Petrochemicals in the Mix

Petrochemicals have become nearly ubiquitous in creams and lotions over the last fifty years. Mineral oil forms the base of aqueous cream and petroleum jelly is applied generously to babies. This is because these products are extremely cheap and are stable and fragrance free. Mineral oil, petroleum jelly, petrolatum, paraffin wax and most of the other petrochemicals are byproducts of the distillation of petrol from crude oil.

There are two sides to the petrochemical story and – as usual – it is up to the consumer to decide. On one side there are the fairly extreme claims that petrochemicals cause cancer and acne and deplete the skin of vitamins. The other side is that these are very stable ingredients that are resistant to oxidation and are very nearly inert. This makes them non-irritating and leads to product with a shelf life of up to 5 years.

Over the last few years there have been many internet reports damning the use of mineral oil in personal care products. A common accusation is that petrochemicals are carcinogenic.
This was the result of findings that some petrochemical derivatives contain polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are strong carcinogens. The petrochemicals that are used in personal care products today are highly refined and generally contain very low concentrations of PAHs. The cancer risk from exposure to these ingredients appears to be low although no studies have been done to confirm this.

Mineral oil has also been blamed as a cause of acne. There is some research to back this up1, 2, 3 but the research is based on exposure to industrial grade mineral oil and thus has limited application to skincare. There are many anecdotal reports that acne has been greatly improved by avoiding petrochemicals in skincare products but there is nothing in the published literature to back this up.

The Upside

Petrochemicals are stable and products that use them generally have long shelf lives. Petrochemicals are fragrance free and, in general, non-irritating.
Mineral oil is also at least ten times cheaper than vegetable oils, so the products that use it should be very cost effective.

The Downside

Mineral oil and other petrochemicals are very poorly absorbed by the skin. They sit on the surface of the skin and slow the production of the skin’s natural emollients.
There are also concerns that this barrier makes it difficult for skin to eliminate toxins. Many formulators use propylene glycol and other solvents to improve the penetration of petrochemicals. Petrochemicals are also not nourishing or active in any way.
Petrochemicals and their derivatives are banned by every organic certification body in the world. Any product that uses petrochemicals and claims to be organic is a long way away from global standards.


It seems as though the worst that you can expect from using products that contain petrochemicals is a heat rash and possibly acne.
But – do you want to support multi-national oil companies and do you think that you will see an improvement in your skin?

1. References:
1. Contact Dermatitis. 1982 Mar;8(2):141.
2. Contact Dermatitis. 1988 Feb;18(2):120-1.
3. Contact Dermatitis. 1997 Apr;36(4):216-20