Why Paraffin and Petroleum Products are Bad for Skin Problems

Back in my early twenties I used to walk out of the pharmacy each month with a gigantic carrier bag. We're fortunate here in the UK to have the NHS. Our National Health Service covers our prescriptions, so unlike the USA where you need insurance and have to pay hundreds of dollars for medication, we pay less than ten pounds no matter what we're prescribed. 

I used to have one of those pay-yearly cards, which at the time I think was around £60. This covered me for all my prescription creams, steroids and medicated shampoos year-round. I never really went into much detail with my doctor on what was in the stuff I was slathering onto my skin. I just trusted it was somehow going to help my psoriasis. The short term effects of those thick moisturisers seemed to alleviate the discomfort, but they never helped conclusively. In the absence of anything else, I just kept applying them. 

Products containing paraffin - whether prescription or otherwise - can be incredibly problematic for those of us with skin conditions, yet somehow they're still marketed at eczema, psoriasis and dry skin and routinely prescribed to patients. Some you might have heard of include: 

  • Oilatum Bath and Shower
  • E45 Cream
  • Diprobase Cream
  • Vaseline
  • Aveeno 
  • Johnsons Baby Oil 
  • Bio Oil
  • Aquaphor

.. and here are hundreds of others. It's actually really simple to check whether the products you're using contain paraffin, as it will be clearly labelled in the ingredients list under one or more of the following: 

  • Paraffin
  • Liquidum Paraffinum
  • Mineral Oil 
  • Petroleum 
  • Petrolatum
  • Petroleum Jelly
  • White soft paraffin

But if these emollient skin creams are used by thousands of people every day to manage dry, itchy or scaly skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and ichthyosis, why are the dangers not highlighted?

How Paraffin Works in Skincare

Let's be clear about why paraffin is so commonly used in dry skin creams .. because it's cheap. It can also feel instantly effective when it comes to hydrating parched skin cells. Forming a light, protective barrier over the surface of our skin, the intention is that the cream 'locks in' moisture. The problem here is that it also 'locks out' moisture! They literally put an invisible plaster over our skin and stop it from breathing-in moisture particles from the air. The waterproof barrier these creams create can clog pores and cause breakouts. Furthermore, used over an extended period of time, they reduce our skin’s ability to function normally and to regenerate new cells effectively. 

You might find instant relief when first applying these thick, greasy creams, but over time you'll find yourself needing to re-apply them more often. This is because our skin can't do it's intended job of producing sebum. So it becomes reliant on creams for hydration. You're replacing your skin's natural task with a synthetic alternative. 

Serious Fire Risk Associated with Paraffin

Firstly, there's the obvious fire risk. Paraffin, petroleum, or however it's labelled in your skincare, is essentially refined petrol. This stuff is highly flammable. Since 2010 more over fifty deaths and serious injuries have been linked to the use of emollient skin creams through fire.

WARNING: If using these creams on babies and children, please read this research conducted by the BBC. It highlights the dangers of petroleum products impregnating clothes and bedding. The study showed the paraffin residue was not removed in a 30 degree wash and so exposure to a naked flame then ran the risk of fabrics catching fire. Absolutely not something you want to risk around elderly relatives, babies or children. 

Fortunately the medical community is at least in part taking note, with a government campaign launched in the summer of last year regarding the fire risk associated with paraffin-based emollients on dressings.

In 2018, following new evidence, the MHRA recommended that labelling should include a clear warning about fire hazards, with advice not to smoke or go near naked flames and information about the risk of severe burn injury or death when clothing, bedding and dressings with emollients dried on them are accidentally ignited.

Aqueous Creams Dry Skin Out

Ninety percent of GPs say they prescribe aqueous cream to patients, yet a staggering eighty five per cent are in fact authorising it to patients incorrectly.

Doctors are prescribing Aqueous Cream as a moisturiser to help combat dry skin associated with conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, however it was first developed and intended as an alternative to soap. 

Government advice updated in 2014 suggests aqueous creams may cause skin irritation, particularly in children with eczema. And the National Eczema Society notes that aqueous cream, when used as a leave on product, are "associated with an immediate skin reaction (stinging, burning, itching, and redness) within 20 minutes in 56% of exposures".

Dr Tony Bewley - a consultant dermatologist at Whipps Cross and Barts Hospital in London - explains that applying these products as a lotion can in fact exacerbate skin problems, "if people with eczema leave aqueous cream on their skin, it could make their condition worse. People with eczema do not produce as much natural oil in their skin, so it tends to become dry. However, aqueous cream will not really help - not least because it does not contain much actual moisturiser."

In addition, many aqueous creams routinely available in the shops contain sodium lauryl sulphate, which further breaks down the skin's barrier, making skin extremely sensitive and flaring eczema and psoriasis. Always check your skincare product labels to see what's in the stuff you're slathing on. 

Skin Thinning Properties of Paraffin

In 2010 a study by the University of Bath highlighted another concern over using paraffin based emollients. They have the potential to thin our skins delicate barrier. The research highlights that using emollient creams actually reduces the thickness of healthy skin over a period of four weeks, calling into question whether the cream should be used for treating eczema, particularly when treating children and babies.

