Is Mineral Oil Bad for Your Skin?
In the world of skincare, it can often feel like in order to decipher ingredients labels, you need to have chemistry and Latin degrees.
So it’s a revelation when there are simple-sounding ingredients in your skincare, like mineral oil. That sounds like a good thing, right? Mineral oil—that must be chock-full of beneficial minerals and other healthy substances.
In fact, the opposite can be true. Despite its short and easy-to-read name, mineral oil is a complicated, controversial ingredient.
So, what’s the verdict? Is mineral oil bad for your skin or is it good? Here’s what you need to know.
What is mineral oil?
Allow us to be upfront: Kinder Beauty does not feature any products that use mineral oil.
There are many reasons why mineral oil is listed on Kinder Beauty’s “dirty” ingredients list. By the time you’ve finished this article, we think you’ll understand exactly why we’ve made this decision.
Mineral oil is a highly refined byproduct of petroleum, a fossil fuel also called crude oil. That means it comes from the same stuff that’s refined into gasoline that’s used to power cars and airplanes. Yes, mineral oil is quite literally oil.
Mineral oil is the cousin to petroleum jelly, a product best known under the brand name Vaseline (notice the suffix’s similarity to gasoline!). And it’s also the main ingredient in popular brands of baby oil. Feels a little weird to think about slathering up soft new baby skin in oil that goes into cars, doesn’t it?
Because it is highly refined, it’s not considered the same as pulling up to a gas station and slathering some 91-octane onto your skin. But the source is the same. And that poses some functional and ethical problems.
Mineral oil is a fossil-fuel-derived oil, and just as so many people are switching to cars that don’t run on gasoline, the reasons to avoid putting this substance on your body are very much the same. In short: it’s not sustainable and there are healthier choices.
Mineral oil in skincare
Generally odorless and lightweight, mineral oil has a long history of being added to skincare products. It’s one of the most common ingredients in the personal care aisle.
From baby and bath oil to body care, hair care and face products, deodorant, and cosmetics—mineral oil has been used widely across the beauty industry for the better part of the last century. It’s nearly impossible to avoid in mainstream products.
It’s also often an ingredient in over-the-counter (OTC) products such as topical pain creams and antibiotic ointments.
In skincare products, mineral oil is used to help keep skin moisturized and hydrated. Like other oils, it can be used to soothe skin and deliver nutrients such as herbs or botanicals with healing or anti-aging benefits.
Mineral oil is considered inert, meaning it’s not likely to cause skin reactions, but there are some caveats to be aware of including a risk of certain types of cancer.
Other names for mineral oil
Like a number of skincare and cosmetics ingredients, mineral oil can appear under many different names on labels. It’s not that companies use these different names to be deceptive; it’s usually the result of the refining process, meaning there are slight variations from application to application. But just like banana puree is still a banana, all of these names for mineral oil are still mineral oil. These are the most common names for mineral oil on skincare labels:
- Paraffinum liquidum
- Paraffin oil
- Petrolatum oil
- Liquid petrolatum
- Cera microcristallina
- Baby oil
- White mineral oil
- Paraffin wax
- Synthetic wax
- Microcrystalline wax
- Hydrogenated microcrystalline wax
- Cera microcrystalline
- Unspecified Waxes
- Mineral Spirits
Is mineral oil bad for your skin?
Is mineral oil bad for your skin or not? Well, that all depends on who you ask. Because mineral oil has been used for so long and its purity is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—something that’s rare in the OTC category—there’s a consensus that it’s safe. And in a world where there are some skincare ingredients linked to cancer and many other serious health issues, that’s a relief.
But here’s the important thing: safe doesn’t always mean good. When it comes to what gets put on the body, shouldn’t good be the baseline?
So, what does mineral oil do for the skin?
Like any other oil, it’s intended to lock in moisture. There’s often a misconception that oils create moisture, and that’s not entirely true. They create barriers and can hold moisture in. But just like drinking a glass of oil won’t quench your thirst, it also doesn’t make the skin hydrated. It can only help to keep it from losing any moisture that’s already there.
Mineral oil is occlusive, which means it can sit on top of the skin as a barrier. It’s non-comedogenic, meaning it won’t clog pores on normal skin, but for sensitive, acne-prone skin, the substance has the potential to clog or block pores, leading to blackheads or breakouts.
Much of this depends on how much mineral oil is used in a product, but it also can depend on the quality of the mineral oil.
Because it’s a fossil fuel byproduct, mineral oil quality can run the gamut, and with poor quality, there can be leftover toxins from the refining process that can further irritate the skin. Additionally, mineral oil isn’t easily absorbed by the skin, which means dry skin or conditions such as eczema may be worsened with use.
Too much mineral oil sitting on the outer layer of skin can disrupt the natural pH balance, making skin more prone to dryness, irritation, and breakouts. And if your skin isn’t clean or if there are bacteria on the skin, mineral oil may trap them there, potentially causing breakouts and other issues.
