What Exactly Is Baby Oil?

Updated 06/13/19
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Baby oil is one of those products so ubiquitous in modern life that most people don't stop to think about what it actually is. Nevertheless, some claim baby oil is the best body moisturizer out there. Others say it's a dangerous product that you should steer clear of—an unsettling notion, given that baby oil is meant for the tender skin of babies. That alone makes baby oil worth a second look.

The most commonly used brand of baby oil in the U.S. is Johnson and Johnson's. You've likely seen the familiar clear bottle with the pink cap a million times; it lines the baby care aisles in most drug, department, and grocery stores. Go to any store that sells beauty products or home goods, and you'll probably find it. There are even cute little mini bottles.

What Is Baby Oil?

The ingredients in most commercial baby oil products are mineral oil and fragrance—specifically, 98% mineral oil and 2% fragrance.

But even "mineral oil" is a nondescript term. We'll get more into that in a second, but here's what mineral oil actually does: Mineral oil is an inert substance, which means it doesn't change or react with other substances that it comes in contact with. It's noncomedogenic, which means it won't clog your pores; instead, it actually sits on top of your skin and creates a barrier for your skin so as to not lose moisture. When applied, it'll soften and soothe your skin and will help your skin retain moisture. 

The Controversy Surrounding Mineral Oil

So why doesn't everyone use baby oil all the time? Mostly because mineral oil can be a controversial skin care ingredient, and many people avoid using it. According to many others, there's nothing wrong with using mineral oil. And while it would be easier just to say mineral oil is good or bad, it turns out both groups of people are right. It can be great for your skin, but it's not always, and there are plenty of people who avoid it, too.

We decided to reach out to two skincare experts in order to get to the bottom of how, exactly, we're supposed to feel about mineral oil. The first, celebrity dermatologist Dr. Shari Sperling, was relatively neutral on its supposed toxicity:

“I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s toxic. However, I only recommend it for certain uses. It works as an emollient, meaning it soothes/softens the skin. Therefore, it can be used for treating scalp dandruff, cradle cap, and scalp psoriasis, dry skin, burns, etc. I always tell my patients to check with me first to see if it’s appropriate for their individual use.”

So while she's into mineral oil in theory, she believes it should only be used in certain situations. This makes sense—while it doesn't clog pores, some people find it irritates their skin and worsens their acne. But Sperling doesn't totally warn against it, she just takes it case-by-case.

Tara Folley, CEO & Founder of clean beauty site Follain, has a more skeptical take on the use of the ingredient in cosmetics:

There are many different concerns with mineral oil, which is why it's restricted from Follain. First off, mineral oil is distilled from crude oil, which is not only gross to consider applying to your skin, and harmful to the planet, but it's also known to congest and irritate many skin types. Another reason mineral oil is restricted from Follain is due to the fact that it can be contaminated with potentially carcinogenic PAHs. Most cosmetic grade mineral oil removes the PAHs, but because there is virtually no regulation of the beauty industry, this means that companies aren't readily disclosing details about their mineral oil, so customers unfortunately need to assume it could be contaminated.

So, while mineral oil is regulated by the FDA, and is often highly refined and purified—therefore in its best form completely safe to use on your skin—you're never totally sure what you're getting when you choose to use it, which is why it's such a controversial ingredient. Plenty of brands have more than one ingredient supplier for things like mineral oil, so even at a brand level, the toxicity of one bottle might not be the same as another. Ultimately, it comes down to who you are, what your skin concerns are, and the amount of risk you are comfortable taking.

Bottom Line

If you do a little Google search you'll find horror stories and scary information about mineral oil page after page. Claims include that mineral oil clogs pores, causes premature aging, etc. But you'll also find plenty of sites debunking claims like that. Like with everything else on the internet, you just need to be sure to do your own research so you know the actual risks you're taking.

If you do a little digging online, you'll find that consumers who choose to use it are often pretty happy using baby oil. It has uses other than just as a moisturizer—it can be used as a make-up remover, to smooth hair, to clean and condition make-up brushes, and soften cracked heels. But at the end of the day, you do have to weigh whether it's best for you and whether you want to risk exposing yourself to a carcinogen.

This article was published at an earlier date and has since been updated.

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