The cheapest way to produce a product is using paraffin oil as the base ingredient. Also known as ‘mineral oil’, paraffin oil is made from petroleum and is known to be contaminated with carcinogens, cancer-causing chemicals.
Paraffin oil is used in many products commonly available in Australia. It is found in sorboline, baby products including bath and body oils, body wash, sunscreen and medicinal creams to treat eczema. It is surprising how many products use paraffin oil in Australia when there are so many healthier alternatives available. This greasy film-forming chemical has a purpose. It is highly effective at treating dry cracked skin and is an affordable option for any cosmetic manufacturer.
Paraffin oil is predominantly used as a base to produce cheap products. Paraffin oil does not provide any nutritional benefit to the skin, rather it ‘coats’ the skin with a thick greasy texture that provides a barrier function that does not allow air to penetrate. Thus Paraffin oil acts as an ‘occlusive’ oil that benefits the skin when medical treatment is necessary, paraffin oil coats the skin serving to form a wound dressing.
In underdeveloped areas, paraffin oil is used to treat severely cracked feet. The constant over-use of damaged feet can lead to infection caused by dry cracked skin. Therefore paraffin has a purpose where money is an issue and health is at risk. If you cannot walk due to dry cracked heels and are offered a paraffin cream to repair the skin, then this is a positive outcome. But, in developed countries paraffin oil only serves to increase the profits of cosmetic companies that produce cheap cosmetics, paraffin does not provide any nutrtional benefit to the skin and body.
There are many alternatives available. Natural oils are a closer match to the skin’s own natural sebum, compared to paraffin oil. Jojoba for instance, is a natural liquid wax that is almost identical to our skin’s own natural sebum. Jojoba won’t block the skin’s pores and it allow’s the skin to breathe making it an ideal ingredient for skin care. When using paraffin oil, the skin will feel well moisturised due to the thick greasy coating that sits on top of the skin and most people don’t like this. Paraffin oil blocks the skin’s pores and can lead to severe itching. By comparison, natural oils are available in many different textures from thin and lightweight to thick and greasy.
Alarmingly, paraffin oil is commonly found in medicinal creams and is often applied to the skin in products given to children suffering from eczema. A study in the UK applied a cream made from water and paraffin oil to the skin of over 100 children, more than half of them suffered skin irritation ranging from redness to itching, to burning and stinging. This reaction risks making eczema worse.
Natural oils provide nutritional benefit to the skin:
- Almond Oil is the preferred choice for massage therapists. Ideal for skin and hair, it softens and hydrates. It is anti-inflammatory and reduces skin irritation.
- Sunflower Oil is a light and non-greasy oil that contains lecithin, carotenoids, tocopherols and appreciable quantities of vitamins A, D and E. Ideal for the skin and body, applied topically and consumed internally. The main component of sunflower oil is linoleic acid, other components include oleic acid and palmitic acid.
- Jojoba is a liquid wax that is closest to the skin’s own natural sebum. It is non-greasy and absorbs easily, it provides a protective barrier and assists the skin in balancing sebum production. It kills germs and smothers viruses. Jojoba contains vitamin E, natural fatty acids and is a powerful antioxidant.
- Castor Oil is a thick greasy oil that works well as a barrier oil for dry cracked skin. Castor oil is used medicinally worldwide in treating conditions associated with skin, hair, joints and the intestines. It is a triglyceride that consists of 90% ricinoleic acid, valued for its anti-inflammatory properties.
- Olive Oil is also a thick greasy oil ideal for all skin types. Known as ‘liquid gold’ in ancient times, Olive oil is mainly comprised of monounsaturated fatty acids and is high in antioxidants such as polyphenols, natural vitamins E & K, chlorophyll and carotenoids.
Is paraffin a healthy ingredient? According to EWG paraffin is classed as having low toxicity concerns. However, Environment Canada Domestic lists paraffin as being classed as “potentially toxic and expected to be harmful” there are significant data gaps. EWG states that paraffin functions as a “Fragrance Ingredient; Skin-Conditioning Agent – Occlusive; Viscosity Increasing Agent -Nonaqueous; EMOLLIENT; VISCOSITY CONTROLLING” and that mineral oil is potentially toxic, it has a “moderate toxicity” rating and states there is concern when paraffin oil is used at higher rates. The FDA lists paraffin as “Designated as safe for general or specific, limited use in food”.
Paraffin Oil is derived from petrolatum, so is it safe to use? Used for over 100 years, petrolatum is widely considered non-toxic, but it is classed as a carcinogen by the European Union. Carcinogens are cancer-causing. Petrolatum, paraffin and mineral oil are all derived from petroleum. Doctors recommend vaseline to treat children with eczema, yet dermatologists warn that petroleum products are toxic to the skin and can cause severe reactions. In industry, petroleum is used as a lubricant on machinery. Today we still use it to treat babies nappy rash, as a sex lubricant, it is also used to treat cracked lips and soothe raw noses. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a US not-for-profit organisation that publishes environmental, health and safety studies on chemicals. EWG says that one out of every 14 cosmetic products contains petrolatum, 15% percent of lipsticks and 40% percent of baby lotions and oils contain petroleum derivatives.
Petroleum is not sustainable, it comes from crude oil. EWG warns that petrolatum ingredients are at a high risk for contamination. There is a “risk of contamination from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), cancer-causing chemicals found in crude oil and its by-products”. There are also significant gaps in data, no studies have been able to show a direct link between petrolatum and cancer, but the European Union have petroleum ingredients listed with numerous grades that are all on a list of dangerous substances.
“Safe Cosmetics Australia is calling for makeup giants to reformulate their products and exclude the use of petroleum derivatives. Safe and natural oils are available, these natural oils deliver vitamins, minerals and more. Petroleum chemicals do not deliver nutritional benefit to the skin and are not the healthiest option when other safe and natural oils are available.”
- EWG rating of Paraffin, Petrolatum, Petroleum, Mineral Oil
- EC (Environment Canada). 2008. Domestic Substances List Categorization. Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) Environmental Registry.
- FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) 2006. Food Additive Status List
- NLM (National Library of Medicine). 2012. PubMed scientific bibliography data