Mineral Oil - its another one of those controversial ingredients whereby it's very easy to get confused about. Type "Mineral Oil Skincare" in a Google search and you will find hundreds of articles arguing for and against mineral oil. Some say that the ingredient is incredibly safe and there is commotion over the ingredient is due to smaller companies wanting to boost their own sales and on the other side of the spectrum, you have those saying that mineral oil is incredibly dangerous as it causes cancer. Many dermatologists and scientists say that the mineral oil used in cosmetics is safe as it is of a completely different grade and is highly refined but on the other corner, you have skincare creators say that they would avoid it as it is derived from crude oil. So who do you believe? And what is up with mineral oil?
What is Mineral Oil?
Mineral Oil is a clear, odourless liquid that is made from a mixture of hydrocarbons produced by the distillation process of petroleum. Petroleum is a liquid that is formed underneath the earth's surface, found in sedimentary rocks that is mined for use of gas to run our cars, power and oil to run our homes. Mineral oil has many uses in difference industries such as the manufacturing, automotive, biochemical and of course the personal care industry just to name a few. There are also different grades of mineral oil, that are used in the industries. These include cosmetic grade, pharmaceutical grade, food grade and industrial grade. The main differences with the mineral oil grades used in these industries (in particular the personal care industry), is that the mineral oil used in cosmetics is highly refined and is cosmetic/pharmaceutical grade and it must reach FDA standards. Industrial Mineral Oil in no way goes through the same refining and distillation processes as those used in personal care goods. Mineral oil in an ingredient listing can fall under many different names, these include but are not limited to: Parrafin, Liquid Petrolatum, Parrafin Oil and Paraffinum Liquidum.
Why Do Companies Use Mineral Oil
Mineral Oil is used by many skincare and personal goods companies due to the fact that the ingredient is widely available, cost effective and easy to produce. It is also considered to be hypoallergenic as many studies have shown that the ingredient rarely causes any irritation to the skin, has no smell and is known to be a great emollient and moisturiser. This will explain why we see many eczema creams, baby creams, baby oils or anti-inflammatory creams use mineral oil as their base ingredient. Many commercial eye-makeup removers also use mineral oil as the main ingredient as it does not tend to cause any irritation to the eyes.
The other reason why many companies use mineral oil as an ingredient is the fact that it is a fairly stable and has a long shelf life. Companies are therefore able to prolong the length of time the product can last on the shelf and do not have to worry about the product becoming rancid so quickly. Mineral oil does not oxidize and is therefore considered to also be a very stable ingredient for cosmetics and skincare.
Is Mineral Oil Toxic or Harmful?
There have been many studies with regards to the toxicity of mineral oil in cosmetics and most of these studies will rule that cosmetic/pharmaceutical grade mineral oil is indeed safe to use in personal care products. The European Union has has also ruled that mineral oil is safe to use in amounts of 1-99% concentration provided that companies disclose how and where their mineral oil is derived from and that it passes pharmaceutical grade standards.
The reason why mineral oil gets such a bad rap from the media and clean ingredient advocates is simply the fact that whist cosmetic grade mineral oil is generally regarded as safe, there is potential for contamination in the distillation process. Where most of these parties get this information from is that there have been studies that the more unrefined counterparts such as the mineral oil used for automobiles and manufacturing have been found to contain human carcinogens. An example of this is found in the British Medical Journal in which a paper was publish in 1969 discussing studies in which exposure to mineral oil in engineering, metal workers or those in the cotton industry have developed skin cancer due to mineral oil exposure. It is important to note that the mineral oil these people were exposed to were the industrial grade variety. This type of mineral oil contains polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) which are considered to be carcinogenic. In a more recent paper published in 2012, concludes that there is supported evidence to link mineral oil to bladder cancer in occupations such as metal machining, print press operating, and cotton and jute spinning as this occupations have a high exposure to this industrial type oil. The mineral oil contained in cosmetics is highly refined and pharmaceutical grade mineral oil is highly monitored. Whilst there could be a contamination risk, that risk is considered to be quite small. However, those who claim that mineral oil used in skincare and cosmetics flat out can cause cancer, have their information quite wrong and are using that information in a completely different context.
There are currently no studies that show and conclude that cosmetic grade mineral oil causes cancer and studies that do show a potential risk have only been done on animals and even then, cannot be conclusive. A study conducted in 2011, showed that there could be a possibility between the link of mineral oil found in women and cosmetic contamination. The study looked at 140 pregnant women who elected to have a C Section and looked at their fat and milk deposits. The study showed that there was an increase in mineral oil found in the tissues over time and noted that this could be due to cosmetic contamination. However, it is important to note that mineral oil can also be inhaled and also consumed in other products or in our external environments as well and the study did not look at other avenues of how mineral oil could have got into the system. This is why the study has been deemed as inconclusive. In another journal article published in 2003, the authors looked at a study that was conducted on mice and mineral oil. What the study showed was that the more refined the mineral oil was, the less likely it was to contain cancer causing carcinogens.
