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It seems like we've only recently gotten to a place where most people aren't totally freaked out when they see the world 'oil' associated with skincare. We now know that not all oils are created equal, and that there is a whole plethora of different types that not only aren't bad for your complexion, but can actually do great things for it. But there's one notable exception that even many seasoned skincare aficionados will steer clear of—mineral oil. The issue at hand? It's derived from petroleum, which raises serious red flags for many people, and is notorious for clogging pores. But should you avoid it completely? Ahead, New York City dermatologist Marnie Nussbaum, MD, Claire Chang, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City, and New York City dermatologist Gary Goldenberg, MD, help us get to the nitty-gritty details behind this somewhat controversial ingredient, and explain the moisturizing benefits it can have.
TYPE OF INGREDIENT: Moisturizer
MAIN BENEFITS: Locks moisture into the skin, softens skin, and improves skin barrier function.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: "I recommend mineral oil for those with dry, sensitive skin, and it can even be used in those with conditions such as eczema or psoriasis," says Chang. She notes that not only is it a good moisturizing ingredient, but it also has a very low risk of allergic reactions or irritation. Mineral oil products aren't recommended for acne-prone skin.
HOW OFTEN CAN YOU USE IT: This depends largely on the specific product you're using and how dry your skin is, but generally speaking, it's fine to use once or twice daily.
WORKS WELL WITH: Humectant ingredients such as glycerin or hyaluronic acid, which attract moisture to the skin, that the mineral oil can then lock in.
DON’T USE WITH: Because it is very occlusive, don't use it with pore-clogging ingredients, says Nussbaum, particularly if you start to notice blackheads and white heads. (More on whether or not in and of itself can clog your pores in a minute.)
What Is Mineral Oil?
Simply put, mineral oil is a colorless and odorless petrolatum derivative; when used in cosmetics, it's highly refined and purified and therefore does not contain the contaminants that unrefined petroleum has been known for, explains Nussbaum. Still, this is why it's often a no-no in 'clean' formulas. That being said, "Mineral oil has been a mainstay of healing and moisturizing skincare products for decades, included in well-known products such as Vaseline, Aquaphor Ointment, and baby oil," points out Chang. Because it's a large molecule it has limited penetration and instead sits on top of the skin, what's known as an occlusive ingredient. This is exactly what makes it a good option in moisturizers—since it traps moisture—but also why it gets a bad rap for being pore-clogging. We promise, we'll get to the legitimacy of those claims in just a second.
More commonly known as petroleum jelly, petrolatum also has a long shelf life, which makes it a commonly-used ingredient in many skincare and makeup products sold today. Common types of products that tend to feature mineral oil in their roster of ingredients include “face, body creams and ointments, as well as eye creams, and foundations, liquid makeup removers and wipes,” says Dr. Paul Jarrod Frank, Celebrity Cosmetic Dermatologist and Founder of PFRANKMD & Skin Salon.
Benefits of Mineral Oil For Skin
While mineral oil doesn't have any anti-aging or antioxidant effects on the skin, as many other oils do, it is a choice occlusive, moisturizing ingredient.
- Seals moisture into the skin: Think of mineral oil as creating a barrier between your skin and the outside world, protecting it from outside elements like wind and pollution, says Nussbaum. It's also why it's been shown in studies to reduce trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL), or the loss of water through the skin, adds Chang.
- Smooths and softens skin: Any oil, mineral oil included, will help leave skin feeling softer, as it slips into the cracks in between cells to create a smoother texture.
- Helps improve the texture of products: Cosmetic moisturization benefits aside, mineral oil is often added to formulas to act as a lubricant and help the product glide across skin, says Goldenberg.
Side Effects of Mineral Oil
This is one ingredient that has a low likelihood of causing any kind of skin reactions, says Goldenberg, which is why it's often recommended for sensitive skin types. The big sticking point here is the pore-clogging question.
- Can be pore-clogging: All the derms we spoke with agree that if you're acne-prone or notice more blackheads or whiteheads after using mineral oil-rich products, skip this ingredient.
That being said, "While it's been anecdotally associated with exacerbation of acne in acne-prone patients, human studies have failed to confirm its comedogenicity," says Chang. She adds that the conclusion of the American Academy of Dermatology is that it's non-comedogenic (AKA not pore-clogging). The bottom line: Proceed with caution if you are prone to pimples, and know that this may not be the best ingredient for you.
Is Mineral Oil Safe?
