Lanolin is a substance derived from sheep wool that has been used for skin care for over 8,000 years. According to ancient Egyptian history, the primeval Egyptians would place blocks of lanolin on their head. When the lanolin block melted in the sun and spread over the face, it made the skin soft. How we use lanolin today is obviously much different than the ancient Egyptians. Today, lanolin cream is used as an effective emollient in body creams and lotions to lock in moisture and prevent water loss. But you may have heard that lanolin can irritate sensitive skin and cause allergic reactions. So is lanolin safe? Read on to learn exactly what lanolin is, how it can benefit your skin, and whether or not you should have safety concerns.
What is lanolin?
Lanolin, also known as wool wax or wool grease, is a yellow wax secreted by the sebaceous (oil) glands of wool-bearing animals, such as sheep. In nature, lanolin’s role is to protect wool and skin from climate and the environment. It acts as a waterproof barrier for the sheep shielding them from rain, frost, and other natural elements. Lanolin also has antifungal and antibacterial properties that protect the sheep’s skin from infection. Lanolin used by humans is obtained from domestic sheep breeds that are raised specifically for their wool. The oil is extracted before the wool is processed to make clothing and other products. Extraction of lanolin does not cause any harm to these animals.
What is lanolin made of?
Now that you know what lanolin is, you are probably curious as to how this substance is refined and used in skin care products. When lanolin is initially extracted from the wool, it is a dark, highly viscous and greasy paste. It can be used in several technical applications in its crude form. Due to the color, odor, and impurities that are present in its crude form, lanolin must be refined before it can be used in cosmetic products and by the pharmaceutical industry. Hydrolysis of lanolin yields lanolin alcohol, which is more commonly used in skin care because it provides a smoother skin feel.
After refinement, lanolin can be used to make a variety of different skin care products. For example, pure lanolin is available as a thick jelly or ointment. Lanolin can also be mixed with other emollients and oils to form lanolin cream, lanolin lotion, and lanolin oil. We will discuss the differences between these products in more detail below.
Lanolin skin care products
Lanolin is a versatile ingredient that can be used to make many types of skin care products. Below we will discuss some of the most common types of products that contain lanolin.
Pure lanolin is a hard wax that can be applied to the body. It may be referred to on the product label as lanolin ointment. Pure lanolin is also available in lip products, such as lip balm tubes. Using pure lanolin for lips will help dry, cracked lips to feel softer and smoother.
Pure lanolin can be blended with oils and butters to create products that are softer and easier to spread than pure lanolin. Mixing pure lanolin with butters creates a lanolin balm, which is primarily used for dry skin on the body such as hands, elbows, and knees.
Lanolin oil, also known as liquid lanolin, is a liquid that can be separated from pure lanolin wax. Lanolin oil is typically used for hair. Using lanolin for hair helps to improve dry, brittle hair because it helps hold water on the hair shaft. Lanolin oil can also be applied to the skin for deep moisturizing and protection, especially where skin is severely dry, chapped, or may be exposed to a harsh environment.
Lanolin lotion is easily spreadable and typically applied to the body to alleviate dry skin. It usually contains less than 10% lanolin because otherwise it would feel sticky. One example of lanolin lotion is Triple Lanolin Aloe Vera Lotion, which combines natural lanolin and aloe vera to replenish your skin with moisture and keep it hydrated and healthy.
Lanolin cream is thicker than a lanolin lotion, but still contains less than 10% lanolin to prevent a sticky, tacky feeling. It is primarily used as a breastfeeding cream because it soothes and protects sore nipples. One example of lanolin cream for nipples is Lansinoh cream. Lansinoh cream is said to be 100% natural and safe for mom and baby, so there’s no need to remove it before breastfeeding. Lansinoh has a unique refining process that ensures a pure hypoallergenic product, with no additives, preservatives or parabens. Another popular lanolin cream is Medela lanolin, which contains pure lanolin, caprylic capric triglyceride, and oat beta glucan. Medela lanolin is intended to be used as a breastfeeding cream to offer soothing care and protection for dry, sore and tender nipples.
Lanolin is used extensively in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries because it provides numerous benefits to the skin. Lanolin is a long-chain waxy ester that contains cholesterol. It is actually very similar to the chemical structure of the oils produced by human skin. Due to its high lipid content, lanolin is occlusive, meaning it prevents the evaporation of water from the skin (transepidermal water loss). Ultimately, lanolin benefits the skin by keeping it moisturized and promoting healing. Using lanolin cream for nipples is the most popular way to use lanolin, however, lanolin cream can also be used for extremely dry, flaky, rough skin.
Is lanolin safe?
Lanolin is considered to be safe for intact skin (no cuts, scrapes, or other damage). However, lanolin products are typically designed to be used on healing skin (eczema, burns, scrapes, raw nipples, etc.), not normal and intact skin. When lanolin enters the bloodstream through the damaged skin, it can cause an allergic reaction. Unfortunately, the incidence of lanolin allergy is rising. A 2017 study evaluated more than 1,000 children with eczema and found that 66% of them reaction to lanolin alcohol. Thus, if you have a lanolin allergy or aren’t sure if you have a lanolin allergy, it is best to stay away from all lanolin products.
If you want to avoid using lanolin cream or other lanolin skin care products due to the risk of an allergic reaction, there are many alternatives you can try. Examples of ingredients that have occlusive properties that are similar to lanolin include petrolatum, mineral oil, shea butter, cocoa butter, and more. If you are looking for a natural, vegan-friendly option, try a product that contains plant-based emollients such as vegetable-derived fatty alcohols and hydrogenated plant oils.
Our favorite lanolin alternative is the Formulyst Intense Hydrating Serum, which is formulated to deliver long-lasting hydration and deeply moisturize while visibly plumping and smoothing your skin. This serum contains numerous fatty alcohols that help to prevent water loss and smooth the skin. Formulyst Intense Hydrating Serum also contains hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and panthenol (provitamin B5), which draw moisture into the skin and hold it there to improve skin hydration. Lastly, this lightweight serum is enriched with antioxidants and a regenerating Microbiome Repair Complex to balance and calm skin.
References: ElmaSkinCare.com “Lanolin”, Wikipedia “Lanolin”, Lanolin.com “Lanolin Refinement”, KoruNaturals.com “Pure lanolin and its softer relatives: How do you pick the right product?”, Contact Dermatitis. 2017 Mar;76(3):151-159.