Today we’re going to talk about mineral oil – a common ingredient used in skincare you may have heard a lot of conflicting information about.
On one hand you have the people who say it’s bad for you, it clogs pores, it causes cancer and other health problems, and that don’t recommend ever using it.
But on the other hand, you have those who say it’s greatly improved the quality of their skin, made it smoother and softer, and that any concerns over safety are misguided.
We’ll present evidence supporting and detracting from both arguments because we don’t have a side to pick. Our goal is for you to understand what it does and how it works so you can make the best decision according to your standards.
Because the truth is it can help your skin but also hurt it if used the wrong way.
So let’s get started!
What Is Mineral Oil?
First off, it’s not actually a mineral nor does it contain any sort of minerals.
Mineral oil (from here on sometimes abbreviated as ‘M.O.’) has a similar chemical composition to that of petroleum jelly and paraffin wax. It’s part of a family of chemicals called hydrocarbons which are composed of varying length chains of hydrogen and carbon atoms called “alkyl chains.”
So yes, its name is misleading.
But that doesn’t mean it’s without skincare benefits. Otherwise why would it be found in so many different types of products?
The reason is that it’s an inexpensive, colorless, odorless, and inert ingredient (inert meaning it’s stable and won’t go rancid unlike certain types of essential oils which are volatile and react poorly when exposed to the air for longer periods of time). These properties make it easy to add into skincare products to reap its benefits without much concern over how it’ll react with other ingredients.
As a result, it has many different applications in cosmetics:
- As an oil for the OCM
- As a moisturizer
- As a makeup remover
- As an ordinary cleanser
And it goes by many different names among others:
- Baby Oil
- Liquid Paraffin
- Paraffin Oil
- White Mineral Oil
Overall, it’s a relatively ordinary ingredient that has some useful properties and benefits as you’ll soon see.
Is It Safe To Use?
There are a lot of myths circulating that we want to address here.
No, it will not reduce your skin’s ability to absorb collagen, vitamins, or minerals from other products in your routine.
No, it’s not guaranteed that it’ll cause you to breakout with acne (always patch test first!)
No, it’s not going to damage your skin’s protective barrier and cause moisture loss (quite the contrary).
This fear surrounding its use stems mostly from how it’s made. It’s derived from petroleum as a liquid byproduct during the distillation process to produce gasoline and other petroleum based products such as plastics.
Lower grade M.O can be contaminated during this process and even act as a carcinogen.
But the reason you shouldn’t be as concerned is because beauty products use cosmetic-grade and pharmaceutical-grade mineral oil which removes all impurities found in lower-grade forms. These are certified by the USP (United States Pharmacopeia) and BP (British Pharmacopeia) which are both non-profit organizations that set safety standards on substances as safe to be used on skin.
Still, we want to bring to your attention this study, which boldly says:
There is strong evidence that mineral oil hydrocarbons are the greatest contaminant of the human body, amounting to approximately 1 g per person.
In that study, breast milk and fat tissue samples were taken from 142 women and found that the concentration of these hydrocarbons accumulated over time pointing to cosmetics as the most probable source of contamination.
So the chances of your M.O being contaminated are still very, very low but we want you to be aware of the risks especially when used from unreliable sources.
There is also some concern over whether using it on skin can lead to discoloration from increased photosensitivity, meaning UV rays from the sun will do more damage than normal.
The reason is that M.O has a refractive index that closely matches our skin. This means that instead of reflecting light away it allows the UV rays to reach deeper into the lower layers of your skin where it can cause more harm.
The good news is that this effect is incredibly minor even with long-term usage. One study concluded that it was “...only as severe as the changes in sun sensitivity that occurs between the seasons.” In other words, if you’re using sunscreen everyday (you are using sunscreen are you? tsk tsk…) you’ll be fine.
Does It Really Clog Pores?
The myth that mineral oil clogs pores and is therefore a comedogenic ingredient comes from animal studies performed back in the 1970s which mostly tested its application on rabbits.
You see, M.O. has a long history of use dating back to over a century. When scientists started experimenting on animals, they found that it did indeed clog their pores but that this didn’t hold up in human studies. The American Academy of Dermatology determined that these animal studies are unlikely to be good indicators of comedogenicity in people.
And they were basically right. In five different human studies, zero have found that it actually clogs pores.
Remember before when we mentioned it’s composed of alkyl chains? These chains have too big of a molecular weight to actually penetrate into the lower layers of your skin. This means that when you apply it to your face it actually sits on top, kind of like an extra layer. This can be very helpful especially if you suffer from dry or dehydrated skin as you’re about to learn.
What Is It Good For?
Mineral oil has two primary benefits:
- Increasing your skin’s moisture content.
- Making your skin softer.
Let’s break down how it accomplishes each of these separately.
We mentioned before how mineral oil sits on top of the skin due to the large molecular weight of its alkyl chains. In this regard, it works similarly to hyaluronic acid which in certain forms is also incapable of penetrating deeper into the skin. But whereas hyaluronic acid acts as a humectant meaning it draws moisture to itself, mineral oil acts as an occlusive meaning it prevents anything from getting in and getting out, trapping water underneath.
