gets buried under the sea. Over millions of years, the pressure transforms the carbon-containing compounds in the once-living tissue into the carbon-containing compounds which make up crude oil.

Crude oil contains lots of different things, mainly made up of carbon and hydrogen only. After it’s been pumped out of the ground, it has to be refined to separate out the different bits.

Apart from mineral oil and gasoline, things that come from crude oil include paraffin wax (found in most candles, and in cheese wax) and asphalt/bitumen. And as you know, candles and gasoline and asphalt are completely different! So just because it comes from the same stuff at the beginning doesn’t mean it’ll look, act or be the same.

Mineral oil is comedogenic and will make you break out – FALSE

Mineral oil appears on a large range of “comedogenic ingredients” lists. Once upon a time (well, in the 1970s), cosmetic companies noticed that a lot of women started getting acne from their makeup products. One scientific study on comedogenicity used the inside of a rabbit’s ear to test whether products caused pimples, and this quickly became the test of choice. However, later on, they found that sometimes the results on a rabbit and the results on a human were different. (Lab Muffin loves rabbits, and this made her sad, because an awful lot of rabbits got ear pimples for no good reason!)

A later study tested products containing between 0 and 30% mineral oil, and found that it wasn’t comedogenic on human skin. The best thing about mineral oil is that (unlike a lot of plant oils) it’s incredibly stable – it doesn’t oxidise, and stays liquid. In other words, it’s not likely to clump up later on, after reacting with oxygen and light, and clog your pores! However, this doesn’t mean that it won’t cause you to break out, since different people respond differently to certain ingredients.

It just sits on top of skin – it doesn’t moisturise! It suffocates your skin – PARTLY FALSE

There are three ways in which moisturisers moisturise – occlusive (covering your skin up so water can’t evaporate), humectant (grabbing water and keeping it next to your skin) and emollient (makes your skin feel soft) actions. Mineral oil is an excellent occlusive, so yes, it does just sit on top of your skin – but it definitely moisturises! In fact, scientists often use it as a standard for comparing other moisturisers. Of course, if you have dry skin to begin with, just putting mineral oil isn’t going to work so well (if there’s not enough water to begin with, there’s not much water to keep in!).

As to whether skin can be suffocated – skin is porous, but it doesn’t really need to “breathe”. What people usually mean by “letting your skin breathe” means washing off the dirty gunk from your pores… dirt can stick to mineral oil, just like it can stick to anything else on your face.

Because mineral oil is really good at being an occlusive, it’s possible that it can block certain nutrients in your cream from reaching your skin – the solution is to put on the active ingredient first, then cover it up with the mineral oil, and the mineral oil will keep that stuff on your skin.

Lastly, now that my sources have debunked the different myths about mineral oil perhaps you are asking yourself – if mineral oil is good for our skin why do I need another moisturizer?  Once again I’ll turn to The Beauty Brains to explain (from Why Can’t I Just Use Mineral Oil?):

Yashendwirh says…I’ve read here and several other blogs that mineral oil, vitamin-E and a few other very inexpensive products are both hydrating and non-comedogenic. Would that make them effective every day go-to moisturizers? That said, what is the benefit of spending anything more than the couple bucks it costs for these products on expensive moisturizer formulas?  Even inexpensive ones that are $10-$20 seem expensive compared to the $3 it costs for an absolutely enormous bottle of mineral oil? We know it works, why would we throw our money at anything else? Would I be doing my skin a massive disservice by forgoing my current moisturizer (clinique gel) in favor of using mineral oil long term?

The Right Brain replies

You certainly won’t be hurting your skin by using mineral oil but you may be missing out on some of the benefits of a fully formulated product. Here are three examples:

1. Balanced moisture
Fully formulated lotions contain water and ingredients that can attract water to your skin like glycerin. You won’t get that with just mineral oil.

2. Non-greasy feel
Compared to modern lotion formulas which feel nice and soft on the skin mineral oil can leave you feeling a bit, well, oily.

3. Special function ingredients
Creams and lotions can deliver sunscreens and retin-A which are both important anti-aging ingredients that you won’t get from just mineral oil.

