There is so much buzz surrounding mineral oil. My patients ask me about it all the time. There is a lot of misinformation out there – and a lot of it is scary (for example, many of my patients are wondering whether mineral oil can cause cancer). I wanted to give more background and information on this subject to help to separate fact from fiction. This is especially timely because products containing mineral oil (Aquaphor, Petroleum Jelly) are many people’s go-to products when their skin is dry, red, and chapped during winter.

What is Mineral Oil?

Mineral oil is a clear, odorless oil which is derived from petroleum. It comes in different grades, ranging from the technical grade – which is used to lubricate car engines and equipment – to a highly purified cosmetic grade which is often found in many of the skin care products you might have in your house.

Mineral oil and petroleum jelly are both byproducts of petroleum refinement and both are considered petrochemicals.  Recently, you may see more and more products marketed as “free of petrochemicals” or “petrochemical-free” and that means they don’t contain mineral oil or petroleum jelly.  Some popular products containing mineral oil that you probably have in your home include Vaseline Petroleum Jelly and Aquaphor.

Is it Dangerous?

There is so much ongoing confusion and even fear surrounding mineral oil and petroleum jelly. People are worried about “impurities” and “contaminants” found in mineral oil – and there is some concern that it could even be carcinogenic.

The cosmetic grade mineral oil is completely different from the type of mineral oil used to lubricate engines. It’s gone through purification processes to remove these contaminants and impurities. Mineral oil is an occlusive emollient, meaning that it helps to keep your skin hydrated by locking in moisture by forming a barrier on your skin’s surface. Based on my research, it’s actually considered very safe and rarely causes irritation or an allergic reaction.

Would I be afraid to use Vaseline or Aquaphor on myself or my family, say, after a burn or after washing out a cut or scrape?  Not at all. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology advocates using Petroleum Jelly as standard protocol in wound care.

Do I use products with mineral oil on my skin or my daughter’s skin every day?  

I don’t, but it’s not because mineral oil scares me. Here are two main reasons I don’t rely on mineral oil containing products on a daily basis. First, I expect more from my skincare ingredients. Mineral oil isn’t irritating, and yes it is hydrating, but for me, that’s not enough justification to use it on a daily basis. I’d prefer to find ingredients that not only moisturize but also provide other benefits such as anti-inflammatory or antioxidant properties. The second reason I don’t use mineral oil containing products on a daily basis is because, even though mineral oil is unlikely to clog pores on its own, it can trap other pore-clogging ingredients in the skin. So if you use a product that combines mineral oil with another ingredient, the mineral oil can potentially trap that other ingredient in the skin.

What can I use instead of mineral oil?

Many of my patients are starting to consider other options to mineral oil and have noticed that clean beauty certifications often specifically exclude products containing mineral oil. For example, “Clean at Sephora” specifically means that the products included are free of sulfates, parabens, formaldehyde, phthalates and mineral oils.  Two of my favorite alternatives to mineral oil and petroleum jelly are shea butter and sunflower seed oil. Stay tuned for some of my favorite DIY home skincare recipes using these ingredients!

Dr. Whitney