The famous or maybe rather infamous mineral oil. The clear oily liquid that is the "cheap by-product" of refining crude oil and the one that gets a lot of heat for its poor provenance. It is a very controversial ingredient with pros and cons and plenty of myths around it. So let us see them:
The pros of mineral oil
Trust us, if something is used for more than 100 years in cosmetic products, it has advantages. Chemically speaking, cosmetic grade mineral oil is a complex mixture of highly refined saturated hydrocarbons with C15-50 chain length. It is not merely a "by-product" but rather a specifically isolated part of petroleum that is very pure and inert.
It is a great emollient and moisturizer working mainly by occlusivity. Occlusivity is one of the basic mechanisms of how moisturizers work and it means that mineral oil sits on top of the skin and hinders so-called trans-epidermal water loss, i.e water evaporating out of your skin. When compared to heavy-duty plant oil, extra virgin coconut oil, the two of them were equally efficient and safe as moisturizers in treating xerosis, a skin condition connected to very dry skin.
The other thing that mineral oil is really good at is being non-irritating to the skin. The chemical composition of plant oils is more complex with many more possible allergens or irritating components, while mineral oil is simple, pure and sensitivity to it is extremely rare. If you check out the classic French pharmacy brands and their moisturizers for the most sensitive, allergy prone skin, they usually contain mineral oil. This is no coincidence.
The cons of mineral oil
The pros of mineral oil can be interpreted as cons if we look at them from another perspective. Not penetrating the skin but mostly just sitting on top of it and not containing biologically active components, like nice fatty acids and vitamins mean that mineral oil does not "nourish" the skin in the way plant oils do. Mineral oil does not give the skin any extra goodness, it is simply a non-irritating moisturizer working mainly by occlusivity, and nothing more.
The myths around mineral oil
Bad mouthing mineral oil is a favorite sport of many, it is a cheap material and being connected to petrolatum makes is fairly easy to demonize.
While it is true that industrial grade mineral oil contains carcinogenic components (so-called polycyclic compounds), these are completely removed from cosmetic and food grade mineral oil and there is no scientific data showing that the pure, cosmetic grade version is carcinogenic.
What is more, in terms of the general health effects of mineral oils used in cosmetics, a 2017 study reviewed the data on their skin penetration and concluded that "the cosmetic use of mineral oils and waxes does not present a risk to consumers due to a lack of systemic exposure."
Another super common myth surrounding mineral oil is that it is comedogenic. A 2005 study titled "Is mineral oil comedogenic?" examined this very question and guess what happened? The study concluded that "based on the animal and human data reported, along with the AAD recommendation, it would appear reasonable to conclude that mineral oil is noncomedogenic in humans."
Overall, we feel that the scaremongering around mineral oil is not justified. For dry and super-sensitive skin types it is a great option. However, if you do not like its origin or its heavy feeling or anything else about it, avoiding it has never been easier. Mineral oil has such a bad reputation nowadays that cosmetic companies hardly dare to use it anymore.
- Rawlings, A. V., and K. J. Lombard. "A review on the extensive skin benefits of mineral oil." International journal of cosmetic science 34.6 (2012): 511-518.
- Petry, T., et al. "Review of data on the dermal penetration of mineral oils and waxes used in cosmetic applications." Toxicology Letters 280 (2017): 70-78.
- DiNardo, Joseph C. "Is mineral oil comedogenic?." Journal of cosmetic dermatology 4.1 (2005): 2-3.
- Leslie Baumann, MD, Cosmetic Dermatology, 2nd edition, Occlusives - pages 273-274