Avoiding Toxins – Petroleum Products in lotions and make-up

Much like sodas seem to quench your thirst but in reality just make you thirstier (because of the salt), petroleum products do not moisturize, but dry your skin out, making you use even more of it.

Petroleum products create a barrier that the lotion companies tell you will lock whatever moisture is already there into your skin. If you put it on wet skin, it does lock that moisture into the deeper tissues, though it still dries out the outermost layers of skin. If you put it on dry skin, it does no good at all, and in either case it suffocates the skin cells because that barrier does not allow them any oxygen. Back in college I dated someone whose sister researched this stuff, and she showed me skin cells under a microscope before petroleum products, all plump and normal looking, and then those same skin cells about fifteen minutes after a lotion containing mineral oil (which is made from petroleum products), all shriveled up and dry and sick looking. Yeah, it made it slippery, but it dehydrated the actual skin cell. The next step was to wash that skin with a degreaser, add olive oil to it, wait fifteen minutes, and look again. A nice plump healthy looking cell. I was pretty ticked off that the lotion promising to hydrate my skin was actually dehydrating the skin cells.

Petrolatum, Vaseline, mineral oil… whatever you want to call it, is a non-polar hydrocarbon hydrophobic. Let me repeat that part: It is hydrophobic. And it’s all hydrophobic, there aren’t other properties in there that can nourish. It makes your skin slippery, but it repels moisture. Once it is on your skin it repels moisture away from your skin. Vegetable glycerine, on the other hand, is hygroscopic, which means it attracts water to it. Put something with vegetable glycerine into your skin and your skin will start attracting moisture to it.

If you search the web you’ll find lots of conflicting information about petroleum jelly, petrolatum, mineral oil… I’ll include a list of the ways it can be shown in ingredients in a bit. But, back to the point – the controversies around this stuff on the web all seem to concentrate on whether it is toxic or not… and not on what it does to your skin. There are some sites that say there is a danger of it having PAH’s in it, and then they point to studies that show PAH’s in breast cancer tissue. Then there are sites that assure you that food grade mineral oil has filtered out all of the PAH’s. That may be so, but cosmetic grade mineral oil is not the same as food grade mineral oil.

There are also numerous statements out there saying the European Union has banned it’s use in cosmetics. I don’t believe this is true, but there does appear to be some regulation around which forms it can and cannot be used in cosmetic products. You can start here, if you want more information. I don’t use the stuff, so I just glanced at the page and saw a number of petroleum products listed, with information about the percentage of various substances they can have in them. Again, I haven’t kept up on the toxicity and safety of it, because the reason I’m not using it is because it dries out your skin instead of moisturizing it. Maybe it’s toxic, maybe it’s not – I don’t know.

Apparently, mineral oil got the name not because it has minerals in it, but because in the old “animal, vegetable, or mineral” classification, it wasn’t animal oil or vegetable oil so it was named mineral oil. Still, it seems pretty misleading, doesn’t it? Here are the various names I’m aware of that petroleum products can be used in the ingredients list:

  • Mineral oil (also white mineral oil, heavy mineral oil, light mineral oil, etc)
  • Mineral Jelly
  • White oil
  • Paraffin (also liquid paraffin, paraffin oil, soft paraffin, paraffin jelly, etc)
  • Paraffinum Liquidum
  • Vaseline (also Vaseline oil)
  • Petrolatum (also liquid petrolatum)
  • Wax oil
  • Deobase
  • Prolatum oil
  • Petroleum, petroleum oil, white petroleum oil

These are all biproducts of the processing of crude oil into gasoline, and there are different grades of each of these. Food grade mineral oil does likely have all of the impurities filtered out of it. Probably. I’m not so sure about the cosmetic grade stuff, though, as there does not appear to be regulation of that in the U.S. And besides that, it’s hydrophobic. No one is debating that point, it’s a scientific fact that everyone agrees upon. Why would you put something strictly hydrophobic on your skin to moisturize it? If your skin is already wet then it’s going to push the surface water down deep into your skin, but that will leave the surface skin cells all dried out. If your skin is already dry it’s just going to keep any moisture from getting to it. Yes, it lubricates the outside of the skin cell, it makes the outside slippery, but what good is that doing, really? I can’t find it now, but fifteen or more years ago I read a paper that showed how petroleum products made your skin age more than using natural vegetable products on your skin. There was talk of free radicals and oxygen and… I wish I could find it again, but if it made it to the internet, I can’t find it.

