Paraffin and liquid paraffin, Vaseline, synthetic wax … all are hydrocarbons very often used in our cosmetics. You never thought you would apply a petroleum derivative on your skin? Nevertheless, we bet you do it, very often, especially if you use a lipstick, a moisturizing cream on your face, a body lotion or a make-up remover, all among the not-too-expensive products. Apart a gut reluctance you may feel, just by thinking about it, is there any problem to anticipate when using these mineral oils and wax? Could the cosmetics industry get rid of them? Let us take full stock of this slippery situation!
Mineral oils and wax come from the fractional distillation of coal, petroleum or some oil shales.
They comprise a mix of paraffinic, naphthenic and polycyclic hydrocarbons, their consistency being from fluid liquids to spreads to thick wax.
Their use is ubiquitous. For decades, oils have brought light through the kerosene lamps of older generations. They are used as lubricant for gears in mechanics, car engines or pharmaceutical gels … Wax are allowed as food additives and are the coating agent of our confectionery and dried fruits (E 905, E 907…). All are widely used as cosmetics ingredients … yet get a bad press.
Here are the two facets of the case, in favor of, or against, their use.
Mineral oils and wax are tried and tested, chemically stable and very cheap ingredients, all this making them especially attractive.
Anti-static and emollient , mineral oils are a very-easy-to-use basis for all kind of emulsions .
Furthermore, they all are, more or less, occlusive, depending on their specific gravity. They do as a waterproof film on skin; they prevent any loss of water from epidermis and keep its moisture, which may be very useful on dry skins or hands.
True, as they clog up pores, they are prone to produce blackheads . That is a reason not to use them on oily or even combination skins.
Agents for firmer textures
The thickest mineral oils are used mainly as binders, opacifying agents, or rheological agents (viscosity adjustment). They are the main source of the firm texture of lipsticks, foundation or moisturizing balms. As they are very occlusive, they prevent skin and lips from an uncomfortable dryness.
Very resistant to oxidation
Contrary to vegetable fatty molecules, oxidation of mineral oils and wax is a slow and difficult process. This is a significant advantage for a better stability of products facing attacks by air and light.
Last advantage, but not the least, first for the cosmetic industry and, sometimes, also for the consumer’s wallet: these raw materials are cheap. This is a point of the utmost importance when there are many fats in a product.
As for every derivative from petroleum, mineral oils and wax are pollutant for the environment, in their entire manufacturing process and all along their life cycle. They have also some drawbacks, for the human health.
Risks of irritation
Being occlusive and inducing blackheads, mineral oils may be irritant for skin and even more for the eyes. When often used, they may induce red spots or even reactions from epidermis on the long run, or make skin more prone to dermatitis or eczema.
On the other hand, the risk of allergy-like sensitization seems to be very low.
Mineral oils and wax come from the distillation and refinement of petroleum. The less refined may have quite an important content of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, known to be carcinogen.
Depending on the refinement parameters, the International Center of Research on Cancer (ICRC) classifies them from Level 3 (substances the carcinogenetic action of which has not been proved on humans) to Level 1 (substances carcinogen for humans). Nevertheless, the ingredients used in cosmetics are of the highest refinement level, hence among the least dangerous on this point.
Risk of toxicity if swallowed
Ingesting them is a more important concern, as they may be stored in some organs (such as liver, lymphatic ganglions and spleen).
At first sight, this risk seems to be very low, as a cosmetic product cannot be seen as food. Nevertheless, it exists, as mineral oils, for instance, are widely used in lipsticks. Then, the doses that could be swallowed are very small, but, day after day …
They may be more of a concern in creams designed to be used on young mothers’ chests. A warning by the Swiss Federal Office for Public Health in 2003 was given to breast-feeding women: babies may orally absorb these substances. A study by the Federal Laboratory in Zurich on 33 breast milks let it know that their main pollutant was paraffin oils.
Do we need them?
When considering the number of products labeled as "Without mineral oils" or "Without any petroleum derivative", plus the organic cosmetics products, which cannot use them, one may think there are alternatives to using fats from petroleum, for every kind of products.
All vegetable oils may be used in lieu of liquid paraffins in creams and lotions (for body or make-up removers). Be they bee-, candelilla- or carnauba wax, thy can be the lightly occlusive films useful to keep skin moisture. Further, the high viscosity of hydrogenated oils or of "vegetable butters"(shea butter, cocoa butter) is exactly what is needed for compact make-ups and for lipsticks texture.
True, switching from petroleum derivatives to other ones is quite easy. However … easy, yes, but it comes at a cost: substitutes are more expensive, far more expensive. You may guess that, if it is far more expensive for the manufacturer, it will be even far more expensive for the consumer: the manufacturer passes on the consumer the added cost, no other way! Consumers have to agree to this situation when they do not want mineral oils and wax.