A while back, mineral oil was criticized as being, among other undesirable things, “bad” for natural black hair. It purportedly blocked the hair follicles, not only making the scalp dirty but also keeping hair from growing, and was blacklisted among the community. Back then, if I knew one thing about being natural, it was to avoid mineral oil at all costs.
Recently though, I ran out of one of my favorite products. I was considering buying it again, so I took a look at the ingredient list. Lo and behold, there was mineral oil. It was close to the end of the list, but nevertheless it was there. Seeing that made me think about mineral oil, and whether or not it really was as awful as it had been made out to be.
Turns out, most of the trash talk regarding mineral oil for topical use is completely unfounded. The mineral oil used in the cosmetic industry is highly refined and is regulated by the FDA, as well as other international regulatory agencies. In addition, there is no evidence whatsoever that cosmetic mineral oil causes cancer. Mineral oil is a liquid by-product of petroleum distillation, a process necessary for energy applications, and is cheap. The main parties who would benefit from a mass aversion to mineral oil are the organizations that spend serious money creating new materials for skin and hair care, since they can’t compete with ingredients containing mineral oil that offer the same results for much less money. But even so, will using mineral oil kill any chance you have of growing healthy hair?
Here’s the thing about mineral oil: it is NOT a moisturizer. It is, like the name says, a colorless, odorless oil, and we all know that oils can’t be used to moisturize hair. What mineral oil does do is lubricate hair by depositing and forming films on the hair strands, creating a barrier between your hair and the environment. The barrier is thick enough to conceal any irregularities in the cuticle structure (i.e. smooths the hair). This barrier also decreases the force exerted on hair from outside forces (combs, fingers, etc.) by reducing friction, which is why some include it in their detangling process. The barrier blocks water movement in both directions. So if your hair is already moisturized, mineral oil will prevent the moisture from leaving your hair as quickly. Conversely, if your hair is not moisturized, the mineral oil will repel any moisture trying to reach your strands. So while mineral oil works great as a sealant, you won’t be doing yourself any favors by slathering it over already dry hair.
Another note: while other oils (e.g. coconut) can create a similar barrier, the barrier created by mineral oil lasts longer, and can be harder to break down, depending on how much you initially applied and how long it’s been on your hair. Apply infrequently and/or sparingly to make things easier come wash day. To completely remove any traces of mineral oil from your hair, you most likely will have to resort to a shampoo with sulfates. More gentle shampoos may not be able to dissolve the barrier, although those that have sodium cocoyl isethionate or cocamidopropyl betaine as active ingredients have been said to be effective.
You don’t necessarily have to stop using one of your favorite products just because it contains mineral oil. In fact, after they stopped using mineral oil, quite a few naturals had an even harder time taking care of their hair. For most of them, the problems stopped when they started using products containing mineral oil again. There’s nothing wrong with including mineral oil in your regimen as long as you know what it does and how to make it work for you.