Two of the biggest beauty terms right now are “mineral” (think flawless-coverage mineral makeup, mineral-rich thermal water) and “oil” (as in face oil, hair oil, body oil, sunscreen oil…). Does that make mineral oil a beauty no-brainer? Not exactly. Plenty of classic beauty products feature mineral oil for its hydrating properties, but there are also dozens of brands that emphatically call out their avoidance of the ingredient (along with other established beauty “bad” words, such as parabens, phthalates, PABA, artificial colors, artificial fragrances, and all those other things we’re all supposed to be avoiding) right there on the packaging. So what is mineral oil, exactly—friend or foe? Classic skin-care staple, or major no-no?
“Mineral oil belongs to the class of chemicals called hydrocarbons, which are compounds containing only carbon and hydrogen,” says biochemist Paula Simpson. “Typical hydrocarbons are petrolatum, paraffin, and mineral oil, all of which are widely used as emollients because of their low volatility and smoothing texture when applied to the skin.” This helps explain why mineral oil is so widespread in skin care, from drugstore bargains to high-end prestige products. It locks in moisture to heal dry, irritated skin and makes products feel silky-smooth and luxurious, but Simpson continues that “because of the barrier effect it has on skin, mineral oil can also clog pores.” And according to dermatologist Ava Shamban, “creams that combine mineral oil and paraffin can actually damage the skin barrier and increase water loss.”
“I highly recommend staying away from mineral oil,” says Beverly Hills aesthetician Sonya Dakar, whose clients include Jennifer Lawrence and Gwyneth Paltrow. “It’s derived from petroleum and does not absorb into the skin—its molecular size is simply too big. As a result, mineral oil remains on the surface of skin, making it a reflector of the sun, which can lead to more sun damage and discoloration.” And while there are many oils that can moisturize without clogging pores, mineral oil isn’t one of them. “It’s the one type of oil I don’t recommend for any skin types,” says Dallas-based celebrity aesthetician Renée Rouleau. “It clogs the pores and suffocates the skin. Cosmetic companies formulate moisturizers with heavy oils, such as mineral oil or petroleum, to replenish dry skin. But those oils have large molecular structures, so they usually never truly penetrate. Your moisturizer should always absorb into the skin, not just sit on the surface.”
Here’s a way to test it: Rouleau suggests waiting five minutes after moisturizing, then lightly touching your skin with clean fingers. “If you can still feel the moisturizer’s heaviness on the skin, then it very well may be too rich for you. Your skin acts as a sponge—it takes in what it needs and the rest will sit on top, suffocating the skin and potentially leading to clogged pores and dull, tired-looking skin.” Dakar recommends a mineral-free facial oil (try formulas by Weleda and Sonia Kashuk). “I especially like flaxseed oil,” she says. “It penetrates into the skin and provides multiple benefits: It reduces irritation and inflammation, hydrates, and balances oil production.”
But if you spot mineral oil on your tried-and-true favorite product’s ingredient list, don’t freak out: A complete skin-care product purge may not be necessary. “Mineral oil gets a bad rap for being greasy, but it cuts right through dramatic eye makeup,” says cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson. “Just follow with cleanser to remove filmy residue.”
Check out these shape-shifting, color-changing, basically kind of crazy cleansers: