Does Mineral Oil Enhance UV Light?

Skin Care
Cosmetic-grade mineral oil is transparent.
Cosmetic-grade mineral oil is transparent.

Last week, I analyzed the issue of whether petrolatum enhances UV light. In that post, the myth that petrolatum enhances UV light due to a magnifying lens-like effect was debunked. Furthermore, it was concluded that petrolatum was able to confer mild “blocking” effects on both types of UV irradiation, with it being more adept at blocking UVB rays compared to UVA rays.

In the comments section however, one reader mentioned that mineral oil, which is derived from petrolatum, was actually shown to enhance the effects of UVB treatment. A comprehensive and albeit slightly speculative response was made by the author (read: me). And while I usually don’t write about a topic that’s already been (more) thoroughly discussed in the comments section, I judged this topic important enough to make an exception, since most people mineral oil with petrolatum. So here we go!

What is the Difference Between Mineral Oil and Petrolatum?

Methane is the simplest alkane and is a gas. As the size increases, an alkane will change to a liquid, and then to a solid at room temperature.
Methane is the simplest alkane and is a gas. As the size increases, an alkane will change to a liquid, and then to a solid at room temperature.

Summaries for the IPCS (International Programme on Chemical Safety) profiles on cosmetic-grade mineral oil and (cosmetic-grade of course) petrolatum reveal the main differences between the two types of compounds in terms of a variety of characteristics such as density and solubility.

Chemically-speaking however, the most important difference is that mineral oil is comprised of alkanes (saturated hydrocarbons) that have a chain length of between 14 – 20 carbon atoms. Petrolatum on the other hand, is mostly made up of alkanes that have a carbon chain length greater than 25. This difference is responsible for all the other attributes; it is why at room-temperature petrolatum has a jelly-like texture, while mineral oil has a liquid texture.

But is this difference in chemical composition, responsible for the claim that mineral oil enhances UV light?

What Does the Research Reveal?

The best way to examine this claim is to find comparative studies that test both types of compounds. Fortunately, there are a few.

In this 1979 study, multiple emollients were studied to see their effects on UVB transmission. Petrolatum was shown to reduce UVB transmission, while mineral oil had “minimal effects.”

Then in this 1995 study, this same conclusion was confirmed when testing fewer emollients: “Thick application of petrolatum and emollient creams can reduce transmission of UVB. Mineral oil and a clear liquid emollient did not significantly affect transmission or erythemogenicity of UVB.”

Notice how dry and flaky psoriatic plaques appear.
Notice how dry and flaky psoriatic plaques appear.

Finally, in this much more specialized and more in-depth study published in 2005 on mineral oil alone, it was shown that, “On the Vaseline oil pretreated side, significantly more plaques were cleared, especially in severe psoriasis. Scaling and infiltration were significantly improved. Application of Vaseline oil was more interesting in thick and scaly psoriasis probably because the oil penetrates the intercellular space allowing an optical matching effect which increases the UV transmission… We strongly recommend Vaseline oil pretreatment with UVB TL01 phototherapy in psoriasis, especially in severe psoriasis.”

Petrolatum and Mineral Oil Research Discussion and Analysis

Okay, we can definitely confirm that petrolatum does indeed reduce UVB transmission: the conclusion drawn in last week’s post.  But does mineral oil behave similarly?

Here is the SC of someone with psoriasis. Notice how it's thickened and bent out of shape.
Here is the SC of someone with psoriasis. Notice how it’s thickened and bent out of shape.

Well, the two early studies concluded that mineral oil had minimal or non-significant effects on UVB absorption, which most likely means that the studies did not yield statistically significant figures with p-tests; probably <0.05. The more specialized and more recent study however, found that mineral oil did enhance UVB transmission due to the oil penetrating the intercellular space and allowing an “optical matching effect.” The authors went to conclude that mineral oil would be especially (think yielding statistically significantly results) effective for those with severe psoriasis.

Upon clinical observation of patients with severe psoriasis, you’ll notice that the plaques are very dry and have tons of flaking skin everywhere. Microscopically, these layers of skin of the stratum corneum (SC) are in disarray: bent, twisted, and misaligned. Therefore, this arrangement will dilute the potency of UV light by reflecting it in all directions. What mineral oil does is slip between those layers of dry skin cells (think: INTER-cellular) and normalizes all the weird angles to allow the layers of skin to sit properly on top of each other; to match. It’s kind of like how a zipper will realign all the teeth after a pass.

Mineral oil helps the SC appear more flat and allows better penetration of UV light.
Mineral oil helps the SC appear more flat and allows better penetration of UV light.

This new arrangement of skin will therefore, be characterized by (more) regular layers that resemble a brick wall, which will reduce the reflection of UV light as it can now pass through at a direct angle. Think of how a knife will glance off of a bullet-proof vest if it comes in at an angle, but will penetrate if stabbed directly. This is likely the “matching optical effect” described.

So yes, mineral oil does indeed enhance penetration of UV light. And to answer the initial question posed: it does also appear that the difference in the sizes of the alkanes is responsible for the influence that mineral oil has on UV transmission. The smaller-sized alkanes of mineral oil allows the substance to better penetrate into the “intercellular space,” while those of petrolatum are larger and less able to do so.

***Note that, it is more the mechanical effect of mineral oil on the skin, rather than a direct chemical interactive effect between mineral oil and UV light, that is responsible.

Mineral Oil and Petrolatum Research Conclusion

But does that conclusion apply to the general population, or even to those with mild to moderate cases of psoriasis? Fortunately, it does not!

For once, it's better to just be "normal" and yes, boring! :)
For once, it’s better to just be “normal” and yes, boring! 🙂

You have to keep in mind that all of these studies were tested on patients with psoriasis, who have decreased susceptibility to UV transmission. And even in patients with mild to moderate cases as noted above, mineral oil had no significant effect. Mineral oil only had a significant effect on those with severe cases, due to the fact that it induced a change to a characteristic (flat layers of skin) that’s already present in “regular” skin. That significant increase was only a measure of the change in efficacy of mineral oil’s capacity to enhance UV irradiation when psoriatic skin mimicked normal skin. But as previously emphasized, the layers of skin are already flat in normal skin, so mineral oil would have no “optical matching effect.”

Therefore, this unique finding cannot be applied to the general population, and was taken out of context by the reader. It is logical to conclude that mineral oil neither protects against nor enhances UV transmission in normal skin.  

Also, please take the time to tell me your experiences with water-based products versus oil-based ones in this discussion. It would be of great help to me!

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  • @Grace

    Yep, now you know that mineral doesn’t really do anything in terms of the absorption of UV light. It’s also not carcinogenic in its cosmetic-grade form! So keep using mineral oil if it helps you.

  • @Sarah

    Welcome, welcome!

  • Grace

    Very informative. I was overwhelmed with the info on mineral oil. I use it all the time and never had a second thought. Now I am.

  • Sarah

    Thanks for another interesting writeup, John! I never even consider the possible correlation between mineral oil and UV light. Learn something new today. 🙂

  • @Andy

    Mhm. Baby oil, such as the ubiquitous one from Johnson & Johnson, is just pure mineral oil and fragrance. And you’re right that frying the skin is completely unnecessary.

  • Are products sold as Baby oil usually just mineral oil? An old girlfriend of mine used to use baby oil to help her tan. I used to think she was just frying her skin unnecessarily.

  • @Eileen

    Well, it takes one to know one. Lol! You’re a super rock star. 😉

  • @Melissa Backus

    Yay! I’m glad you enjoyed reading this little piece.

  • @Rozy

    Well, tanning oils may contain ingredients that enhance UV penetration such as psoralen and its derivatives/sources. But it’s the ingredients IN the tanning lotion, rather than the VEHICLE of the tanning lotion itself (read: mineral oil) that’s responsible. Mineral oil is just a neutral carrier that neither enhances nor obstructs UV light.

    Keep in mind that tanning oils may also contain some type of cosmetic bronzer or even DHA.

  • Eileen

    John, you’re a rock star! I really found your article on petrolatum to be interesting and informative. Now you’ve put the icing on the cake with this followup on mineral oil.

  • Melissa Backus

    I just HAD to read this since the article about petrolatum was so interesting and once again, you do not fail to impress! Very very interesting & informative!

  • Mind blown! My mom always said her moms generation sunbathed with baby oil and it made the tan even worse. Does that mean tanning oils don’t work to enhance UV penetration?

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