Mineral oil is a beauty-product ingredient that tends to arouse suspicion. It is, after all, a derivative of petroleum — as in crude oil, the stuff that runs machines and makes the modern world go 'round. But, you’ll see it in everything from antiperspirants to moisturizers. And, dermatologists seem to love it, praising it for its moisture-sealing abilities. So, we must ask: Is mineral oil a skin-care friend or foe?
Is It Cancerous? It's important to know that the mineral oil used in cosmetics is not the same as the crude form used in the automotive, railroad, and aviation industries. And, for good reason. The untreated kind is a known human carcinogen, according to the National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens. In beauty products, on the other hand, it's highly refined — stripped of cancer causers such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. But, in some online communities, like on allnurses.com, people still worry that trace amounts of these chemicals may pose a health risk.
However, research hasn’t backed up the concerns. Mona Gohara, MD, a dermatologist and associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine, says: “At this point, there’s really no data to show that the product, in its cosmetics form, is carcinogenic. People are thinking about it in its crude form, but it’s not crude. There's a purification process that occurs in which things can change shape and nature.”
The FDA agrees: “Cosmetic-grade mineral oil is a highly refined product,” says spokesperson Theresa Eisenman. Meanwhile, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), an industry-funded panel of medical and scientific experts (including the FDA), concluded in 1986 that mineral oil is safe for use at levels of up to 50%. The CIR confirmed this conclusion after a re-review, published in 2008. “The information available in the literature and the conclusions reached by the CIR support the safe use of mineral oil in cosmetic products,” says Eisenman.
The Dermatologist’s Gold Standard Petroleum jelly and mineral oil — one of its primary components — are considered the “gold standard of hydrating the skin,” says Dr. Gohara. “These two ingredients are at the top of the list for decreasing the amount of water that naturally escapes from our skin, because they...protect the skin’s natural barrier.”
While plant-based alternatives like coconut, jojoba, and argan oils also work to seal in moisture, they're more likely to cause irritation. “Coconut oil is a nice moisturizer, but I don’t think it beats mineral oil because it may create allergic contact dermatitis," says Dr. Gohara. "Mineral oil is more inert in that it would be very rare for any type of reaction to happen in the skin."
Molly Wanner, MD, a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and instructor at Harvard Medical School, agrees: “There’s lots of studies out there, but in terms of plant-based versus non-plant-based occlusives, there’s nothing that has conclusively shown one is superior to another." (Occlusives are ingredients that increase moisture by providing a physical barrier to water loss.)
But, Will It Clog Pores? Another question that crops up is whether mineral oil is bad news for acne-prone skin. If it's so moisture-retaining, then couldn't it also clog pores and open the floodgates for pimples? Arbonne, a company that makes mineral-oil-free beauty products, says it may prevent other good-for-you ingredients from penetrating the skin. "We...believe that because it is occlusive, it is disruptive to advanced delivery systems in which the objective is to send beneficial ingredients to target sites and keep it there," according to the brand. "Also, depending on the level of refinement, mineral oil can also be defined as comedogenic, which means it can clog pores and induce acne lesions or comedones."
These ideas were largely debunked in a 1996 Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists article and again in a 2005 Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology article. If layered on top of other skin-care products, mineral oil may actually "bolster [their] efficacy...by keeping [them] more locked in," says Dr. Gohara — and it will not cause zits for normal skin types. But, she says mineral oil-based moisturizers may still not be ideal for acne sufferers. And, Dr. Wanner says: “Mineral oil, as used in a cleanser or in cold creams, for example, is best for people who need hydration.”
What About The Environment? There's a common misconception that crude oil is less environmentally friendly than plant-based oils: People think of it as a sticky, dirty thing, while plants conjure up vibrant, healthy images. The truth is, research that measures the "life cycle inventory" (LCI) of oils shows that the refinement process for both is tough on the earth, just in different ways.
"There is no inherent environmental advantage to using one surfactant source over the other," according to The American Cleaning Institute. "Whether the source is animal fat, plant oil or crude oil, there are energy requirements and environmental wastes involved throughout the sourcing and production stages of turning raw materials into surfactants."
Says the ACI: "For example, while oleochemical surfactants are derived from a renewable resource, they typically produce more air emissions and solid waste. Petrochemical surfactants, on the other hand, consume more total energy, since they are made from resources used as energy."
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