The short answer to this question is yes, mineral oil as a skincare ingredient is safe for use on the skin and hair. Why? Because the type of mineral oil found in skin and hair care products is graded as safe for consumption by the Food and Drug Administration. “The mineral oil we would find in skincare is typically rated as food grade,” says Joanna Vargas, Celebrity Facialist and Founder of Joanna Vargas Salons and Skin Care.
Regarding whether or not it’s good for the skin, mineral oil itself is non-comedogenic, or not pore clogging, so using it alone won’t leave your pores filled with added gunk. However, because mineral oil tends to form a protective layer on the skin, it can trap some other ingredients onto that top layer of the epidermis, which can lead to clogged pores if that ingredient is known to be pore clogging. “While mineral oil can potentially clog pores, it has a relatively low comedogenicity score in various studies, which in one indicator of propensity to clog pores,” says Dr. Iris Rubin, dermatologist and Founder of SEEN Hair Care. “It is occlusive though, and can therefore trap other ingredients on the skin, potentially leading to clogged pores.”
Oftentimes, mineral oil is featured as an ingredient in combination with other ingredients within a product. If you have acne-prone skin, or have pores that are especially prone to clogging, be sure to check your product labels in order to see and feel the best results. “It is always important to look at a finished formula to be sure if it is non-comedogenic, since the way ingredients combine really matters,” Rubin adds. Common pore-clogging ingredients include carrageenan, Laureth 4, and sodium lauryl sulfate.
That said, the general consensus regarding mineral oil is that it’s better left for dry skin types that aren’t prone to acne symptoms, like pimples, blackheads, or cysts. Why? For its naturally occlusive, barrier-creating tendencies. “It is best for people with dry skin as it creates a protective barrier,” says Dr. Frank. “It creates a protective barrier for the skin for hydration and locks in moisture.”
How to Use It
"The best time to apply mineral oil is a few minutes after showering, when the skin is slightly damp, since mineral oil will help lock some of the moisture into the skin," suggests Chang. And if you're using any other products with moisturizing ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid, or protective actives such as antioxidants, make the mineral oil product the final step in your routine to seal all of that in, she adds.
Dermatologists agree that—from the human studies they currently have access to results from—there hasn't been any scientific evidence that mineral oil is comedogenic (pore-clogging). With that being said, pay close attention to your skin while using mineral oil if you're acne-prone, as ingredients can have varying effects on different skin types.
As far as its safety, keep in mind that mineral oil is made from a petroleum derivative. And while dermatologists seem to agree that the refining process that goes into adding mineral oil to skincare products purifies the substance of all contaminants (making the ingredient completely safe), it's still not technically a "clean" beauty product.
The Best Products With Mineral Oil
"I love this ointment because it hydrates, soothes and contains hyaluronic acid, which helps to retain over 1,000 times its weight in water within the skin cells," says Nussbaum. Mineral oil adds that extra protective component, which is why you can use this on everything from minor cuts to dry cuticles to patches of rough skin, she says.
Both Chang and Goldenberg like this multi-tasker. "It's recommended for dry skin, scars and stretch marks, with clinical data to support each use," says Goldenberg. Along with mineral oil, it also contains a blend of other plant-based oils to help smooth and soften skin.
Another one of Chang's picks, a combination of mineral and almond oils, plus glycerin, nourish and moisturize the skin. Slather it on liberally post-shower for almost instantaneous softness.
Mineral oil and petroleum jelly, AKA Vaseline, are closely related and in this formula you get both. For those for whom straight up Vaseline might be too goopy, this has a much more lightweight and fast-absorbing feel. The addition of soothing aloe makes it a great pick on those days when you've gotten a little too much sun (tsk, tsk).
Nussbaum loves this cult-classic just as much as the rest of us: "This ointment is another great multi-purpose product that can be used for extra dry or even cracked skin," she says. Due to the occlusive agents found in the formula, mineral oil included, it’s an excellent skin protectant, she adds, noting that she often recommends it for chapped heels and hands.
Byrdie editors (and makeup artists and celebs) sing the praises of this cult-classic French pharmacy brand over and over. But it's not just the beloved makeup remover that should get all the love. This cream, choice for dry, itchy skin, combines mineral oil with hydrating glycerin. To the point of the ingredient being good for sensitive skin, this has even earned the Eczema Association Seal of Approval.
"This is a luxurious daily moisturizer with a rich texture that plumps the skin and helps to smooth fine lines," says Nussbaum. "It contains a potent combination of skin restorative ingredients, including sea kelp and other nutrients and minerals." Not to mention a high concentration of mineral oil; it's the second ingredient listed.