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The Truth About Chemicals, Mineral Oil, Squalene and Fillers

By Rebecca Jame Gadberry
Posted: March 23, 2007, from the April 2007 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.
Rebecca James Gadberry is chairman and co-CEO of YG Labōratories, manufacturer of professional performance private label skin and body care in Huntington Beach, California. She has been an instructor of cosmetic sciences in the department of math, sciences and social sciences at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Extension in Los Angeles since 1986, and, in 1977, became one of the first licensed estheticians in California. Gadberry has served on the board of the California Chapter of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists since 1983, and has developed more than 1,000 skin and body care products throughout her career. Questions for Gadberry’s column can be e-mailed to rebecca@yglabs.com.

Q. I see a lot of products with long, chemical-sounding names, but the companies that manufacture them often tell me they are completely natural and chemical-free. What’s going on here?

A. It is important to understand that everything in the physical universe that can be seen and touched is a chemical, except for electromagnetic energy, which includes light and electricity.
        What is a chemical? It is simply two or more atoms joined together. Chemicals give structure to the world, composing the architecture the makes up every aspect of the universe. If atoms didn’t join to form chemicals, the world—the universe—would not exist, and neither would humans. Chemicals produce the innumerable variations of colors and smells that engage the senses and make the world the joy it is to behold.
        Chemicals form the nutrients that build the human body, structure the oceans that cover most of Earth, shape the plants that grow from the ground and compose the air you breathe. Life is a constantly evolving bundle of chemicals surrounded by a universe teeming with chemicals.
        Because virtually everything than can be seen or touched is comprised of chemicals, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that another word for cosmetic ingredient is “chemical.” Every ingredient in a cosmetic product is one. Not just emulsifiers, surfactants and preservatives, but vitamins, proteins and plant extracts—they all are chemicals.
        Just because an ingredient has a long, unrecognizable, or difficult-to-pronounce name doesn’t mean it’s the only chemical in a sea of short, friendly sounding ingredients. Many that are naturally occurring, such as the primary soothing component in licorice—glycyrrhetinic acid—are long words that most trip over when trying to pronounce. Water, one of the shortest, most recognizable ingredients, is the most commonly used chemical in cosmetics. Don’t rely on an ingredient’s length, identifiable nature or the difficulty in pronunciation as the key tip-offs that it is a chemical.
        The bottom line is this: an ingredient is not natural or chemical. Natural refers to the ingredient’s source and chemical refers to its structure. Natural ingredients are chemicals, too. If a company were to sell you a truly chemical-free product, the container would not only be empty, it would be free of air, as well, because that is composed of chemicals, too. So, by the way, is the container housing the product.  

Q. What’s wrong with using mineral oil on the skin?

A.  As far as I’m concerned, nothing. Mineral oil is derived from petroleum, which is a nonrenewable resource. But more than 50% of the ingredients used in cosmetics are derived—wholly or in part—from petroleum. When you consider those that are transported in petroleum-powered vehicles or housed in petroleum-derived plastic containers, the number of ingredients that rely upon its use reaches 100%. Excluding mineral oil from a product may slightly reduce reliance on petroleum, but, in comparison to other uses of this vanishing resource, its use in cosmetics is minimal.
      That being considered, mineral oil must be used in its purest form when it is included in a cosmetic, or the skin can be subjected to irritation or comedogenicity.
      Similar to motor oil, mineral oil is available in different grades. Technical grade, used by machinists to lubricate engines and equipment, is its most unpurified form. According to the World Health Organization, contaminants in this grade are linked in epidemiological studies to higher cancer rates among machinists when compared to the rest of the population. Other groups of contaminants not removed during the processing of the oil have been shown to cause skin irritation or clogged pores. Needless to say, most cosmetic manufacturers stay away from the technical grade of mineral oil.
      Traditionally, the cosmetic industry has used its cosmetic grade, which is more purified than the technical grade, but still contains some comedogenic material. On a rating of zero-to-five, with five being highly pore-clogging, the cosmetic grade of mineral oil usually receives a one or two rating, depending upon the methodology of the test. Because the cosmetic grade has been used so widely in the past, mineral oil has been viewed by many skin care professionals as a contributor to clogged pores.
      Knowing the pore-clogging potential of the first two grades of mineral oil—not to mention the possible irritation and carcinogenicity quotients of the technical grade—many manufacturers still formulating with this oil are restricting their use of it only to the pharmaceutical grade known as mineral oil USP. This is a water-white oil, indicating that it is free of impurities as dictated by the United States pharmaceutical standard. It also is not likely to clog pores and, therefore, has received a zero-to-one rating in most comedogenicity tests. When used in cosmetic products, mineral oil USP can’t be listed with its USP identification. The only way to determine if the manufacturer has used this grade is to ask a brand representative.
      Unfortunately, because mineral oil is an effective occlusive agent, even the USP grade has been found to magnify the pore-clogging potential of comedogenic ingredients by trapping them in pores. So, although mineral oil USP is not going to clog pores, caution should be used when it is included in leave-on products containing pore-clogging ingredients—at least when these products are applied to clog-prone skin.

