5 Scary Reasons To Avoid Petroleum and Mineral Oil in Your Skincare Products

Check your labels for these skin and health saboteurs.
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Michelle Villett
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Check your labels for these skin and health saboteurs.
Mineral oil in skincare products

Is Vaseline safe? (Photo: Prateek Bahl)

Petroleum and mineral oil are like cilantro—they're polarizing. 

Some of you guys with a hippie beauty bent already avoid them like the plague. (And there's no doubt that some beauty brands capitalize on not having these ingredients in their formulas. "No mineral oil" is the new "no parabens".) Just the fact that they're derived from crude oil is off-putting if you strive for beauty products made of pretty things like essential oils and beeswax.

Then there are those who are more performance-based—maybe you're one of them. Some people with painfully dry skin swear by the barrier effect of petroleum jelly. And let's face it: everybody's heard stories of somebody's grandma who applied nothing but Vaseline all her life and had no wrinkles at the ripe old age of 93. Surely these ingredients must be okay, since they're on the market and all?

Well, yes and no. I've always been on the fence about petroleum and mineral oil, acknowledging that they can be useful for some, but feeling torn about their non-natural origins. And since I'm already cautious about polyunsaturated oils, I thought, mineral oil is at least better than that.

Then I came across some information that made me decide I want to avoid these ingredients as much as I can now, for good. Which is more difficult than you might think, seeing as the stuff is in sooo many products—face moisturizers, body lotions, sunscreens, lipsticks, baby oil and of course, petroleum jelly. Some of the ways they might appear on ingredients labels include:

  • Mineral oil
  • Petrolatum
  • Liquid paraffin
  • Paraffin oil

Here are five reasons why I think petroleum and mineral oil should be nowhere near your skin:

1. Petroleum and Mineral Oil Can't Be Metabolized

There are different grades of petroleum and mineral oil, with those used in cosmetic products being the "purest" and the most refined. Even still, we should be worried. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Women's Health reported:

"There is strong evidence that mineral oil hydrocarbons are the greatest contaminant of the human body, amounting to approximately 1 g per person."

The researchers removed fat specimens from 142 women who were undergoing C-sections, and collected milk samples from them post-delivery. Scarily, they found that both the fat and the milk were contaminated with mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons. The authors concluded:

"The increase in MOSH [mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons] concentration in human fat tissue with age suggests an accumulation over time. Cosmetics might be a relevant source of the contamination."

Yikes! This stuff gets in our bodies JUST from using beauty products, and once it's there, it doesn't leave. My go-to health guru Dr. Ray Peat agrees: "certain components of mineral oil (which is in many cosmetics) are toxic, and any that does get into the system does not metabolize." 

Mineral oil

Mineral oil stays in your body... forever. (Photo: Angela Mabray)

2. Petroleum and Mineral Oil Might Be Carcinogenic

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a whopping 80 percent of all beauty products may be contaminated with one or more of the two dozen recognized cosmetic impurities that are linked to cancer and other health concerns. And petroleum- and mineral oil-based products are no exception. The EWG report goes on to say:

"These trace contaminants in petroleum-based ingredients often readily penetrate the skin according to government and industry studies, and their presence in products is not restricted by government safety standards — they are legal at any level."

Didja hear that? They readily penetrate our skin.

And here's why that's a problem. The scariest of these possible contaminants is called 1,4 dioxane, an impurity found in 22 percent of all petroleum-based cosmetics that is a possible human carcinogen and known animal carcinogen. How much you're exposed to depends on the product you're using: it's in 82 percent of hair dyes, 45 percent of self-tanners and 36 percent of face moisturizers, for starters.

A 2009 study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology investigated whether mineral oil-based moisturizers might increase the rate at which tumours form. When mice that were at high risk of developing skin cancer received a topical application of 100 mg once a day, five days a week for 17 weeks, the rate of tumour formation significantly increased.

3. Petroleum and Mineral Oil Don't Let Your Skin Breathe

Petroleum and mineral oil are "occlusive" agents—meaning they seal off the skin from air, water or anything else getting in (or out). Wherever they're applied, they form an invisible film on the surface that blocks the pores and the skin's natural respiration process.

Anyone who is even slightly acne-prone will have alarm bells ringing over that statement. Blocked pores means trapped dirt and oil—leading to blackheads, pimples, whiteheads, you name it. You might as well cover yourself in Saran Wrap.

Or at least one would think. There's a lot of contradictory information floating around about the comedogenicity of these ingredients. Some experts say there's no reason to be scared. A 2005 study in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology argued while industrial grade mineral oil may be comedogenic, cosmetic grade mineral oil is not.

The problem is, that statement just doesn't hold up in real life. Any time I have ever—EVER!—applied a mineral oil-rich product like Vaseline to my face, I've regretted it within 48 hours as I stare at the resulting spots in the mirror. Who am I going to believe, a bunch of scientists or my own eyes?! 

The occlusive nature of petroleum and mineral oil could also be create a warm, moist environment for yeast and fungus to grow. A 2000 study in Pediatrics found that extremely-low-birth-weight infants treated with petroleum jelly were more likely to develop systemic candidiasis.

And remember, NEVER put petroleum- or mineral oil-based products on a sunburn. Because they form a seal, they'll lock in the heat into your skin, making the burn worse, not better. It could even lead to permanent scarring.

Plastic wrap

Petroleum-based products form a seal on your skin... kinda like plastic wrap.

4. Petroleum and Mineral Oil Won't Nourish Your Skin

So we've established that petroleum and mineral oil are occlusive, meaning they form a barrier on your skin. Theoretically, this "locks in" moisture—but what if there's not enough moisture in there to start with? Are you really making progress? 

Furthermore, these agents don't allow moisture to be absorbed from the atmosphere, like other emollients can, nor will they allow absorption of the other beneficial ingredients that are in your skincare products. And there's just nothing in petroleum or mineral oil that's going to nourish your skin from the inside out. Let's face it: they're cheap filler materials and that's why they're so ubiquitous in beauty products. Why settle for them when you could use something way better?

Instead of petroleum or mineral oil, I recommend coconut oil, olive oil, jojoba oil, vitamin E, shea butter or cocoa butter. Just watch out for polyunsaturated oils, which oxidize in our bodies and are pro-aging. Non-petroleum jellies made with castor oil might not be the best choice either, as castor oil promotes inflammation by activating prostaglandin receptors.

Omega coconut oil

Coconut oil nourishes your skin, and it's all-natural. Win-win!

5. Petroleum and Mineral Oil are Linked to Estrogen Dominance

Estrogen dominance is a common condition in which sufferers have a high ratio of estrogen, with little to no progesterone to balance its effects in the body. Chemicals that are present in our environment, called xenoestrogens, are one of the biggest culprits—and their action may be much more potent than the natural form.

Guess what? Petroleum-based products are classified as xenoestrogens, even the refined varieties. A series of 2011 studies in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry found that they can indeed produce estrogenic effects:

"The present study indicates that oils contain compounds with possible endocrine-disrupting potential, some of them acting via the hormone receptors."

We already know that these products and their contaminants build up in the body, so it stands to reason that long-term exposure might exacerbate hormonal imbalances. I don't know about you, but I'm just not willing to take that risk.

Have Your Say

So what do you think... will you be tossing your skincare products with petroleum and mineral oil now? Why or why not? Let's talk about this!