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Isoparaffin sounds a little scary—but is it actually a skincare ingredient you should be concerned about? The short answer is no. Although it sometimes gets a bad rap, the (very) common ingredient plays an important role in many product formulations and actually can do some good things for your skin. Ahead, New York City dermatologist Kenneth Howe of Wexler Dermatology, Gretchen Frieling, a triple board-certified dermatopathologist in the Boston area, and cosmetic beauty chemist and founder of Perfect Image David Petrillo give us the details on isoparaffin, including what makes it somewhat controversial.
Meet the Expert
Type of ingredient: Emollient
Main benefits: Isoparrafin makes the skin feel softer and smoother, both by helping to bolster the skin barrier and forming a semi-occlusive film on top of the skin to prevent moisture loss, explains Petrillo.
How often can you use it: Daily
Who should use it: According to Howe, it's an especially choice ingredient for those with dry, flaky skin.
Works well with: Isoparaffin is non-reactive and very synergistic, meaning it goes well with many ingredients, says Frieling.
Don't use with: There are no ingredients known to interact poorly with isoparaffin.
What is Isoparaffin?
"Isoparaffin is a branched-chain of saturated hydrocarbons derived from petroleum," explains Petrillo. Or, simply put, it's a type of petroleum-derived mineral oil. In skin care and cosmetics, isoparaffin is commonly found in moisturizers, sunscreen, lip products, foundations, cleansers, deodorants, makeup removers—pretty much everywhere, adds Frieling. This is not only because it's used as an emollient to help skin feel and look smooth but also for formulation reasons; isoparaffin is a texture enhancer that can help create thick, creamy formulas that won't feel greasy on the skin, notes Frieling. And, because it's made up of just hydrogen and carbon atoms, it's not very reactive; it plays nicely with most other ingredients, another attribute that accounts for its popularity and prevalence in the skincare world.
Benefits of Isoparaffin for Skin
The benefits of isoparaffin all come down to its emollient and semi-occlusive properties. "As an emollient ingredient, isoparaffin helps to repair the skin barrier by filling in spaces between the corneocytes, or dead skin cells, which are held together by a lipid matrix," says Petrillo. Think of these cells as bricks and that lipid matrix as mortar; isoparaffin and other emollients help to fill in cracks in that mortar to keep the skin barrier strong and intact. And a strong skin barrier is essential for keeping potential irritants from getting into the skin and natural moisture from escaping.
Similarly, isoparaffin isn't that different from other ingredients that help prevent moisture loss, such as petroleum and lanolin, says Howe. All of these molecules are too large to penetrate deep into the skin and instead sit on top of the stratum corneum, the uppermost layer of the skin, where they create an occlusive film or seal that locks in moisture. The difference? "Isoparaffin doesn't come with the same type of 'smothering sensation' as you get with other, heavier occlusive ingredients," says Howe. (Hence why it's so often added into rich and heavy lotions and creams, where it keeps them from feeling greasy or tacky.)
Side Effects of Isoparaffin
"While it is considered a non-irritating ingredient, some skin allergies have been linked to isoparaffin," cautions Frieling, who adds that those with sensitive skin may want to take a pass. (When in doubt, patch testing any new product or ingredient on your inner forearm for a few days is always smart before putting it on your face.)
According to Frieling, isoparaffin on its own is a non-comedogenic ingredient, but it's still a good idea to avoid it if you have oily or acne-prone skin. As is the case with other similar, occlusive ingredients, it doesn't break down easily, and there's a risk of it trapping oil and bacteria in the skin, says Petrillo.
Then there's the big, elephant-in-the-room safety question. All of the experts we spoke with agree that isoparaffin is considered a safe ingredient. The Environmental Working Group ranks it at one out of 10 on their safety scale (with 10 being the most potentially dangerous or harmful). Petrillo notes that the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) has concluded it's safe for use in cosmetics, while Howe points out that the FDA even allows it to be used directly in some foods, for example, as a coating on fruit. That being said, the safety questions come into play because this is a petroleum-derived ingredient. As such, there's a potential risk of contamination from a carcinogenic (read: cancer-causing) substance known as 1,4-dioxane. This comes with the risk of skin allergies in and of its own right, but it's also a neurotoxin, respiratory toxin, and kidney toxin, says Frieling. That's admittedly fairly concerning and is why you're unlikely to see isoparaffin in so-called "clean" beauty products.
How to Use It
At the end of the day, keep in mind that isoparaffin is extremely common; most skin care products contain, at the very least, a small amount, says Frieling. And yes, if you have sensitive or acne-prone skin (or are trying to stick with squeaky-clean products), you may want to take the time to read ingredient labels and steer clear of it as much as possible. On the flip side, if you have extra dry, flaky skin, you'll likely benefit from its emollient properties more than anyone else. But broadly speaking, most of us can consider this an ingredient that falls more into the neutral category than anything else. "It's neither an ingredient you need to seek out nor is one that you need to avoid," says Howe.