Q. I’ve been told that mineral oil is so dangerous that it even catches on fire. Is this true?

A. Yes, mineral oil is flammable. If you’ve ever had an oil fire in the kitchen, you know virtually any kind is flammable, whether it’s corn oil, sesame oil, avocado oil, olive oil, bacon fat or shortening. However, just because it can catch on fire doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be used on the skin.

Q. What’s the difference between squalene and squalane?

A. Squalene and squalane sound like two sides of the same coin, and, in a way, they are. First discovered in human sebum during the early part of the past century, squalene comprises approximately 12% of sebaceous secretions. Because of this, squalene was considered valuable in skin care but, due to its unsaturated state, was found to be highly unstable when in the presence of oxygen.
        Several decades later, squalene from shark liver oil was hydrogenated to form oxygen-stable squalane. Today, squalene and its hydrogenated counterpart, squalane, are obtained largely from olive and other natural oils. Both are excellent lubricants and moisturizers, and are highly compatible with the skin. However, of the two, squalene is highly comedogenic and, therefore, is not recommended for oily or acneic skin.
  
Q. What is a filler ingredient?

A. Good question. The term has never made sense to me. Used by journalists and cosmetic experts to attack products they either don’t approve of or are selling against, the phrase “filler ingredient” seems to imply that a cosmetic company includes components within a formulation that are not necessary or don’t perform a function. Having been on the formulator side of the cosmetic industry for more than 30 years, I can tell you that every ingredient in a product must pull its own weight or it is not included, simply due to cost.
      So why would a cosmetic company incorporate an ingredient that would eat into its profit structure if it weren’t deemed necessary in some way? I’ve heard a variety of ingredients labeled as fillers, from cleansing agents and emulsifiers to preservatives, colorants and fragrances, but all of these ingredients are used to produce safe, stable, functional and attractive products.
      The only ingredients I can think of that don’t do much for the skin and aren’t required for the safety or stability of the product are the very ingredients consumers often believe are delivering results. Antioxidants, peptides and other desirable skin care ingredients can be wasted if they aren’t treated with care by the formulator, protected by packaging to seal out light and air, or delivered intact to the skin. The possibility of not getting what you pay for is especially true for plant extracts. Although chamomile, lavender, licorice and other herbs may seem like a patch of friendliness inside an otherwise unfriendly field of chemicals, all too often these components—when used in cosmetic formulas—lack the very phytochemicals that did so much good for past generations of people who processed the plants according to traditional methods that had been developed to preserve chemical activity.
      A good marketer will tell you, though, that even unstable vitamins and hollow plant extracts have their place in a formula: They cause the product to move from the retail shelf to the bathroom shelf, where the ingredients many consumers think of as fillers can do their job cleansing, softening or moisturizing the skin.