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Paraffins - Petroleum in cosmetics

Personal care paraffins, also known as mineral oils, are a by-product of petroleum processing and are formed from unpurified industrial paraffins. Purified paraffins are contained in liquid or solid form in numerous personal care products as binders in creams, ointments, pastes, lotions, cosmetics and other medical products because they have film-forming, protective and water-repellent properties. They do not cause allergies, are very well tolerated dermally and are inexpensive.

Paraffins harm the environment


In the production of lubricating oil, crude paraffins are distilled from crude oil in an energy-intensive process or extracted from lignite or bituminous shale and peat coal. Paraffin production thus contributes to increasing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.


In daily use, they enter the water cycle because they cannot be filtered by sewage treatment plants. However, they can be degraded by bacteria and do not remain permanently in the environment. The duration of degradation is unclear.

In recent years, large clumps of industrial paraffins have increasingly washed up on beaches, presumably from ship washings from chemical freighters. The discharge of paraffin and paraffin-like substances into the sea has so far been internationally regulated, but not banned. The problem is that paraffin lumps are mistaken for food by marine animals and seabirds. Furthermore, since these chunks have a low degree of purity, they contain carcinogenic substances such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (see MOAH below), which can be ingested by swimmers and marine animals. The German Federal Office for Risk Research (BfR) therefore considers "a general ban on discharges of such buoyant substances as paraffin into the North Sea and Baltic Sea to be absolutely necessary".

Discussion of health-damaging properties

During the processing of crude paraffin, two other paraffin components are formed in addition to pure paraffin:

  • aromatized mineral oils, in short MOAH (mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons) and

  • saturated mineral oil hydrocarbons, or MOSH (mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons).


In 2015, Stiftung Warentest found that MOAH was present in 25 out of 25 conventional cosmetic and personal care products tested. MOAH is strongly suspected of being carcinogenic. Three years later, in a February 2018 statement, the German Federal Institute for Risk Research (BfR) discusses the analytical methodology of MOSH and MOAH in products. The BfR concludes that only the two-step analytical methodology introduced in 2017 led to a significantly better quantification of MOAH, as this was obviously overestimated in the previous one-step procedure and thus led to falsely high MOAH levels in products.

MOSH, on the other hand, is present as an impurity in some lip balms. When applied, a part enters the body through oral uptake and accumulates in the organs. According to the BfR, a toxicological relevance for humans, as observed in a study on rats is doubtful.

Paraffins with a high degree of purity, which are used for cosmetics or as a component of medicinal products, are classified overall by the European Commission and the BfR as non-carcinogenic.

In 2015, the BfR admitted that there are "data gaps that make a health assessment difficult. These concern, among other things, data on uptake via the skin after prolonged contact, on oral bioavailability and on the relevance of histopathological liver changes (microgranulomas), which occurred in animal experiments in a particularly sensitive strain of rats after feeding corresponding preparations (...) Little is also currently known about the effect and presence of aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAH) in cosmetic products. An overall assessment is hampered not least by data gaps concerning the composition of the mineral oil mixtures used in the cosmetics industry."

The use of paraffin-containing topicals is well established in dermatology and other medical specialties. The widespread use in conventional and over-the-counter products should definitely be reconsidered, also for reasons of climate protection.



Types of paraffin in skin care products and cosmetics


Depending on its chemical composition and method of manufacture, paraffin appears in lists of ingredients on products under the following names:

  • Paraffinum liquidum

  • Petroleum or petrolatum

  • Isoparaffin

  • Ceresin

  • Vaseline (Microcrystalline Wax)

  • Cera Microcristallina

  • Mineral wax or mineral oil

  • Ozokerite

© Dr. med. Dipl. Biol. Susanne Saha 06/2021

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