Is it a mineral? Or is it an oil? This is one ingredient that causes a ton of confusion and gets a lot of flack, even though it’s a very common standby in a variety of beauty products. So, we had to ask: Is it really that bad for you?
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Myth 1: It’s made from petroleum, as in the stuff that makes your car run.
This is where things get a little confusing. For starters, “Mineral oil is not a mineral, but rather an oil based from petrolatum,” explains Washington, D.C., dermatologist Elizabeth Tanzi, MD. It’s a big word, but petrolatum is a semisolid mixture of hydrocarbons obtained from petroleum and you’ll also see it in things like petroleum jelly or paraffin wax. “Mineral oil is a liquid byproduct of the distillation of petroleum to produce gasoline and other petroleum-based products from crude oil,” says celebrity aesthetician Mandy Epley. “The difference is how these oils are refined: The ones used in cosmetic products are highly refined, while those used in automotive oils and fluids are often unrefined or only mildly treated.”
Myth 2: It’s kind of being phased out in the skin care world.
According to cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos, mineral oil is widely used in many cosmetics and personal care products because it’s incredibly efficacious, cost effective and has a solid safety profile with over 100 years of use. “Additionally mineral oil is very stable and has a long shelf life, unlike natural oils which can go rancid and create potentially irritant compounds.”
Myth 3: The chemicals in it can cause cancer.
In all the skin care accusations out there, this one is obviously the worst. “By removing the impurities [refining], it becomes safe for skin care products and considered non-comedogenic. It also has not been proven that it causes cancer,” says Epley. Norwalk, CT, dermatologist Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD, adds, “The kind of minerals oils you put on your skin—pharmaceutical or cosmetic-grade—are ‘highly purified.’ The refinement process serves to remove harmful impurities and carcinogens associated with petroleum or lesser-grade mineral oils.”
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Myth 4: It can really clog your pores.
Mineral oil is one of those ingredients that sits on top of your skin and the molecules are too big to be absorbed into it. “It produces an occlusive layer, preventing water loss, which keeps skin hydrated and protects it against irritation from outside sources,” says Dr. Mraz Robinson. “But, too much occlusion can be a bad thing, leading to clogging and acne.” The solution: Again, look for cosmetic-grade. “Cosmetic-grade mineral oil should be highly refined, and as such, not likely to cause clogging and acne. It’s all about the grade, purity and level of refinement of the mineral oil.”
Myth 5: Skin care experts hate it.
Because it’s colorless, odorless, relatively inexpensive and extremely unlikely to cause allergic skin reactions, mineral oil is an incredibly attractive ingredient in skin care products. “We use it in our EVE LOM Cleanser because it doesn’t clog pores due to its refined texture and higher grading,” explains Amandine Isnard, head of product development for the brand. “We believe that, combined with our signature botanical blend and essential oils, mineral oil allows our cleanser to perform at its best.”
Myth 6: And so do cosmetic chemists.
The upper layers of the skin cells are surrounded by a lipid matrix that acts as a barrier to water loss, but changes in weather, frequent washing, etc. can cause disruptions in the skin’s natural barrier. “Mineral oil is an effect moisturizing agent because it is occlusive to the skin and supplements that natural barrier properties of the skin,” Dobos says. “Cosmetic chemists know it is one of the best occlusive agents used in cosmetics.
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Myth 7: When it comes to hydration, it really doesn’t help.
Isnard says this one is totally false, as mineral oil not only has a proven track record of being one of the most moisturizing ingredients available in the skin care world, but it’s also one that is efficacious in wound-healing. “The reason mineral oil is found in so many products is because it IS moisturizing—it’s an emollient, so by it’s very nature it is extremely hydrating,” Epley says. “But, it can be so emollient that it can feel ‘heavy’ or greasy, which is the only negative about it if you don’t enjoy that feeling.”