Mineral oil has been used in skincare for more than a century (its cosmetic use dates back to ancient Roman times). It’s one of the most commonly used ingredients used to inhibit water loss from the skin as well as treat dryness.
But this clear, colorless liquid is a byproduct of the process that converts petroleum to gasoline. Consumers who are looking to “green” their skincare routines often avoid mineral oil due to the effects its production has on the environment.
Research, however, has shed light on a bigger problem: Mineral oil may promote the development of skin cancer. One particular study found a connection in cases of prolonged exposure to industrial grade mineral oil (the mineral oil in cosmetics and skincare products is USP or BP grade, which means it’s highly purified and refined).
More recently, a 2008 study led by the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy at Rutgers University showed increased risk of skin cancer in laboratory animals treated with a mineral-oil-based moisturizer. Mice were exposed to UVB rays twice a week for 20 weeks to increase their risk of skin cancer. Then, one of four popular mineral oil-based creams was applied to the mice’s skin five days a week for a 17-week period. The result was an increase in tumor size and the speed of their formation. Needless to say, the researchers have since recommended further studies to determine the effect on humans.
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Fortunately mineral oil is easy to spot on an ingredient label, and there are plenty of natural alternatives that may have even more benefits for the skin. Olive oil is an excellent hydrator, and has been found to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects, and can be used to treat rosacea, psoriasis, rashes, irritation, burns and eczema. Rosemary oil is an excellent antioxidant and lavender oil is proven to have a relaxing effect. Just keep in mind that these oils may cause breakouts, but if your skin is dry or sensitive, you may want to consider going natural.
Dr. Leslie Baumann is a board-certified dermatologist, New York Times best-selling author and CEO of Baumann Cosmetic & Research Institute in Miami.