green grease

I like and use petrolatum and mineral oil, and products containing them: I consider them “good”: that is, they are good on my skin. As previously discussed on here, not only are these not necessarily Bad Things (using good =  functionally good, good on my skin), they are often “good” in the sense of being a more ethical choice than a plant-based equivalent: ex. palm oil c/o de-rainforest-ation, resident animal slaughter, human rights abuses, and—well let’s call a spade a spade: murder.

While I don’t buy Vaseline (Unilever: ethics), I will buy unbranded petrolatum / petroleum jelly BP from cruelty-free manufacturers, such as my nearest and dearest local pharmacy here in Vancouver. And I’ll buy and use the “original formula” Aquaphor; Eucerin and the rest of the Beiersdorf group (Nivea’s the main one people meet on the street) being cruelty-free too.

But: in an ideal world: there would be no mineral oil and no petrolatum. Fossil fuels would stay underground. This is clearly good—no, best—in environmental terms. That also means no more oil being used for heating-fuel, for producing power, and especially for running transportation machines wih combustion engines. That’s what will make the big impact, and that’s where radical rethinking (AND MASSIVELY LESS SELFISHNESS) is needed…

There are, after all, plenty oils that work as well on skin, to do the same job. Ditto for ingredients derived from the oils (capric/caprylic triglycerides, for ex.). What I’d really like to know is why such ingredients aren’t being used more. Why are there so few companies producing skincare that is both suitable for sensitive skin like mine and is plant-based? Sure, using synthesized lab-made low-impact etc. ingredients too, I’m cool with them… But, back to the main point: no mineral oil or other petrochemical derivatives as ingredients.

There’s neither sound reason nor practical need for “natural skincare” to be a contradiction in terms.


We get this sort of question fairly frequently over on the MUA Green Board (and the skin care one too).

Is petrolatum *really* bad? I’m talking in terms of skin use and toxicity to the body only. None of the plant oils or plant-based eczema lotions I have tried help my 3 month old, but I just know from experience that if I slather her in Cetaphil or Aquaphor, her skin will improve. I always thought petroleum was so non-toxic, but my DH works in a machine shop and he says that people handling petroleum products are now wearing gloves because of the toxicity or carcinogens or whatever, and the workplace is governed by safety rules regarding exposure. Of course, I’m not sure if he means motor oil versus plain vaseline, but I don’t know what to believe.

What I’ve said I’ve said, and favourited, and copy-pasted over here. But there’s other considerations to take into account: a second person, urban myth, and the very tangible perils people face when lacking in science education. Most often, not by their own sin of action or omission: but when they’ve been failed by the science-education options available, by The System. I’m not an American, and have no vote or say there, but lived there for a while and heck: science education at all levels from pre-school to end of high school? Leaves a lot to be desired. If I were an American, I’d be very angry (and actively so) about this sort of thing. The person asking the question above: as anyone with eyes in their head can see, they are obviously intelligent and have done the smart thing of asking a question (and a *really* good one at that).

Official response:

well now:

1) If you’re really worried, and that worry is a great preoccupation, maybe the best thing to do would be to avoid it. No matter whatever the actual scientific facts might be: if something’s a worry, there’s no harm in avoiding it, and who knows, it might even be a good thing to do. Good for you, immediately, anyway. Worry, anxiety, and related stress is a major direct cause of many serious medical conditions: and, indeed, linked to many cancer-cases.

2) Having said that: Petrolatum/vaseline/petroleum jelly is a completely different chemical from the kinds of petroleum-derived items that you’d be handling in a machine shop. As different as water is from bleach, chemically; plus refinement and other treatments to make the one suitable for application for human skin, the other not.

3) There’s a lot of mythmaking, quackery, greenwash, and dangerous–“toxic”–anti-scientific talk going around. Most obviously on the anti-petrochemicals side, but to be fair, there’s cons on both sides of the divide. I’d recommend doing as much research, reading, information-gathering, and analysis of it as you can, into all sides and angles, before taking any decisions.

4) It’s your decision, after all. And we’re talking not just you, but a 3-month old who’s entirely in your care as she can’t take any decisions like this! I use the stuff, and am pro (inc. for environmental reasons), but that’s my own choice, and just for one adult: there’s plenty of other sensible informed thought-out choices to make here, and I should stress that I’m not a mother of a young child, and I totally understand how that fact changes decision-making completely. So: over to you, it’s a free world, your lives, got to be your free decision…

Someone suggested a petrolatum substitute; and that reminded me that I’d used a superb one myself, c/o borrowing someone else’s that they’d got in Germany. I had a scuttle around, found it, and found some other stuff too. So herewith:


Older waxy balms that do a similar job but don’t feel or function at all like petrolatum:

  • beeswax: an oldie but a goodie!
  • Alba UnPetroleum Jelly: OK
  • BalmBalm fragrance-free baby balm: the tub (or small tin) rather than the tube, but fearsomely expensive; there’s other even pricier simple balms around, like Trilogy.
  • Waxelene: thanks to Veropie for that one! no used it myself
  • other waxy things: shea butter, coconut oil, or cocoa butter. But issues with comedogenicity (and possibly irritancy, though refined would improve the chances). Try before you buy, and certainly before you apply.


