Oil: the essential ingredient in cosmetics

 By Nicholas Newman

The global market for cosmetics was worth some $293.5 billion in 2016, led by famous brands such as L’Oréal, Estée Lauder, Beiersdorf and Coty. Not surprisingly, given its population size, Asia Pacific accounted for 36 percent of sales, followed by Europe at 26 percent and hot on its tail, North America at 24 percent…

Cosmetics has its roots in ancient traditions—abundant evidence has demonstrated that ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans applied cosmetics to their faces and hair with as much care and ingenuity as today’s consumers. In fact, the invention of cold cream is credited to Galen, a second century Greek physician. Today, cosmetic use is ubiquitous, with income no longer a barrier to adoption, and cosmetics for men have moved from being in a niche segment to the mainstream. Many of the cosmetic and hair care products on the market today rely on hydrocarbon molecules, derived from either mineral or vegetable oils, to provide antistatic, plasticiser and viscosity properties. Oils in concentrations ranging from 1 to 99 percent are found in most skin creams and lotions, body and face cleansers, sun protection and self-tanning lotions, lipsticks, foundations, nail care products, hair gels, vaselines and baby oils.

Women learn how to do makeup for the first time

Types of oil
Mineral oil
Derived from petroleum, heavily refined mineral oil is clear, odorless and safe for wide use in cosmetics. In fact, the oil used by the cosmetics industry is substantially more refined than the petrol used in cars. Mineral oil has properties that make it especially suited to the cosmetic industry: it rarely causes allergic reactions and it cannot become solid and clog pores. Studies have found that mineral oil and petrolatum (a semi-solid form of mineral oil more commonly known as Vaseline) are the most effective moisturizing ingredients available. Mineral oil products commonly used in cosmetics include liquid paraffin, liquid petroleum, paraffin oil, paraffinum liquidum, petrolatum liquid, petroleum oil, white mineral oil and white oil. Johnson’s Baby Oil, which is sold worldwide and used for adults as well as babies, is a perfumed mineral oil. Petrolatum, a sister, hydrocarbon product, is the main ingredient in the renowned eight--hour cream from Elizabeth Arden.

Vegetable oil
Vegetable oils form a barrier on the skin’s surface and thereby slow down the loss of water, helping to maintain the “plumpness” of skin. Vegetable oil is often a vital ingredient of bath products, cleansers, face and eye make-up, skin and suntan products. Vegetable oils made from almonds, castor, coconut and palm oil consist of ethereal salts of glycerine plus a large number of organic acids forming stearin, olein and palmitin, essential ingredients of these products.

Vegetable oil products (


The use of mineral oil in cosmetics has suffered from negative publicity in some parts of the media and from producers of natural based cosmetics, some of whom have claimed that it is best to avoid the use of mineral oil-based cosmetics. However, Randy Schueller, a cosmetic chemist, asserts that many of their claims are ‘bogus’ and without scientific evidence. Two main objections have been leveled against the use of mineral oils in cosmetics—the first is essentially an environmental argument based on sustainability and the second relates to potential harm from possible contamination.

Mineral oil is derived from a non-renewable resource and the process of extracting the oil can be damaging to the environment, say some objectors . This, perhaps, ignores the fact that no- one actually drills for oil simply to make cosmetics. Mineral oil is a byproduct of the crude oil refining process and exists whether the cosmetic industry uses it or not. There are however, real environmental objections to the production of vegetable oils and especially palm oil. The other main challenge to overcome is the perception that mineral oil contains impurities and contaminants. This is simply not the case in United States Pharmacopeia (USP) or British Pharmacopeia (BP) cosmetic grade refined mineral oils. Likewise, cosmetic grade vegetable oils have been similarly refined to remove mold, fungus and bacteria from plants.

The development of vegetable oil based cosmetics

In response to the public’s desire to avoid potential irritants and carcinogens, and to escape from preservatives and chemical additives, the industry is developing mineral oil-free products, choosing coconut or olive oil for its antibacterial properties and sunflower to maintain skin moisture. Examples of companies using such natural-based ingredients include Mrs Moos Natural Cosmetic Company and Neal’s Yard Remedies. Likewise, dermatologists are applying chemical peel agents made from plant phenols and sterols to make skin glow and banish blemishes. The commercial natural cosmetic segment has now reached a one percent share of the worldwide market valued by Organic Monitor at $10.4 billion, with certified products making up $3 billion in Western Europe. This rapid growth is attracting both scientists and entrepreneurs to develop new products and meet growing global demand.

SEE MORE: A touch of lubrication does wonders by Nicholas Newman

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.