Bottom Line:  Don’t let mineral oil scare you.  It’s an effective and worthwhile skincare ingredient.

Further Reading:

Image from thechalkboardmag.com

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16 Responses to “Why Does Mineral Oil Have Such A Bad Reputation?”

  1. [...] Ask An Esthetician wonders why mineral oil gets such a bad rep. [...]

  2. Michelle Says:

    Thank you for quoting me! I love your blog and its scientific approach to beauty, so nice to have an aesthetician’s experienced perspective :)

  3. Idebenone Says:

    Cosmetics-grade mineral oil and petrolatum are considered the safest, most nonirritating moisturizing ingredients ever found (Sources: Cosmetics & Toiletries, January 2001, page 79; and Cosmetic Dermatology, September 2000, pages 44–46). Yes, they can keep air off the skin to some extent, but that’s what a good antioxidant is supposed to do; they don’t suffocate skin! Moreover, mineral oil and petrolatum are known to be efficacious in wound healing, and are also among the most effective moisturizing ingredients available (Source: Cosmetics & Toiletries, February 1998, pages 33–40).

  4. Rita S Says:

    Could you please check out the book “Toxic Beauty” by Dr Samuel Epstein (author and chair of the Cancer Prevention Coalition)? His book contradicts the book you used to debunk the safety of mineral oil. As I understand it, from Dr. Epstein, Dr. John Lee (pioneer in women’s hormone balance) – both claim mineral oil (petro chemicals) are endocrine disruptors (aka contribute to hormones getting out of balance)

  5. […] skin is different. Whilst I was researching some information about mineral oil I came across this article which is quite interesting that you might want to have a read of. I’m going to do some more […]

  6. Robin Says:

    I loved this post! love love love. I am allergic to gluten, amines and phenols so ingredients like almond oil, coconut oil, citrus oil, mint all make me react. Mineral oil does not. So I am one those people who always had red itchy eyes and flaky skin. I switched everything, which took so much research… now the lip gloss I use is mineral oil based and my lips don’t dry out and ‘crave’ more lip gloss like a cracked addict. My eyes from the gluten free mascara I use to the mineral oil eye makeup remover are no longer red or itchy.

    My issue with all the over zealous preachers-of-pure out there is that adding all that fad gimmick stuff to so called earth friendly, green, natural, eco blah blah blah was just include a bunch of extras that don’t necessarily make the makeup better. WORSE many of those ingredients like ginger, orange oil, sweet almond oil are very very high on allergy lists – far higher than mineral oil.

    I wish companies would have the drive to keep it simple. Let the lady with the axe to grind, with no allergies to rag weed add chamomile oil to her products after they are purchased.

    Shopping for simple products is frustratingly difficult when cosmetic companies are more worried about selling BB cream with 99% natural ingredients (because a survey showed they sell better) – is better for the bottom line than say: educating their customers on why a simple list of low risk ingredients for a well performing product is better for our health in the long run.

  7. blah blahbitty Says:

    The problem is that people think mineral oil is some how magically different than other oils, b/c they don’t remember basic chemistry from high school. The only thing that’s different between cosmetic-grade mineral oil and, say, olive or coconut oil, is how long the fatty-acid chains are that make it up.

    All oils are made up of chains of hydro-carbons, whether they’re plant / animal-based or from crude oil refinement. (And, as you stated, crude oil comes from organics anyways that have converted into crude over millions of years).

    The difference is that the crude oil refinement needed to make cosmetic-grade mineral oil removes more impurities than are allowed to remain in extra virgin and cooking plant oils (coconut and olive, specifically). This is why pure, cosmetic mineral oil (the kind you can find at the grocery store in the laxative aisle) is odorless and tasteless while olive and coconut oils still have odors and colors to them. Likewise, folks that have a coconut or olive allergy shouldn’t put coconut oil or olive oil on their skin; they’ll have a reaction (from mild itching to a rash). Mineral oil, however, is pure. It’s just pure fatty acid chains with less impurities than plant oils you cook with. That’s why it’s hypoallergenic.

