Monday, November 12, 2007

Apple #281: Baby Oil

Just now while roaming various websites, I came across a mention of baby oil. I thought of what I usually tell people about how baby oil is made -- put a bunch of babies into a big vat and squeeze 'em and what drips out is baby oil. People always look at me with a mixture of distaste and doubt -- could that be true? No, it can't be true. Can it?

Baby oil. Made from baby squeezin's? Or something else?
(Photo from Johnson's)

I mean it as a joke, of course. But because the phrase is so ineptly worded, that is what it suggests.

Baby oil is also known as mineral oil. But, okay, so what is mineral oil? I had always thought it was derived from some ground-up minerals. After doing only a very little bit of searching, I found out that's not right, either.

  • Mineral oil is derived from petroleum. That's right, oil-oil. Like, the oil you pour into your car.

Is this what you're rubbing into your skin to make it nice and soft? Or is this just a scare tactic?
(Image from

  • People rub mineral oil on their babies, on their faces, on their legs. People take it as an enema (because its natural effect on your body is to give you diarrhea, it's great for loosening up the bowels) -- or even drink it.
  • But if mineral oil comes from petroleum, does that mean it's a scary and secretly toxic thing?
  • The important thing to know about mineral oil is that there are two different grades of it. They vary based on the type of oil gunk the refining process starts with.
      • Industrial-grade mineral oil is used by chemical companies, places that have particle accelerator labs, and in general, people who do really involved chemical experiments. This type of mineral oil starts with a naphthene base, which is basically crude oil and has no paraffin wax in it.
      • Food-grade mineral oil comes from paraffin, which is a byproduct of the oil distillation process. So it's a refinement of a refinement.

Paraffin wax. It's a by-product of crude petroleum refining process, yes. It's also the mother of Vaseline and mineral oil. Both Vaseline and mineral oil are also known as petrolatum.
(Photo from Ehsan Chemi Esteban Co.)

      • This is fairly commonly used in the food industry as a lubricant. It's in sprays used to clean cutting boards, or in lubricants used to grease food processing machinery, or it's used to coat packaging so it won't stick to the food. This grade is also what's in enemas, in nasal sprays, and other lubricating-type medical products. And this grade of mineral oil is also used in pesticides for the way it clogs up the breathing of various little mites that attack honey bees.

Mineral oil is recommended as a cleaner for butcher blocks or wooden cutting boards. Vegetable oils are not recommended for this purpose because they will turn rancid.
(Photo from

      • By the way, the World Health Organization studied the effects of ingesting mineral oil, and they found that though the body does absorb some of it, because of its tendency to produce diarrhea, not that much gets absorbed. They found that the amount that does stay in your system is not enough to cause cancer.
  • I've run across lots of beauty & cosmetics-related sites that talk about "cosmetics-grade mineral oil." There's no such thing. The chemical companies that process mineral oil either make it for industrial purposes or to food-grade specifications. That's it.
  • There also seem to be rumors circulating that mineral oil causes cancer, and that you should avoid all cosmetics products that contain mineral oil.
  • At very high concentrations -- like, if you worked in a mineral oil processing facility and you wore no gloves -- mineral oil might give you cancer. But at the level of absorption that would occur with the occasional use of mineral oil in cosmetics, that's not going to happen.
  • In fact, people who already have cancer, are getting radiation, and are often bound up gastric-wise as a result are frequently advised by their doctors to take enemas that contain mineral oil, or even to drink products that contain mineral oil as a way to loosen up the works. Even the various cancer societies around the country suggest mineral oil to people who are fighting against cancer.

Contains mineral oil. Recommended to people struggling with some of the side-effects of cancer-killing radiation.
(Image from

  • Ingested mineral oil can block the absorption of essential vitamins, however. So if you do drink it for its cleansing properties, it's a good idea to take a multivitamin afterwards, and to use it sparingly.
  • You also want to make sure you don't drink too much of it at once -- though that's difficult because it will give you diarrhea in a hurry. If you think you've ingested too much mineral oil, drink a lot of water. That will work better than making yourself throw it up.
  • You also want to be careful about inhaling it. Again, just opening a bottle and using it as you normally would isn't going to be toxic. But if you sit there and sniff it for a long time, or if you work in a mineral oil processing plant and don't protect yourself, you could get "chemical pneumonia."