This is super, super, super helpful if you have dehydrated skin because it has trouble retaining water due to a damaged moisture barrier and mineral oil can help you retain it more effectively by strengthening the barrier until your skin can fully repair itself. It does this by increasing the thickness of the stratum corneum which is the outermost layer of the skin composed of ceramides and fatty acids among other things.
If you live in a dry climate with low humidity, we recommend topping off your moisturizer with an occlusive like mineral oil to seal water to your skin which will make it more plump and younger looking, diminishing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
And while M.O. isn’t perfect (we still prefer Vaseline as our occlusive of choice) it can be a nice alternative if you find Vaseline too waxy or heavy. Mineral oil is lighter while still retaining that “stickiness” where it’s very good at staying on your skin — even if you’re sweating or splashing water on your face. Of course for the same reason it can be harder to remove when you want if off so apply a modest amount. You don’t need to go overboard.
The important thing to remember is that you should only use M.O as an occlusive if you’ve properly cleansed and exfoliated your face beforehand. While it can trap water, it’ll also do the same for grime and grease which is why some people have problems with these types of products.
You want that extra layer it creates over your skin to keep the good stuff in and the bad stuff out, not the other way around.
Emollients are one of the three main types of moisturizers (the other two being humectants and occlusives which we mentioned above) that help improve your skin texture by essentially “filling in” between the cracks making it softer and smoother.
Emollients are especially helpful if you have sensitive skin or suffer from eczema. In fact, M.O has been found to be an effective alternative to corticosteroid creams which are sometimes used to treat eczema. And unscented mineral oil, due to its low-volatility, is a hypoallergenic ingredient that works well with sensitive skin which is usually irritated by fragrances.
Of course this doesn’t mean its 100% guaranteed to work for you. No skincare product has a 100% success rate. But you never know until you try and the best you can do is minimize your chances of an averse reaction by using ingredients that are backed by research so you know what you’re putting on your skin.
ALWAYS patch test first by applying to a small section like on your neck or the back of your hand. Then wait about a day or so to see how it reacts. This will save you a lot of headaches and it goes for all products not just mineral oil.
How To Add It Into Your Routine
If you’re interested in using mineral oil as a cleanser we highly recommend your read up on our article on the OCM (oil cleansing method) we linked to above for an in-depth review of how to use it or combine with other oils to help clean your face.
Here are simple instructions on how to add it into an everyday routine:
- Splash water onto your face to dampen the skin. We prefer slightly cool water or warm water avoiding either extreme of too hot or too cold.
- Pour some oil onto your palms, rub them together, and then rub over face massaging all over while focusing on specific problem areas you might have. This is to remove any residue from makeup or sunscreen you might still have on as well as general grease and dirt.
- Use a cotton pad or a soft microfiber cloth to gently wipe your face.
- Since the oil can be hard to remove, repeat steps 1-3 as many times needed until your face is all clear.
- Top it off with a gentle non-foaming cleanser if “double-cleansing” before moving on with your routine.
If you’re using mineral oil as an occlusive, apply it AFTER your moisturizer which is usually the last step in your routine. You don’t need a lot just enough for a thin film to cover your face so it helps seal the water to your epidermis.
Types of Mineral Oil
Since M.O is a multi-purpose ingredient thanks to its long shelf-life, you can find it available in cosmetics, as well as for laxatives and cutting boards as a wood conditioner.
Of course we recommend using a product for its intended purpose but technically you might be able to get away with using M.O. meant for other purposes (although we wouldn’t recommend it). The most important thing is that its “Food-Grade” or “Pharmaceutical-Grade” so you know its safe to apply to your skin.
If you’re wondering what kind you should buy here are some examples:
Baby oil, like the kind made by Johnson & Johnson, is a standard choice to begin with if you just want to try it out. Its inexpensive and easy to find in your local drugstore.
If you have sensitive skin or are allergic to fragrances (again, more common than you think), go for an unscented variety such as snow river wood oil or Albolene which is a great makeup remover.
Albolene Fragrance-Free Moisturizing Cleanser
Note that in most cases the product won’t be explicitly labeled as “mineral oil”. It might be called “paraffin” or “petrolatum” or even neither and just have them included them as ingredients on the label.
Overall, mineral oil is an effective cleanser and moisturizer that can help soothe your skin when properly used. It’s best used as a leave-on or wash-off treatment for dry and/or dehydrated skin thanks to its unique properties. Just make sure the source is of a suitable grade and that you patch test first to see if it works for your skin.
If the environmental concerns put you off since its a petroleum byproduct we get where you’re coming from. If these are important enough for you it makes sense to look elsewhere. And truth is you have a ton of other options.
So we hope you found this guide useful. If you’re interested in the newest articles and guides we put out you can follow us on Twitter or Pinterest @maxmylooks.