If you like to read beauty brands' "free from" lists, then you probably know that mineral oil is a common constituent. (See: Sephora's Clean at Sephora standards, Credo's Dirty List, The Detox Market's Banned Ingredients, and so on.) But mineral oil is still included in a lot of products, which may have you wondering whether or not it's best to avoid.
Here's your primer on mineral oil, and what you need to know about using beauty products with it inside.
What Is Mineral Oil, Exactly?
First, a word on what mineral oil is. "Mineral oil is a by-product of petroleum," says Sandy Skotnicki, M.D., a dermatologist and author of Beyond Soap. It's a clear liquid that's formed during the process of distilling petroleum (which, reminder, is an oil that occurs naturally beneath the Earth's surface) to create gasoline.
While that might sound sketch, the mineral oil used in cosmetics must be "food grade" (i.e. safe to consume) by the Food and Drug Administration's standards, notes Dr. Skotnicki. "It has to be highly, highly refined," she says. "They're basically taking out any impurities, any insecticides, pesticides, minerals that shouldn't be there."
And mineral oil has been used in beauty products for a long time, says Dr. Skotnicki. "It's what's in baby oil and it's in products like Vaseline and Aquaphor." (Related: Meet Slugging, Reddit's Cheap Hack for Super Hydrated Skin)
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The Perks and Drawbacks of Mineral Oil In Beauty Products
Why would a petroleum by-product have any place in your hair- and skin-care products, you ask?
"Mineral oil is present in many cosmetic products because of its ability to help keep the skin moisturized and reduce water loss," says Stacy Chimento, M.D., a dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology in Miami. In fact, you may be using ointments, creams, lotions, and foundations with mineral oil without even realizing it. It's also sometimes added to oil cleansers, since it can help break up water-resistant makeup, notes cosmetic and skin-care formulator Stephen Alain Ko. For example, you can find it in Shiseido Perfect Cleansing Oil (Buy It, $35, shiseido.com), Neutrogena Ultra Light Face Cleansing Oil & Makeup Remover (Buy It, $11, target.com), and Decorté Lift Dimension Smoothing Cleansing Oil (Buy It, $45, decortecosmetics.com).
As for mineral oil uses in hair products, it "can offer lubrication, add a sheen, and smooth out frizziness or flyaways," he says. OGX Hydrate + Repair Argan Oil of Morocco Creamy Hair Butter (Buy It, $9, walgreens.com), Kérastase Initialiste Advanced Scalp & Hair Serum (Buy It, $53, sephora.com), and Pantene Hydrating Glow with Baobab Essence Thirsty Ends Milk to Water Hair Serum (Buy It, $7, target.com) all contain mineral oil, to name a few.
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Those aforementioned moisture-locking benefits are part of why mineral oil's received a bad rap. "Mineral oils can actually act as a sort of plastic wrap that doesn't let your skin breathe, nor does it feed your skin with the necessary nutrients needed to keep it healthy," says Janell Schroeder, regulatory affairs, certification/document control, and research and essential oil specialist at I-N Beauty.
Not everyone shares that viewpoint, though. "For the skin, mineral oil is often described as an occlusive, which means it occludes [i.e. forms a barrier on top of] the skin," says Alain Ko. "This is how it works to increase water content in the skin, by reducing evaporation. However, occlusion is not all or nothing, and a layer of mineral oil in the skin is still permeable. There is also a false idea that your skin needs to breathe — your skin receives oxygen from your blood."
Worth noting: Mineral oil isn't the only occlusive ingredient commonly found in products, and some people try to avoid occlusive ingredients in general, as they're concerned that they may clog pores and contribute to acne. Avoiding occlusives isn't necessarily a bad idea if you're acne-prone, although mineral oil in and of itself isn't the issue, says Dr. Skotnicki. "We call products or ingredients that clog pores 'comedogenic,' and mineral oil doesn't really score high on the comedogenicity scale," she says. However, when you use mineral oil products with other products, "it may trap those other products in the skin...and that's what potentially causes blackheads and whiteheads." With that in mind, "generally, [dermatologists] don't recommend it for people that have acne-prone skin on the face," says Dr. Skotnicki. For the record, mineral oil likely won't present an issue if you have sensitive skin, since it's "not allergenic and not irritating for the vast majority of people," says Dr. Skotnicki.
As for hair products, "a common belief is that mineral oil will lead to buildup on the hair, but mineral oil washes away with shampoo and other cleansers," says Alain Ko. (All the more reason to nail down exactly how often you should be washing your hair based on your hair type.)
Its effects on skin and hair aside, mineral oil has also raised sustainability concerns. "Mineral oil is not the biggest ingredient of concern when it comes to performance," says Schroeder. "However, being derived from non-renewable petrochemical-starting materials, it carries a concerning sustainability footprint." Even though mineral oil is a byproduct of a process that would occur regardless (because of the demand for gasoline), many people are uncomfortable using an ingredient that has anything to do with the oil and gas industry. (Related: These Innovations Are Making Your Beauty Products More Sustainable)
If you're wary of mineral oil for any reason, you can feel free to avoid it and opt for products containing other moisturizing ingredients. As mentioned, plenty of brands are formulating without mineral oil, and stating as much on their websites or packaging. Alternatives such as safflower oil and shea butter can serve a similar function to mineral oil, says Schroeder. In general, oils help lock in moisture, and "wet oils" such as coconut oil are more occlusive compared to "dry oils" such as argan oil, which seep into skin more.
But if you're interested in using products containing mineral oil and find that they work well for your skin and hair, by all means use them. Says Dr. Chimento: "I would consider mineral oil a safe ingredient that is useful in many beauty products."