What is it?
It’s easiest to think of these two substances as chemical cousins. Both are by-products of the refining process used to create gasoline and other petroleum products. If you want to get technical: petroleum jelly contains mineral oil, among other substances. Mineral oil consists mainly of saturated hydrocarbons (aka paraffins) and aromatic hydrocarbons.
Both substances go by multiple other names. Petroleum jelly is also known as petrolatum, white petroleum, and soft paraffin. Mineral oil also goes by paraffin oil, white mineral oil, and liquid paraffin.
The naming system for these two substances can get a little messy, as their names can be used interchangeably, incorrectly. The names also don’t indicate the degree of refinement the substance has undergone, which is a crucial component of safety, as is discussed below.
Mineral oil and petroleum jelly are often used in personal care products like lotions, moisturizers, conditioners, ointments, lip balms, and cosmetics. Both are widely used in baby care products like balms and oils.
The Health Concern
Mineral oil and petroleum jelly products undergo refining. The extent to which they’re refined determine their grade and are somewhat of a yardstick for measuring safety concerns.
In the manufacturing process, mineral oil products can be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), some of which are known or potential carcinogens. When refined properly, mineral oil does not contain PAHs. Unfortunately, it is common for mineral oil products not to be fully refined in the United States, creating the potential for PAH contamination. And it’s hard to know if they’ve been properly refined, without the company providing the entire refining history of the product.
Studies have found that humans can accumulate some paraffins that the body’s metabolism cannot excrete. Animal studies have indicated that these paraffins can, but impacts on humans remain understudied. Mineral paraffins may be one of the largest contaminants in the human body. One study reported that cosmetics and personal care products may be a relevant source of exposure.
White mineral oil, paraffin, and petroleum jelly are persistent in the environment, meaning they don’t readily break down over time.[i] They are also toxic to aquatic life in the short- and long-term. This means that these substances (like many by-products of oil refining) are harmful to the planet.
Mineral oil and petroleum jelly are not allowed in MADE SAFE® certified products. This is due to their persistence in the environment, toxicity to aquatic life, and the potential risks they pose to humans through contamination and accumulation.
How to Avoid Them
- Mineral oil and petroleum jelly go by many other names. Skip the following ingredients on labels too: petrolatum, white petroleum, paraffin wax, paraffin oil, liquid paraffin, etc.
- Look for safer moisturizing ingredients like shea butter, jojoba oil, cocoa butter, avocado oil, coconut oil, and sunflower oil.
- Avoid using potentially toxic substances on children, as they are most vulnerable to exposure during critical windows of development. Because mineral oil and petroleum jelly are very commonly used in baby and children’s products, double check the label to ensure that your products do not contain them.
- Read our Healthy Baby Guide to learn more about how to shop safer for baby.
- Shop for MADE SAFE certified products, which do not allow the use of mineral oil or petroleum jelly, as well as numerous other substances known or suspected to be harmful.
[i] US EPA. 2019. Estimation Programs Interface Suite™ for Microsoft® Windows, v 4.11. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, USA. Available from https://www.epa.gov/tsca-screening-tools/epi-suitetm-estimation-program-interface