It wasn't that long ago that mineral oil was in most every U.S. household. Also known as petroleum jelly, it sat on nighstands (Vaseline was the favored brand), and was a staple ingredient in our hand lotions, body lotions, makeup, ointments, and more.
Not a lot has changed. You'll still find mineral oil in hundreds of personal care products, and in thousands of U.S. households. Slowly, however, many families are putting it on their “do not buy” list. Why is mineral oil suddenly something we should be worried about?
Is it really as bad as they say?
What is Mineral Oil?
Mineral oil is a liquid by-product of the distillation of petroleum to produce gasoline and other petroleum-based products from crude oil. It's clear, colorless, and tasteless, and is produced in large quantities. There is a difference in how these oils are refined—the ones used in cosmetic products are typically highly refined, while those used in automotive oils and fluids are often unrefined or only mildly treated.
Mineral oil is used in cooking as a non-stick coating, and to condition butcher-block surfaces and soapstone countertops. It's also used as a laxative, a preservative to keep metals from oxidizing, a conditioner for leather materials (baseball players may apply it to their mitts, for example), and as a general wood conditioner and sealant. It has a reputation as being a good oil-stain remover, as it can dilute and liquefy other oils so they can be lifted out with washing.
Of course, mineral oil is also used in a ton of personal care products, from baby oil to makeup and from body lotions to cold creams.
Can Mineral Oil Cause Cancer?
One of the things you may have read is that mineral oil is a carcinogen. Is this true?
The concern here is not about mineral oil itself, but about some of the contaminants that may hitch a ride along with it during the refining process. Some petroleum derivatives contain carcinogenic materials like polycyclic aromatic compounds that may be linked with cancer. Only highly refined and purified mineral oil can be used in cosmetic products, however, and so far, no studies have proven that this type of mineral oil causes cancer.
The twelfth edition of the Report on Carcinogens, for example, put out by the National Toxicology Program, states that untreated and mildly treated mineral oils are known to be human carcinogens based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in humans. These are the oils used in metalworking, manufacturing, automotive, mining, construction, and other industries.
Highly refined mineral oil, however, is a different story. A study on mice showed that the more refined the oil, the less carcinogenic it was. Another study in 2003 described data demonstrating that currently manufactured base oils have a general lack of cancer hazard. In fact, highly refined mineral oils are not classified as human carcinogens.
What Are the Other Concerns?
One of the other big concerns concerning the use of mineral oil on the skin is the fact that it creates a barrier over it. This is actually one of the reasons the oil has been used in lotions for so many years. By creating a barrier over the skin, it stops additional water loss, which can help skin hang onto more moisture and reduce dryness.
Human skin plays a vital role in the production of vitamin D and in cooling the body with sweat and the ejection of impurities. Some believe, therefore, that mineral oil may hinder the skin from performing these tasks. Some critics also believe mineral oil clogs pores, but studies have actually shown that it does not do this, and is actually non-comedogenic. In 2005, for example, a study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology reported that mineral oil does not cause breakouts on the face as previously thought.
How to Avoid Mineral Oil
All this conflicting information is likely to leave consumers confused. Here's my take—cosmetic grade mineral oil is most likely not going to cause you to suffer from cancer. Several of my customers complain that they break out when they use products that contain it, but according to studies, it doesn't clog pores. It can, however, feel really greasy on skin. So let's just go with my usual instincts, which is to use natural alternatives.
Most cosmetic products use mineral oil as a hydrating ingredient, to promote skin smoothness and softness. Great natural alternatives that not only soften skin, but nourish it with several beneficial ingredients, include shea butter, as well as olive, jojoba, coconut, rose hip seed, and grape seed oils. You'll find many of these oils in my products—and no mineral oil.
If you want to avoid it too, stay away from these:
- Mineral oil
- Baby oil
- Petroleum jelly
Do you avoid mineral oil? What is your experience with the ingredient?
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Photo courtesy bettybl via Flickr.com.
“Mineral Oils: Untreated and Mildly Treated,” Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition (2011), National Toxicology Program, Department of Health and Human Services, page 271- 272, http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/twelfth/profiles/MineralOils.pdf.
S.M. Doak, et al., “The carcinogenic potential of twelve refined mineral oils following long-term topical application,” Br J Cancer, 1983 September; 48(3): 429-436, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2011470/.
Carl R. Mackerer, “Petroleum Mineral Oil Refining and Evaluation of Cancer Hazard,” Applied Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 18: 890-901, 2003, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10473220390237467#preview.
Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (2005, May 31). Don't Believe The Hype — Mineral Oil Won't Give You Zits. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 14, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2005/05/050531075410.htm