This baby oil also contains aloe vera & vitamin E. It's got mineral oil in it, but it's still "Nature's Choice."
(Image from Unipack)

  • There's also been some dispute about whether or not applying mineral oil to your face will give you acne. Not very long ago, it was proven that the kind of mineral oil that's sold in the drug store will not give you acne. Since it isn't absorbed easily into the body, it will rest on your skin, and won't soak into your pores and clog up the works.
  • One thing to note, though, is that some "baby oils" do contain a lot of perfume or fragrance. And those perfumes could clog your pores or irritate your skin.
  • Anyone selling cosmetics who says their products are better because they don't contain mineral oil are trying to scare you into buying something more expensive.

This bath & shower gel contains mineral oil and oatmeal. Cost? $7.73.
(Image from

Shaving cream is one of about 95,000 things in the drugstore that contain mineral oil. Cost? $3.99.
(Image from

So while the parentage, so to speak, of mineral oil is a bit scary, in practice, it's not the screaming end of mineral oil. If you hate petroleum and all things to do with petroleum, then go ahead and choose products with other ingredients. But know that you'll pay bigger bucks for that choice.

P.S. I'll admit that after having done this entry, I checked the labels on my various bottles of hand lotion. They all have mineral oil in them -- or petrolatum, which is another word for the same thing. I'll admit it didn't exactly give me comfort.

But then, not only did I find it in so many products, those are all products I have been using for years and that have not given me rashes, break-outs, scary lumps, or chicken heads growing out of my flesh or anything like that. So I decided all over again that while the presence of mineral oil in all my lotions doesn't fill me with contentment, I'm not going to throw them all away or go out and buy everything all-natural at six times the price. I'm going to live with it. Same as I've always done, just without knowing it.

National Cancer Institute, mineral oil
American Cancer Society, mineral oil
Medline, Mineral oil overdose
JT Baker Material Safety Data Sheet, Mineral oil
Clearco, Food Grade Lubricants
STE Oil Company, Crystal Plus Mineral Oil Frequently Asked Questions
Schlumberger, Oilfield Glossary, naphthene-based crude oil
Stanford University, Conservation Online, Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology, paraffin
Columbia Encyclopedia, petrolatum
Arias Martinez et al., "Use of food grade mineral oil and integrated beekeeping practices in the control of varroa infections in Apis mellifera colonies,", March-June 2001
FAO Nutrition Meetings, "Toxicological evaluation of some extraction solvents and certain other substances," FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, June-July 1970
The Beauty Brains, The top 5 myths about mineral oil - Part 1, What are the long term effects of taking mineral oil?
Acne Resource Center Online, Cosmetics and Acne
(abstract / press release) "Don't Believe the Hype - Mineral Oil Won't Give You Zits," Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, May 24, 2005
Angry Toxicologist, Ask a Toxicologist: Harmful Cosmetics Ingredients? May 21, 2007


  1. Great information! Thanks.

    (I enjoyed your kinds of snow post, too).

  2. that was a good read and tons of information ..saved me a lot of time googling stuff related to this ...i just bought baby oil for my son ...i think i am going to use it and see if he is ok with it...thanks once again!

  3. I found your blog very informative and agree with many of your statements.

    As I say this, mineral oil will NOT give you zits, but by using it on your face you are basically creating a barrier (like saran wrapping your skin) and you are trapping dirt, oil, etc between the lotion and your skin which can cause acne to occur.

    That is why products that do not contain mineral oil, but essential oils from plants/herbs are more beneficial because they can be absorbed.... After seeing my face and the faces of others clear up after discontinuing the use of products with mineral oil -- a little extra $ is nothing to spend when you are talking about taking care of the largest organ in your body - your skin!

  4. You make some very good points, Jamie. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  5. Chris Roberts7/31/2009 6:32 PM

    Apple Lady, you are great! Not only do I find your research to be thorough and informative, your style is down-to-earth and refreshing. Thank you for a good read - I'll be back for more!

  6. Thank you. I just sorted out all my lotions and cosmetic and have a pile ready to be thrown because they have mineral oil in them. You saved me a ton of $$. I think you are right. There is a lot of new organic companies out there trying to sell their new products.


If you're a spammer, there's no point posting a comment. It will automatically get filtered out or deleted. Comments from real people, however, are always very welcome!