Someone else suggested this:

Maybe this will help. My SO uses it for his eczema, and I use it for retin-a flakes:

Well, I sure am glad that’s helping, and each to their own and all that. But when I took a closer look (thinking maybe this was something to add to my list), here’s what I saw. Not a million miles away from the balms above:

Nowhere near a substitute for petrolatum though. Maybe if you’ve never used petrolatum before, or not in so long that you only have a very hazy memory of it. You could make something similar (and better) yourself using olive oil and beeswax. It’s an old and well-tested recipe, plenty of balms around do it, though most, like this one, commit the cardinal sin of adding unnecessary and indeed sometimes harmful extras. I guess, partly to make your balm stand out from the crowd as being different and thus special and unique. These days, the best thing you could do to stand out from the crowd—and gain the adoration, loyalty, and money of that sizeable part of the population who have various sorts of skin sensitivities—would be to make simple products. In this case, like I said, olive oil + beeswax. With a label that didn’t ming to high heaven, and without any of the other crapola (that’s crap of a granola sort, for the uninitiated…) Highlighting for warning on sensitive skin, and (at least my and my family’s kind of) eczema: MINT. Also pointing out that this product is a million miles away from being legally and accurately labelled (which should ring “DO NOT TRUST” bells in any sensible person’s head): no properly-written INCL INGREDIENTS list, and “NO […] chemicals.”


Alerts here: lavender, bergamot (I’m irritated by frankincense, but it’s a great thing on many skins: see Neal’s Yard classic frankincense cream for further details). There’s more:

So: for olive oil + beeswax, substitute sunflower oil + beeswax. Make it at home yourself for peanuts. (Refined peanut oil is another option, and also covered by “The Research.”) The “Research Article” in the screenshot above cited is here; seen the same and related data around the place, been circulating since the ’70s when I was an eczematic infant, and hence why I had the stuff applied to me. Along with mineral and sweet almond oils.

Mind you, we were lucky in having a GP who was way ahead on mixing mainstream and alternative-ish medicines. Standing out even in a country where, compared to the UK or USA, this was much more usual. He was also a man of great common sense, intelligence, and kindness: and rather than making you out a prescription for a fancy branded thing, would often write you out a “note” (on this lovely old-fashioned stuff called “notepaper”) suggesting, say in the case of sunflower oil, the local own-brand supermarket cooking oil version. He was also a fan of tea, soup, toast, a good night’s sleep, and plenty of leisurely exercise in the fresh air, preferably in woods or at the seaside and while looking around you at the Wonder Of Nature. An approach to  “alternative medicine” that includes folk remedies, (Grand-)Mother Knows Best, and common sense. He would also praise my mother for using things like soup, and compare notes on recipes. He was above all a scientist and scholar, and as such a collector of knowledge, with a strongly feminist side. His first postgraduate training and earlier practice—for some time before moving into general practice and shifting towards retirement—had been in tropical medicine. With occasional bouts of returning to Africa with Médecins sans frontières (a charity I support to this day, partly in his memory). He’d worked in what’s now the Democratic Republic of Congo, been a strong advocate of treating “folk medicine” and its accompanying body of evidence seriously, and worked on some important drugs that would later be extracted and synthesized from the actives on which “traditional cures” had been based, for generations of use.

Now, I know it probably doesn’t cure malaria, but soup made by mothers is special stuff. Dr Vandenplas made notes on what his patients (and accompanying parental units) said, and some of these he would file, with our permission, in his “active research” files. I’m sure we weren’t the only people he asked about soup (OK, and other DIY home remedies), so somewhere there is a marvellous Vandenplas archive.

Insofar as I’ve ever had a skincare, lifestyle, and health guru: it’s been Dr. Vandenplas. I’ll ask myself what he would do, or think. If I’m about to say something really snarky on MUA, I should start listening out for what my imaginary friend might hypothetically say, whispered in my shell-like. It would invariably be gentle, compassionate, non-judgmental, and making a positive practical useful suggestion: not pure snark, bitching, deriding people for being eejits, and not saying anything helpful. I can totally understand how some people believe they have angels… sympathize from a psychological point of view, and empathize from a metaphorical one (this position is perfectly compatible with atheism: it’s the nice, human side of being a “humanist”).

I’m working on it, and there will be compromises: I’m not going to comment on the original discussion-board comment about the Slightly Silly (rip-off) Soothers above, though I shall post this stuff here up on here (it’s being critical in a positive sense, after all).

That’s all very sweet, but I’m no angel and have no aspirations to be. Besides, at least a little bitching is fun, might entertain people and therefore be good for them (so I’d be doing good), and certainly good for me.

So back to business as usual. Here are …


By actual sciency companies who employ actual sciency people who actually know what they’re doing, and are producing actual hydrocarbon replacements. Not chi-chi creams for neurotic yummy mummies, but alternative products across the board—all the way through to heavy industry—that also take into account costing-factors, important for large-scale commercial users: unlikely to be persuaded by ethics, likely to be persuaded by politics / popular opinion. Mainly negatively, through risks to reputation. Certain to be persuaded by finance and economics.

