What is mineral oil, and should you be using it on your skin? All your questions about this confusing ingredient are answered below.
Not sure what to think about mineral oil? You’re not alone. This colorless, odorless, super slippery oil is a pretty controversial ingredient. On the one hand, its proponents say that it’s natural, and they herald it for being non-comedogenic and effective. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some argue that because it’s a by-product of petroleum, it shouldn’t be applied to the skin and that you’re better off using something different.
To help get to the bottom of the mineral oil squabble, we reached out to board certified dermatologist, Craig A. Kraffert, for a highly informative Q&A.
What is mineral oil?
Mineral oil is a natural by-product of petroleum. It’s created when petroleum is distilled to become gasoline (yep, the stuff you put in the ol’ gas tank). It’s the same stuff as “petroleum jelly,” which has been a mainstay in U.S. homes for many years by way of creams and lotions, as well as Vaseline and baby oil.
Is mineral oil truly non-comedogenic?
“There is debate in the scientific community as to whether mineral oil has comedogenic potential,” says Kraffert. “My studies and experience suggest that mineral oil may have low comedogenic potential that is the result of its occlusive properties.”
He explained that this “potential comedogenicity” may correlate directly with the amount of mineral oil in a product, and inversely with the mineral oil’s refinement purity. In other words, the higher the concentration of mineral oil in a product, the greater the chance is for a breakout. The more highly refined the mineral oil is, however, the lower your chance is for a breakout.
“In clinical dermatology practice, cases of suspected mineral oil induced acne are exceptionally rare,” he said.
Does mineral oil penetrate the skin?
“Mineral oil does not penetrate the skin due to the large size of its molecular constituents,” explains Kraffert. Instead, it sits on top and should either be removed with a cleanser or can be left to create a protective effect.
So what are some benefits of mineral oil?
Kraffert explains that mineral oil has occlusive properties, AKA the ability to shield external contaminants from penetrating the skin. Mineral oil’s occlusive properties are why it’s such a commonly recommended ingredient for oil cleansing.
“Mineral oil also helps retain ambient skin moisture present at the time of application,” says Kraffert. “It also provides emollient benefits to the skin, helping it feel smoother and softer.”
Is there anything to be wary of regarding mineral oil?
“Mineral oil is inert, non-toxic, and generally regarded as safe,” says Kraffert. “It’s not a humectant and does not attract water from the environment to sites of application. Furthermore, pure mineral oil, by definition, does not contain water. Therefore, mineral oil is a skin lubricant, but is not considered a primary moisturizer.”
In other words, you cannot count on mineral oil to meet all your skin’s hydration needs. It simply keeps existing moisture intact and blocks out other elements.
Would you recommend using mineral oil on skin?
“While there is nothing ‘wrong’ or ‘dangerous’ with the use of pure mineral oil, there are a myriad of better options,” says Kraffert. “Formulated cosmetic products containing mineral oil as one of many ingredients are a different story, of course, and should be judged on their overall merits.”
Bottom line: He says that the dysphoria of seeing mineral oil on a cosmetic product ingredient list is common, but that its presence isn’t grounds for real concern regarding function, safety, or quality of the product in which it appears.
If someone chooses to use mineral oil, when and how is the best way to apply it?
Kraffert says: “The best time to apply mineral oil is when the skin is moist or even slightly damp, as is the case directly after bathing. This will help lock in some of the moisture on the skin.”
You can also use mineral oil during the oil cleansing method since it sits on top of the skin and isn’t likely to cause breakouts.
Final word: Should we stay away from mineral oil?
“Mineral oil is akin to iceberg lettuce,” says Kraffert. “Some people stay away from iceberg lettuce out of nutritional principle. Most people, however, enjoy it in salads mixed with other ingredients. Nevertheless, few people enjoy routinely consuming iceberg lettuce ‘pure’ as a meal or dish, and that’s the way mineral oil should be viewed.”
At the end of the day, mineral oil does have some merit and isn’t regarded as unsafe. For that reason, it shouldn’t be written off completely. With that said, there are better options out there in terms of moisturizers. It’s really a matter of finding what works best for your skin.