For me personally, I think it is fair to say that at this point in time, the whole 'mineral oil contains toxins that cause cancer' is taken completely out of context as the studies that have been conducted which prove that mineral oil causes cancer is that of the industrial variety and NOT cosmetic grade variety. Whilst there is certainly a small risk of contamination, mineral oil for cosmetic use is extremely stringent in testing and contamination can really only occur if there is an error in production. In Germany, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has deemed to the European Council, after much evaluation, that mineral oil in cosmetics is indeed safe and there is little risk and their findings are outlined in the table below.
Are There Any Benefits To Using Mineral Oil?
So whilst there is no scientific studies that show that mineral oil is harmful to the skin and our body in term of toxins and cancer, why do I personally choose not use it? The answer is really simple. For me, there is no benefit to mineral oil to the skin whatsoever. Companies use mineral oil as it is considered to be an effective moisturising agent because it is occlusive to the skin. This means that mineral oil forms a waterproof barrier to the skin, which keeps moisture in and this therefore reduces the loss of natural moisture within the skin. Basically the ingredient is sitting on top of your skin and does little nourishing or healing, whilst yes, it does give your skin a beautiful 'softer' look, in the long run it is not doing anything to nourish or moisturise your skin as there are no nutrients within the ingredient. It sits on top of your skin as an extra layer to prevent anything from leaving (or penetrating the skin).
According to an article published by COSSMA, an international cosmetics trade journal, scientists looked at the benefits of mineral oil in comparison to different plant oils on the skin. What scientists discovered was that, whilst mineral oil was effective at keeping moisture in the skin as the other plant derived oils, it did not give the skin a caring or nourishing effect like that of the plant oils.
As per the diagram above, plant oils, due to their composition being similar to that of skin lipids where able to be taken up and broken down by the skin to uptake vital nutrients such as triglycerides, flavonoids and tocopherols. It is these nutrients that nourish and care for dry and cracked skin. Cosmetic grade mineral oil on the other hand, stays on top of the skin layer and is not metabolised by the skin and therefore is unable to nourish the skin accordingly and it also lacks any nutritional benefit or active ingredients.
Some dermatologists highly regard mineral oil as a fantastic skin moisturiser, and whilst it does moisturise the skin effectively by being such an occlusive ingredient, it only serves that one purpose and nothing else. What makes mineral oil so popular is that some dermatologists find that the ingredient is less likely to cause irritation in comparison to some natural alternatives such as coconut oil or jojoba oil which can cause irritation to the skin. In a study conducted in 1989, it was found that mineral oil was a better skin moisturiser than a solution which contained a fatty acid found in many plant based oils and whilst this may be true, I have personally found mineral oil based products to be great in the short term, but in the long term I find that my skin, especially my eczema prone areas to become dry again. One of the reasons for this is that mineral oil can cause the skin to overhydrate as the skin is tricked to thinking it is well oiled. This will then cause the skin hinder the production of its natural oils and will no longer to able to protect and moisturise itself naturally.
Whilst I can understand why many people choose to use products with mineral oil due to the fact it is (most of the time) cheaper, more cost effective, family have used it for generations or simply due to the fact that plant oils can cause some people horrible irritation to the skin. I simply choose to avoid it as I sincerely believe I can apply something more nourishing for my skin such as powerful antioxidants. I can however say that I do personally think that products that do contain mineral oil are NOT necessarily bad and I do not think the cancer fuss is not all it is cracked up to be - it's just I think there are MUCH better alternatives out there.
Studies about mineral oil have been touted to cause cancer, to disrupt hormones and to also penetrate into the skin. These studies have been generally regarded by the scientific and cosmetic industry as inconclusive and there is little evidence at this stage to confirm or deny these studies. There are however, a lot of studies to prove that mineral oil is safe for cosmetic use. Despite these studies disproving the myth that mineral oil is harmful, I still choose to avoid it and it is not because I think the science is wrong. The biggest reason why I avoid mineral oil is that, it does nothing for my skin. The logic for me is: Why put a moisturiser on your face where one of the first few ingredients is mineral oil, when it really will not do anything more for my skin except add a layer on top to seal in what is already there and not let anything else penetrate through? I would much rather use a moisturiser or oil that contains something more beneficial and active for my skin and I would happily pay a premium for that.
What are your thoughts on mineral oil? Do you actively avoid using this ingredient or do you not mind using this in your personal care products? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!