Yes, quite a lot of German companies are in the game here: unsurprising, given the last half-century’s track-record and consumer interest in all things eco: sustainably-produced, renewable, planet-supporting, cruelty-free, etc.; and the earlier Swiss track-record (see for example the history of Weleda); and links back (c/o Rudolf Steiner) to late-19th to early-20th century rationalism, vegetarianism, and anthroposophy. OK, there’s that dodgy theosophical connection for the latter, but fortunately fades away—mostly, and current Hollywood star and other celebrity ridiculousness notwithstanding—along with other Blavatskian fashions and follies.

Memo for people who like birthday-parties and nice round numbers: 2012-13 = centenaries of various bits of the Anthroposophical Society.

Sonneborn (of whom that last one) are very interesting indeed. They’ve been experimenting with triglycerides, olive oil, meadowfoam oil, and jojoba oil (plus other stuff); in a range of plant-based alternatives: for cosmetic but also industrial purposes. On the cosmetic front, they also do alternatives to silicones: very interesting for the purpose of elegant formulation. More at Sonneborn Specialty Products.


Practically local: Pacific Northwest. Mainly south of the border, but some production here in BC. Plus New Zealand. Sustainable, well-produced, farmers’ coops, plus research collaboration in the last few years with Oregon State University.

One of the cosmetically-useful points of petrolatum and mineral oil was that they replaced whale oil and blubber (hydrocarbons = good on that one). Meadowfoam oil has similarities to both (apparently: I’ve never used whale stuff). Light feel, silky-velvety, very moisturizing, long life, very stable; I geeked out to much I was on the verge of drooling, once I got into the long-chain fatty acids and the three entirely new ones (unknown before they were found in meadowfoam). To cut a long story short. Alas, it *is* more espensive than mineral oil.

Some further information on the stuff:

  • Elementis Specialties: great trade brochure (inc. pretty pictures of said long-chain fatty acids)
  • c/o Essential Ingredients
  • From Nature With Love
  • Lotioncrafter
  • Mountain Rose Herbs
  • Some more bibliography c/o E.A. Oelke, E.S. Oplinger, C.V. Hanson, K.A. Kelling. “Meadowfoam.” Alternative Field Crops Manual. Joint project between the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension Service, the University of Minnesota Extension Service and the Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products.
  • (OK, I admit, I went on and geeked out some more on journal articles. Google search will reveal obvious suspects.)

Got the idea to look into it c/o Sonneborn, then some further pootling around online. Did a search back on MUA, only to find that one of its few proponents is jetfan: a.k.a. She Who Is Wise (and behind the Jet Fan Band Mineral Oil). A good sign.

I’ve used it before, including actively looking out for it in finished products. The first place I saw it as an ingredient was in Aveda conditioners, getting on for 20 years ago. But I’ve never used it on its own. We’ll see how it goes: I’ll be using it on skin and hair both. Might replace the argan, it’ll have strong competition with the sweet almond.

Also, I do like a nice poetic name: this one, because the plant’s blossoms are small white flowers, and so a meadow in full bloom looks like it’s covered in foam. While resolutely resistant to marketing and advertising, I am a total sucker for poetry and puns.

I’d been looking previously, in oil use, at things like fatty-acid composition and molecular weight. Plus the comedogenic and irritancy probabilities (c/o acne-org and suchlike). Combined with my own known skin reactions. I’ve grown increasingly unfussed about the assorted omegas on skin (apart from 3, which zittifies me like there’s no tomorrow), especially given that the good sound evidence for their doing diddly squat is c/o internal rather than external application. To be more precise:

(a) I’ve only observed an absence of negative effect. Some oils do the job of keeping my skin moist without breaking me out; whereas others don’t.

(b) The positive experiments correspond to certain molecular weights and chemical structures (what kinds of fatty acid, what chain formation, etc.); but other than that, I can make no bold claims for specific fatty acids doing anything else on my skin. Though there’s also good information linking the broken-down composition of borage and hemp seed oils to their effects, and they do work well on my skin.

(c) Anyone who tries to tell you that a certain oil is “nutritious” and “feeds” your skin is probably talking sympathetic magic. See very out-of-date anthropology and more poetic stuff, like Jung and Robert Graves, from, well, nearly a century ago. Also: galvinism’s passé and Queen Victoria’s dead.

Feed me good data and metadata from well-done experiments, please please please, I’m listening up: but I’ll be applying Bad Science criteria to it rather than, say, Suzanne Somers… OK, that’s mean: a lot of what she’s got to say is actually about diet and corresponds to Good Old-Fashioned Common Sense. You know, what your mother might have told you. Maybe even while feeding you soup. But I’d give more respect to someone who knows what they’re talking about, and/or someone deals in facts and arguments, rather than beliefs and opinions. Think Quackwatch vs. Oprah …

On a cheerier green greasy note:

One comment

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