I have been inspired to write my post this week following some extensive research into the best products for reducing stretch marks*, as I am pregnant and rapidly expanding! I have noticed that one of the best selling products for this symptom has mineral oil listed as its number one ingredient. As an aromatherapist and avid reader of other people’s blogs, I am lead to believe that mineral oils are “nasties” that should be avoided at all cost – indeed, popular Australian current affairs (ahem…) programs have sensationally promoted the death benefits of prominent cosmetic and baby products which include (or are) mineral oil. As an infant massage instructor (yes, one of my many guises) I often encourage new parents to err on the side of caution and refrain from using these products and yet, until very recently, I have not fully investigated the product myself – yes, I have based my information on what someone has told me. And as a researcher, I am trained to question everything. So, this is my “in a nutshell” overview of mineral oil. Take from it what you will. And remember you, too, should question everything!
Mineral oil is the by-product of the distillation of petroleum from crude oil; it a white, odourless product which is very cheap due to the sheer quantities available, and it is often found in cosmetics and baby products. It is also known as liquid paraffin, white oil and liquid petroleum (however, you are unlikely to see this wording in a list of cosmetic ingredients, for obvious reasons!). When it is applied topically, it forms a thin film on the skins surface, forming a moisture barrier; it has been used historically to promote wound healing (although I could not find any evidence in the past ten years that would convince me it was current “best practice”).
Put the words “mineral oil” into the Google search engine and you will come up with any number of websites which will tell you that it is bad for you, it depletes vitamins, it is carcinogenic and it is comedogenic (or pore clogging). Please, readers, beware – the problem with this information is that, in most cases, it does not list any references, so we are unsure of where the authors get their information from.
It depletes vitamins: The use of mineral oil as treatment for constipation has a long history; it is considered a safe way to stop water which you drink absorbing into the body and instead staying in stomach and bowels, hence softening stools and improving movement and ease of passage (sorry… it just had to be said!). The American Cancer Society recommend that you do not ingest mineral oil within two hours of taking medicine or eating food as it may interfere with the body’s ability to absorb the therapeutic benefits of medication, or the vitamins and minerals which are present in food; they also suggest that prolonged use “blocks absorption of certain nutrients, including vitamins A, D, E, and K. It can also build up in the tissues and cause problems”. Mindell and Lee (1983) suggest that mineral oil depletes vitamin E, inhibits absorption of vitamin D and may inhibit absorption of vitamin C. So, if you are experiencing prolonged symptoms of constipation, you should possibly reconsider your diet; if this symptom is the side-effect of a prescribed medicine, you should be discuss this with your doctor.
My biggest concern here is the depletion of vit K. Vitamin K is administered to a baby shortly after birth in order to reduce the risk of developing an extremely rare illness known as Vitamin K Deficiency Bleeding (VKDB), which is the occurrence of hemorrhaging or bleeding in babies in the first weeks of life.
It is not within the parameters of the post to argue the pro’s and con’s, or to try and persuade or dissuade you concerning this prophylaxis; needless to say, it has been administered to children at birth for more than 20 years. The reason that it is administered to new born babies is because they do not receive enough vitamin K from their mothers during pregnancy or from breast-feeding. This is a recommendation from the NHMRC and if you would like to read more about it, you can do so here.
So, back to the topical application of mineral oil, babies and one of the worlds most popular baby oils is a mineral oil; you know the one, 8 out of 10 midwives would recommend it? During my baby massage classes, I would recommend that my parent students avoid using typically baby smelling mineral oil products, and include this note in the handouts I provide: “try and avoid using this oil on babies as, while it is not known how topical application may affect absorption or depletion of vitamins and minerals – babies put their hands in their mouths; it will enter their guts and it will have a cumulative effect”.
It is carcinogenic: There is usually not any smoke without fire, however, it is important to note that cosmetic-grade mineral oil used in cosmetics and baby products is highly refined and purified, and this is strictly monitored (we are told/we hope – but I am not going down that line in this post, either). Mineral oil which is not treated or is mildly treated (often lubricants used for engines and other mechanical equipment) is said to be carcinogenic; the evidence describing its links to cancer is fairly conclusive as it has been gleaned from longitudinal (over a long period of time) and epidemiological (very large, population based) studies.
There is some evidence which suggests that the use of cosmetic mineral oils on the skin may (well, I would argue, DO, but that is what the evidence says…) minimally enhance ultra-violet radiation (UVR) penetration which can cause sunburn and lasting damage to skin and eyes, and, as we know, the cumulative effects of enhanced UVR exposure may lead to premature aging, skin cancers and eye disorders; Kligman and Kligman (1992, in Forbes, 2009) found that topical application of mineral oil, substantially increases the risk of acute photo-irritation (a skin response to UV light via a light reactive chemical) and tumorigenesis (formation or production of tumors). So, this does actually sound awful; while I could not find the exact source of this information, I did note that Kligman and Kligman, who carry out a lot of research on topically applied products for dermatological conditions, usually carry out their research using mice. This 1992 research may also be carried out on mice and as yet I am not convinced that ANY research carried out on lab mice and guinea pigs actually corresponds to humans. And the Forbes (2009) article, which cited K&K’s research, concludes that much more detailed examination is required in order to make a conclusive recommendation, either way.