So, the next question is, if we aren’t going to use a petroleum product on our skin, and almost all name brand lotions have petroleum products in them… what do we use?

Oils are hydrophobic by nature, but plant oils have some other properties as well. For instance, olive oil is a trigylceride or (technically), a glycerolipid — it is three fatty acids attached to a glycerol backbone. It’s a pretty complex compound of fatty acids, vitamins, water soluble components, volatile components, and microscopic pieces of olive. The primary fatty acid is oleic, which is great for your skin.  Olive oil doesn’t create a barrier, it soaks in and nourishes.

Go to your kitchen and use some olive oil on your hands. Yes, it is oily and greasy and you’ll want to not touch anything for about five minutes after you put it on, while it is soaking in, but it will make your hands feel so much better. Grapeseed oil is lighter and not quite as greasy, but you’ve got to be careful who you buy it from, as some companies use solvents to get the oil out of the seed. Coconut oil is excellent for your skin, and great for people with eczema. I buy shea butter in bulk by the ounce at a local heath food grocery store – no greasiness at all, but you’ve got to let it melt in your hands a few seconds before you can rub it in. I send a Burt’s Bees lotion to my parents’ house for them to use on the girls when they are there. My mom informed me she, “would not use cooking oil on her grandbabies’ skin” when I suggested they use olive oil instead of the petroleum based lotions they were using. She’s a snob about homemade lotions, so I send something storebought (though, now that I think about it, she loves the arthritis lotion I make). Burt’s Bees also has an apricot and grapeseed based baby oil, but they are required to use preservatives in it, so I usually just made my own. It’s much cheaper to make your own, just don’t mix more than you’ll use in about two or maybe three weeks, and keep the unmixed oils in the refrigerator until you get ready to mix them up. I’ll talk about that in more detail in a later post.

We currently have a decent selection of commercially prepared lotions with plant based ingredients. Walmart carries a hemp oil based lotion that isn’t all that expensive, for instance. It’s got a lot of great ingredients, but it also has a few things I’m not thrilled with, but it doesn’t have any petroleum products at all — and it seems that all commercial lotions that don’t cost an arm and a leg have preservatives and a few filler chemicals. You can get Burts Bees products just about anywhere these days, and other than the fact that they have to use preservatives, I like what they put in their products. And the preservatives they use are generally the least bad, where the petroleum based products generally have the cheapest preservatives which (of course) are also usually the sketchiest. If you go to the specialty stores you’ll find that most of the lotions are quite expensive. You can go to your local whole foods type market and sample what they have, but you still need to read the ingredients.

The easiest thing to do, if you are going for simple and cheap, is to buy straight vegetable glycerine and mix it half water and half glycerin in a small spray bottle and spray yourself down with it every day. Some people like more water than that and go as high as two parts water to one part glycerin. Experiment around and see what works. Mix it in a small spray bottle, four ounces should be fine if you are using it daily, just make sure you keep the bottle of straight glycerine in the refrigerator. If you mix too much at a time it will mold on you — that’s because you aren’t using preservatives. Your skin doesn’t need them, that’s a good thing. Just don’t mix too much at a time and it will be fine to leave out on your bathroom vanity. You can put two or three drops of lavender essential oil into it to act as a preservative if you’d like, but it’s not necessary. There are other plant oils that can act as a preservative, too, but I’ll talk about that another day. The vegetable glycerin mixture is good for your skin and your hair, if you happen to have dry hair.

Chapsticks, lipsticks, and lip glosses are another thing that almost always have petroleum products in them. I use the original Burt’s Bees Beeswax Lip Balm, but RK and GlitterGirl say it burns their lips (the mint in it is kind of strong, but I love it). Glittergirl uses the Burt’s Bees Lip Shimmer (she likes the champagne gloss, it goes on almost clear, but there are darker colors too), and RK uses the Burt’s Bees Honey Lip Balm. There are some lipsticks out there, Korres has tinted lip butter and lipstick, and Tarte LipSurgence has a good lip stain that hydrates really well. I also like the Burt’s Bees tinted lip balms, but they aren’t a solid color like you get from lipstick.

What vegetable based skin products have you found that work well for you?


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15 Responses to “Avoiding Toxins – Petroleum Products in lotions and make-up”

  1. zgirl1 Says:

    A great website to search for safer alternatives is

    It will also tell you the toxicity/safety level of conventional personal care products.

