Mineral oil has been used for over a century worldwide for a huge range of purposes. It works as an industrial lubricant, a food additive, a hydraulic fluid, as an ingredient in many cosmetic products, and even as a laxative. With mineral oil having such a ubiquitous presence in modern life, and considering where it comes from, there’s no wonder that people have concerns. So, should you avoid mineral oil?
Well, the answer to that question very much depends on what the oil is being used for, and most importantly, how refined it is. Let’s have a look at how it is made, the different uses for mineral oil, and if using it puts you at risk.
How Is Mineral Oil Made?
Mineral oil is produced as part of the process of refining crude oil. At a refinery, crude oil is first pumped into large holding tanks, where it separates from solid contaminants like rock and sand, and from any water present. This part of the process is called sedimentation.
Next, the oil goes through fractional distillation. The distillation column is heated to around 700°F, and then the different components of the oil vaporize and subsequently cool down again to a liquid at different temperatures. This allows various products to be separated at different stages of the column.
Next, these products undergo different forms of filtering and processing to remove other contaminants and impurities. This is the stage that determines the grade of the mineral oil. The highest grades of mineral oil are some of the most intensively purified products from the entire refining process.
What Is Mineral Oil Used For?
Low-grade mineral oil has many applications. It is used as a lubricant base for a variety of products that undergo further refinement. It is added to engine oils, gear and transmission fluids, metalworking oils, rust-preventative oils, and lots of other types of industrial oils.
Previous studies have shown that these less pure mineral oils were a cause of cancer in a number of people that were exposed to them professionally. It is believed that one group of the potential contaminants, called polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), is the main carcinogen present in the oil.
However, modern refining processes specifically filter out PAHs, even in lower-grade mineral oil. While there are still some potential health concerns to be considered when working with them, especially when inhaling them in the form of a mist, there is no conclusive evidence to show that mineral oils themselves are directly carcinogenic.
Pharmaceutical-grade mineral oil is the most refined and purified form, and is entirely non-toxic. The main medical use for mineral oil is as a laxative. It works by lining your intestines, which stops water from being absorbed by your body. This in turn softens your stool, which allows it to pass through more easily.
While some people have reported having allergic reactions to mineral oil, this is quite rare. Otherwise, the only reported side effect is that it may leak from your rectum when used in high doses, which can in turn lead to irritation and itching as it can trap harmful bacteria against your skin.
Mineral oil has been used as a part of lots of different cosmetic products since the late 1800s. The use of crude oil increased exponentially over the ensuing years, and soon petroleum-based products became a cheap and popular ingredient.
It sees use in skin care products, hair care products, bath oils, baby oils, sun cream, and makeup, among many others. However, there has been a growing trend in recent years of people insisting that ‘all-natural’ products are inherently better for you. Many people and websites have shared information based on older studies that have since been superseded by modern practices and research. Thanks to this, there is quite a bit of confusion as to what effects mineral oil can have.
Does Mineral Oil Cause Acne?
The term comedogenic is used to refer to any substance that can block your pores and thus act as a cause for acne. One early study indicated that mineral oil was mildly comedogenic, but these results were based on tests conducted on rabbits. A follow-up study found conflicting results between their human and rabbit subjects, as the rabbits’ skin was much more sensitive.
This prompted the American Academy of Dermatology to propose guidelines to interpret these differences. They concluded that substances that were mildly comedogenic in animal tests were unlikely to have the same effect on humans.
In fact, subsequent research has shown that mineral oil has no comedogenic effect on human subjects. In other words, no, it doesn’t cause you to break out in acne. The only evidence to the contrary is based on animal studies that aren’t actually applicable to humans.
Does Using Mineral Oil on Your Skin Cause Cancer?
Thanks to the extensive refining process that mineral oil is subjected to, there are no cancer-causing PAHs present in your cosmetics. In fact, even in the USA, where many products are less rigorously regulated than in some other countries, the refining and use of mineral oil is carefully controlled.
Importantly, mineral oil has been proven to not penetrate your skin, which means you don’t have to worry about absorbing unwanted chemicals. It is actually less likely than certain vegetable oils to cause irritation for this reason, which can be helpful for people with sensitive skin.
The only real cause for concern in terms of cosmetics is if there has been some sort of error in the manufacturing process. This sort of mishap could cause harmful contaminants to remain in the oil. This is a very rare occurrence, though of course it is impossible to rule out entirely.
Does Mineral Oil Cause Your Skin to Prematurely Age?
There are a number of articles circulating online that insist that topically applied mineral oil will draw moisture up from inside your skin. They maintain that this can have a harmful effect on your skin’s health, and will cause it to age prematurely.
The truth is that mineral oil is hydrophobic. This means that it actually repels water, rather than attracting it. This property has been shown to actually help to keep skin moisturized, as the water is trapped there and can’t evaporate away.
Like most other oils, using mineral oil on your skin has been shown to help it maintain moisture, which in turn improves elasticity and makes your skin feel softer. Plus, as mentioned before, it’s less likely to cause irritation on sensitive skin than some vegetable oils.
What Does This Mean for You?
Mineral oil has been used for a long time for a lot of different uses. Historically, refining processes were less advanced than they are now, and lower-grade oils were proven to potentially cause cancer in people that were exposed to them in the workplace.
Nowadays, the refining process has itself been refined, and so mineral oil is now proven to be non-toxic, non-carcinogenic, and safe for human use. So, should you avoid mineral oil? All the evidence says that no, there is no need to stop using mineral oil-based products in your day to day life. Just don’t swallow your motor oil, and you’ll be fine!