That it causes pimples: I am becoming somewhat of an expert on acne (it is the topic of my PhD thesis) and in all of my research I have not read anything about mineral oil causing acne. And I have read… A LOT! But, as this is a commonly held belief amongst those who write about the loathsome mineral oil, I thought I should investigate further. I found that it is not actually comedogenic (produce or aggravate acne), BUT, it does occlude the pores and any possible environmental causative factors such as pollutants, dirt or bacteria will be “trapped”and this, in turn, may cause pimples.
What are the benefits? Earlier in this post I mentioned that when applied topically, mineral oil can create a moisture barrier, and this can provide therapeutic benefit.
- Premature babies (less than 28 gestational weeks) will experience heat and insensible (continuous and unnoticed) water loss which can lead to “hypothermia and problems with fluid balance, as well as skin trauma leading to infection” (Beeram et al., 2006). Research carried out in Texas found that applying mineral oil product is beneficial for fluid retention and electrolyte balance in extreme preterm infants, thus reducing the risk of further complications.
- Products which are promoted for nappy rash contain mineral oils, as they provide a barrier between the sensitive skin of a babies bottom, and a wet nappy.
If you decide to further investigage mineral oils, you will find that people often criticize them in order to make natural, plant derived oils sound better. But I don’t actually think that this is necessary. I am not about to go on a scare-mongering campaign to further promote my work as I have found that there are some very important therapeutic benefits for using mineral oil. But would I use it myself? Well, no. While mineral oil might not be dangerous or sensitizing or overly harmful (well, except for the enhancing UV radiation bit…), it does not contain anything good, either (except for those wee early babies, obviously!). Plant derived oils contain vitamins and fatty acids which make them more easily absorbed. Mineral oil inhibits absorption (Besouilah and Buck, 2006) and while it has a very long shelf life, it does not actually do anything for you or your skin. Mixing essential oils into mineral oil will offer no therapeutic benefit other than that offered by the aroma, as there is no trans-dermal absorption.
Beware of authors who say things such as “everything you put on your skin is absorbed into your body”, followed by “mineral oils sit on your skin and are difficult to absorb”. This is clearly a contradiction (and there are many who do that!). And, finally, not “everything” we put on our skin, winds up in our body. For a long time, skin was considered a waterproof membrane which protected the internal organs. During the second half of the 20th century, researchers found that certain substances do cross the layers of the dermis but the amount which is absorbed depends on a number of factors including the molecular make up of the substance (weight, spatial arrangement, polarity etc – too big, and it will not pass through the dermis layers); the area of the skin where the substance is placed – larger surface areas will absorb greater amounts; the temperature of the skin (in aromatherapy, more of the essential oil will pass through the dermis if the skin is warm and then covered up); and the pH of the skin. While it is not known exactly how much of what you put on your skin is absorbed, we do know that it is certainly not 100% of it! But, even 1% of chemical crap, is not doing you any good – and possibly doing you harm (the topic of another post, another day!).
If you want to do something that is cheap and nourishing, you can apply any number of carrier oils to your skin which are both inexpensive and beneficial – my favourites include avocado (contains vitamins A, B1, B2 and D; skin healing properties, moisturizing, softening and said to prevent premature aging); or sunflower (first pressing, contains vitamins A, D and (principally) E, calcium, zinc, potassium, iron and phosphorous; it is beneficial for skin complaints, it is often included in skin preparations for disorders such as acne and seborrhea; and it has a softening and moisturizing effect on the skin).
*Regarding the stretch marks – the jury is still out. I have come up with my own blend which I and a couple of pregnant friends are road testing (non-scientific and probably totally biased). I will let you know the outcome of our experiences in a few months time! I am still not sure whether this is something that I am going to be able to completely avoid; some would say that stretch marks are inevitable if we have inherited from our mums; some just say to embrace them as a natural, physical reminder of our pregnancy. My stuff is nice, and so far, it is helping with my dry, itchy skin! And it smells nice, too!
You can’t be distracted by the noise of misinformation.
All material provided in this blog is for your information only. Whilst every caution has been taken to ensure the material is accurate and the analysis is critical, due to the nature of essential oils, it is important that you consult your doctor and/or aromatherapist before making any decisions based on this information. The author will not compensate you in any way if you suffer an inconvenience, damage or side-effect because of the information provided in this blog.
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Beeram, M et al., (2006) Effects of Topical Emollient Therapy on Infants at or Less than 27 Weeks’ Gestation, Journal of the National Medical Association, Vol 98 (2) p261-264
Bensouilah, J., Buck, P (2006) Aromadermatology: aromatherapy in the treatment and care of common skin conditions, Radcliffe Publishing, Oxford, UK
Forbes, P D (2009) Moisturizers, Vehicle Effects, and Photocarcinogenesis (Commentary) Journal of Investigative Dermatology Vol 129; p261-262
Mindell, E., Lee, W H (1983) Vitamin Robbers: Foods, drugs and pollutants that steal your nutrition, Keats Publishing, Connecticut