Richard Guy, Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University and Project Supervisor, explained the problem arises due to sodium lauryl sulfate, which is often found in prescription emollients; "Our study has found that rubbing aqueous cream containing SLS into the skin thins this protective barrier, making the skin more susceptible to irritation by chemicals. So to use this cream on eczemous skin, which is already thin and vulnerable to irritation, is likely to make the condition even worse."

NICE The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, have also noted that "several studies reported alterations in skin physiology (thinning of the outermost layer of the skin and increased skin water loss) following application of aqueous cream as an emollient in adults, both with and without eczema"

Better Alternatives to Paraffin? 

It goes without saying that all the products you'll find in my skincare range are free from petroleum, paraffin, sodium lauryl sulfate and in fact all petrochemicals. The natural, botanicals we choose to use in the range are there because they nurture skin, not because they are cheap or act as fillers. 

When choosing skin creams and lotions, opt for products containing naturally hydrating alternatives to paraffin, these might include: 

  • Shea Butter
  • Castor Oil
  • Coconut Oil
  • Avocado Oil
  • Jojoba Oil
  • Apricot Kernel Oil 
  • Beeswax
  • Carnauba
  • Candelilla

You might find your skin takes a little while to transition to natural skincare products. Remember, these cheap paraffin creams have stopped skin from breathing for a while, so skin cells need to become accustomed to drawing moisture from the air, rebalancing pH and regaining natural sebum production. 

scar minimising oil

For Scars: one of the most commonly marketed scar minimising oils in the UK is Bio Oil. Marketed to help improve the appearance of scars, stretch marks and uneven skin tone, whilst is does contain some natural oils, it also contains 'mineral oil' - a form of refined petroleum. It also contains lavender oil which contains something called 'linalool' it's this compound that products the fragrance we smell, however it can react with air to form a skin irritant for anyone allergic to it.

My scar minimising oil has been made with Sweet Almond Oil, vitamin E, avocado and rosehip and would therefore offer a better alternative if you're keen to avoid petroleum and allergens. 

For Dry Skin and Chapped Lips: Vaseline has long been our go-to for chapped lips and sore babies bottoms! This product hasn’t changed much since Robert Augustus Chesebrough first discovered it back in 1859. Its primary ingredient is petroleum (hence 'petroleum jelly') and it creates a thick barrier across skin. 

My Skin Saviour Balm is wonderful for everyday use. Light enough to use without making clothing excessively greasy, it feels comfortable on skin and features grape seed and black cumin seed oils to heal dry and damaged patches. If you'd prefer something heavier, my Intensive Overnight Balm is the same consistency as Vaseline, but without the petrochemicals. We use castor oil, shea butter and ginger to naturally care for problem skin. 

Bathtime for Eczema and Psoriasis: there can be a real temptation to pour heaps of petroleum based emollients into bath water as an alternative to soaps. Products such as Oilatum not only contain paraffin, they also manufacture using lanolin which frequently causes contact hypersensitivity. Check out my article on natural alternatives to use in the bath depending on your skin condition. 

Creams for Dry Skin: when it comes to treating dry skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, slathering on aqueous and E45 creams often becomes the norm. These should only ever be used temporarily, because as you've read above they can seriously thin skin and prevent it from performing its natural duties. 

Instead of applying these greasy, heavy creams, try gradually switching to light oils such as jojoba which are similar to our skin's natural pH. If you don't find oils hydrating enough to begin with, you might like to use shea butter until your skin begins its process of sebum production again. Shea Butter is relatively inexpensive to buy online and great for whipping up your own body butter recipes such as this one

My Body Cream with Chia Seed Oil also contains sweet almond, grape seed and turmeric oils, designed to be massaged into dry patches to help naturally hydrate without petrochemicals. 

Conclusion

Yes, natural skincare, creams and oils will always cost that bit more than mass produced petrochemicals, but that's because every ingredient included serves a very specific purpose and is definitely not added because it's cheap! 

You should also find that overtime you'll need to apply less product, because the intention is for it to work in harmony with your skin, allowing healthy cells to regenerate and skin to produce its natural sebum oils without interruption. 

If you're transitioning off petroleum products, you might want to do this slowly. Gradually switching to natural oils such as jojoba or avocado instead of laying on the greasy creams, can be a fantastic and inexpensive way to readjust. 

Overtime you should need to apply less and less to your skin because it can breathe properly and absorb moisture from the air without battling clogged pores. 

Let me know about your experience with petroleum based creams by sharing in the comments below. 

3 comments

I’ve been using medical emollients for years now! I so want to come off of them, I am going to try your suggestions. Thank you Hannah 💕

patricia Knapp-tabbernor May 29, 2021

This is a great article, really interesting and informative. I’ve been using aqueous creams for years without realising the damage these chemicals were doing, and also not seeing any improvement in my psoriasis.
I love your skin cream with chia seed oil, unfortunately I use quite a lot and it is expensive, can you do it in a bigger jar please, it might be more cost effective.

Gay Clark May 29, 2021

I have rosea And red blotchy skin .what do you recommend.

John White May 29, 2021

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