    I use Burt’s Bees Lip shimmers as my main “lipstick.”

  2. ionethesandbox Says:

    Great info! Thanks! I am going to start making home made lotion. I hope it comes out ok!!

  3. RumorQueen Says:

    ionethesandbox – I’ll be talking about homemade lotions and oils and salves in another post.

  4. Katiebug Says:

    that’s why they put petroleum in butt creams to prevent diaper rash to keep a barrier between baby’s butt and what’s in the diaper. I prefer not to use petroleum based products unless I have to for things like prescription ointments. @Zgirl1 thanks for the link

  5. stella99 Says:

    zgirl, are you sure that’s the right website? it redirects you to one that seems like just a commercial website selling expensive (but not necessarily safe) products.

  6. RumorQueen Says:

    Stella99 – thanks for pointing that out. I’m pretty sure she probably meant to point to:

    They don’t have everything right, but it is a nice starting point. And I think many of the things I’ve found that were wrong had more to do with manufacturers changing ingredient lists and them not being able to keep up with the changes – so a good rule of thumb is to check current ingredients and make sure they are the same as the ewg site shows.

  7. PapayaKiddo Says:

    I didnt have any luck with that website either.

    What kind of kid shampoo do people recommend?

    I know i read an article somewhere on how we ingest whatever we put on our lips. I like some burts bees stuff, but not all.

  8. PapayaKiddo Says:

    thanks RQ! That is the site I have been looking for!

  9. RumorQueen Says:

    There are some things that site classifies as dangerous that I don’t consider dangerous, so do your research before you decide against something based on what the site says. And, like I said, they don’t always keep up with what is currently in an items ingredients, so doublecheck the actual ingredients with what the site has listed.

    It is a really good starting point, though.

  10. BeiLeesmom Says:

    I am starting to think that you are spying on me–your recent posts have been exactly what we are discussing and doing in our house. We are drastically cutting our use of sugar and HFCS and cutting out a lot of the processed foods. And I was starting to wonder about my cookware, so yesterday’s post was timely.
    Last fall I realized that my skin was looking terrible. Lots of enlarged pores, several pores that constantly produced oil, (like Old Faithful, but not so exciting when it’s your face) clogged pores, and just bad skin tone. And I was tired of spending a fortune on creams that were not delivering results. So I finally tried the oil cleansing method that my organic friend had been advocating. It was amazing how quickly my skin recovered from being over-dry and pumping oil. Now I only use oil (sunflower and castor) and honey to clean my face. I get funny looks in the gym when I take off my makeup with honey before I work out, but my skin is glowing.
    I still use sunblock, and I got a prescription for RetinA for my wrinkly areas, but I use almond oil as my main moisturizer and I am getting through this winter with healthy skin.

  11. Shamrocker67 Says:

    I have started using a deodorant that is all natural and has no alluminum inside since that is also harmful. anyway, I LOVE this deodorant – it smells so nice. I get all my alternative and cruelty free cosmetics etc from their Burts Bee’s stuff is so much cheaper too than the store.

  12. RumorQueen Says:

    I checked prices, because I get my Burt’s Bees stuff from Amazon and if I can get it cheaper then I’m pretty interested in that. The chapstick I use is 8.86 for four tubes at Amazon, which breaks down to 2.21 each, with no shipping charges for me since I’ve got their Prime membership. Vitacost is $2.39 each, and unless you spend $49 there will be shipping charges on top of that.

    The lotion I pointed to ends up being $5.34 on Amazon (three of them for $16.04), and at Vitacost it is 6.29. And, again, that’s free shipping on Amazon, and you have to pay for shipping at Vitacost unless you spend $49.

    And yes, we use the three tubes – GG has a tube in her locker at school, and I hold one back until she needs another for school, or they run out at my parents.

  13. Lesley Says:

    I am one of those people with dry skin, not clinically or medically significant, but always dry. Lotions kind of work and there is only so much water you can drink. So, I took RQ’s suggestion and tried plain old oil. My skin is sooo happy. I smell a bit like an olive but I’m willing to get over it. Thanks to all of the suggestions, I have other options to explore so people with bread and balsamic vinegar don’t start following me around. Cheers to all.

  14. mom3xsover Says:

    what about sunscreen? or is that for another post?

    i’m learning so much! thanks!

  15. zgirl1 Says:

    Oops! You used to be able to use the direct link, but it looks like EWG changed the link.