    The fear-mongering comes from mistaking unrefined petrolatum / mineral oil vs purified. The unrefined stuff still has petro-chems in them that are harmful to skin. Refined, cosmetic-grade petroleum jelly & mineral oil have had everything removed. They’re just fatty-acid chains left over…the very thing that makes up all oils.

    Mineral oil (and, further, petroleum jelly) have a greater viscosity than other oils, and thus stay on and absorb into the skin longer/better. You can put other oils on your skin, but they won’t last as long as mineral oil will.

    Likewise, your skin creates its own oil: sebum. Sebum is just a different mixture of fatty acids, but it’s still an oil. In our obsession to stay too clean, we shower daily, often with very hot water (in the winter time). This strips the light oil sebum right off your skin. Mineral oil does a great job of replacing it, preventing dry skin. African Americans, typically falling into lower socio-economics in the past, relied on mineral oil to keep skin oiled and beautiful for a very inexpensive price. Most still do today. Other cultures that have too much money fall for stupid cosmetics that are over-priced and actually end up causing the very thing they say they’re designed to prevent (eg: if you look at a lot of lotions, many contain alcohol and water… the very things that dry your skin out. They feel “moisturizing” at first, but they soon dry and chap your skin…causing you to use more… and buy more product. It’s a fool’s errand they have you on.)

    However, these are the same folks that believe a ketogenic diet is bad for you, b/c they mistake ketosis (a natural metabolic process) with ketoacidosis (that same process gone out of control in diabetics). Likewise, they also thing vitamin C is better for them if it’s derived from Rose Hips or other fancy plants than just a cheap-o vitamin C supplement they buy at the store. News flash, when chemistry refines things, like vitamin C, it doesn’t matter what it came from; the end product is vitamin C regardless of the originating product. So, you’re just being suckered into buying expensive vitamin C when the cheap stuff is the very same thing: vitamin C.

    Basically, industries like to toss out mis-information and fear-mongering to get folks to buy their expensive products. Natural healthcare revolves around baking soda, mineral oil, rubbing alcohol and water. If someone’s trying to sell you something else, they’re trying to play you for a sucker.

    • Raiden Says:

      Actually it does sometimes matter when a vitamin is natural or synthetic. Synthetic vitamin E, for instance, is not even the same colour of natural vitamin E!

      The former has less activity than the latter, although both are still good for you!

      Also I agree parrafinium liquidum is perfectly safe. It’s not exactly natural but it is safe.

      Also, natural things like Aloe Vera are amazing. They are. I think there is a lot to be gained from nature, just as I believe mineral oil is useful as well.

  8. BlueLotus Says:

    If you’re planet conscious, just something to consider, where do all these little particles go when you wash them down the drain? Or if the residues stay on your skin?
    ‘Biodegradation studies with petrolatum are not available but information on slack waxes and
    refined/finished waxes provide substantial data for assessing its potential biodegradation.
    Petrolatum is a mixture of food-grade wax and white mineral oil. Two tests (OECD Guideline
    301B) of white mineral oil (covered under the Lubricating Base Oil HPV category) showed 0%
    and 24% biodegradation after 28 days. Therefore, the mineral oil component of petrolatum is not
    readily biodegradable. The remaining wax component of petrolatum may be somewhat more
    biodegradable but the evidence indicates that the total substance is not readily biodegradable.’ http://www.epa.gov/hpv/pubs/summaries/wxrelmat/c13902ca2.pdf

  9. Queen of so called simple Says:

    Please explain if humectants are supposed to…”keep (water) NEXT” to your skin” as suggested above or if it is actually supposed to seal moisture IN.

  10. Anieka Says:

    Thank you for the in depth information on mineral oil. I recently started using it on my baby. He has dry skin and his pediatrician suggested oiling his skin 30 minuted before bath time. Then use a very mild baby soap to wash him. After doing this for a few days his skin is very soft and very moist. It really works, no sign of dryness.

  11. Jonothan Says:

    Great article, really helped sort out the facts from fiction. I agree mineral water does seem to get a bad rep.

  12. […] Why Does Mineral Oil Have Such a Bad Reputation? [Ask An Esthetician] […]

  13. Melvina Says:

    Wow thanks for clarifying.. the quotes at the beginning are really scare inducing. But even petroleum is natural so it makes sense


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