Unlike nutrient-rich skin oils that come from botanical ingredients, mineral oil doesn’t contain any naturally occurring antioxidants or anti-aging skin benefits. If a product that’s mineral oil-based is promising those benefits, it’s likely accompanied by truly beneficial skin oils or botanicals. And that can mean you’re paying for a diluted product that’s less beneficial to your skin.
If you’re looking for a natural “neutral” oil—mineral oil is often touted as one—try jojoba or argan oil instead. Both are botanical and come from renewable, biodegradable resources. They’re both light and can work as carrier oils. They’re also more readily absorbed by the skin, so any nutrients they’re aimed at delivering have a better chance of making it into your skin.
Is mineral oil bad for your hair?
Just as mineral oil creates a barrier on the skin, it does the same for hair. This can sound like a bit of a miracle if your hair is prone to frizz and dryness, since a sheen barrier may help to make it more manageable. At least, that’s the short-term result. But with mineral oil, because it doesn’t absorb, it quickly builds up. And that can make your hair woes even worse.
Using mineral oil regularly on your hair can result in an oily build-up that’s difficult to wash off—even with repeated shampooing. This can leave hair appearing greasy and dull, making it more difficult to style or manage.
Using mineral oil on hair can also lead to overwashing in an effort to remove it from the hair. This can lead to overdrying your hair that—you guessed it—requires more oil to keep it healthy and shiny and reduce the frizz. A vicious cycle you do not want to be caught up in!
But an even bigger area of concern is what happens when you put mineral oil on your scalp. The scalp is skin, but you should think of it as the most sensitive skin—even if your face skin is generally not sensitive or oily.
When oil builds up on the scalp, it interrupts the scalp’s natural oil system. A healthy scalp keeps hair soft and shiny because natural oils are being produced and distributed throughout the hair by washing and brushing. (In fact, too much hair washing can also disrupt this process—it’s why a growing number of hair care experts now recommend reducing hairwashing to just a few times a week.)
When mineral oil blocks this process—even slightly—it can cause the skin to dry out, resulting in dandruff and irritating itchiness. This can be a trickier problem to correct even than the occasional breakout on your face. The scalp is extremely sensitive, and once it gets into a cycle of overproducing or underproducing oil, it can take a while to re-balance. (One of the best things you can do for your scalp? Good, consistent massaging and brushing. Be like Marcia Brady and brush 100 times to move the oils around and help keep the scalp healthy.)
Is mineral oil bad for the environment?
It’s weird to think about giant oil rigs dredging up your favorite beauty products, but in the case of mineral oil, this is the reality of the situation.
A finite resource that’s a leading cause of climate change, many experts point to petroleum—and any of its byproducts—as something that needs to be abandoned as soon as possible. And that includes mineral oil.
While the biggest issue with fossil fuels in the climate change crisis comes by way of burning them for energy, the extraction process is also a big problem for the environment. According to the United States Geological Survey, drilling for oil—whether on land or in water—produces about 25 percent of all greenhouse gases in the US. And that’s before the oils are pumped into cars, trucks, buses, or airplanes! It’s a big number and an even big problem.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that fossil fuel emissions need to be cut in half by the next decade if global warming is to be limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
While mineral oil isn’t burned as a fuel, it comes from the same source. Pollution and environmental stressors have been linked to exacerbated skin conditions, stress, and overall poor health that can all lead to lackluster skin and hair. So mineral oil can cause negative effects even before you think of putting it on your skin!
Mineral oil continues to cause havoc even after it’s been disposed of. Unlike completely biodegradable plant oils, mineral oil isn’t absorbed into the soil and poses a host of issues.
Just like mineral oil can sit on skin and hair without absorbing, it can also clog soil pores (yes, soil has pores!). This reduces soil’s ability to aerate or absorb water—two key functions of soil. This can also reduce permeability, making soils oxygen-deficient and harming the intricate communities of microorganisms that are crucial to plant health.
Soil is the largest carbon sink on land, meaning it absorbs carbon from the atmosphere and helps to reduce the effects of global warming. But when soil is unhealthy it can’t absorb carbon nearly as efficiently, which in turn speeds up global warming.
The bottom line? There are certainly worse things you can put on your body or hair than mineral oil. It is shown to be safe according to the FDA, and that says a lot. Safety is important.
But there are so many better options, too; and when these options deliver more nutrients and benefits with fewer potential health complications, the choice seems easy to make.
That’s especially true given that mineral oil is a non-renewable resource. There is no such thing as plant-based mineral oil. It only and always comes from fossil fuel.
What to use instead? Check out the range of nourishing and sustainably sourced skin oils made from botanical ingredients such as argan, jojoba, and sea buckthorn instead of mineral oil. And for hair, look for products with shea, coconut, or mango butter for moisturizing benefits that won’t weigh hair down or irritate the scalp.