There are few rabbit holes as deep as the ingredients lists on your favorite household supplies.
Most of us want to do our homework, compare ingredients and buy products that are friendly to the earth and our bank accounts.
Which is well and good — until one glance at the ingredients of our favorite lipstick, lotion or self-care candle has us wishing we had paid better attention in high school chemistry class. Or been a college chemistry major.
Specifically, I’m talking about hydrocarbons. In a chemical sense, they’re simple enough: compounds formed by hydrogen and carbon that can combine into extremely long chains (well — long on a chemical level, anyhow). They are most commonly found in petroleum, and that is commonly found in your beauty and skincare products in the form of paraffin wax.
What is Paraffin Wax?
You might have seen paraffin wax as an ingredient in your lipstick or body lotion. It’s a white, waxy or jelly-like substance that comes in many forms.
The tub of vaseline your aunt has been carrying around for years as an alleged cure for everything from chapped lips to sore joints is a kind of soft paraffin wax. The bottle of mineral oil you get from the pharmacy is a slightly different paraffin-wax-related product. You might have also seen paraffin wax treatments at your local salon, in a pretty common treatment wherein customers dip their hands into a thick, white liquid, only to have the hardened shell peeled off.
“It’s essentially tallowy wax,” said Lizzy Trelstad, an innovation chemist with expertise in cosmetics and personal care.
Technically, Trelstad said, paraffin wax is a cocktail of different chemicals that are byproducts of the petroleum production process.
“It isn’t one specific chemical, it’s a mix of chemicals,” she said. “It’s technically a mix of what we call hydrocarbons, fats and oils.”
It was discovered about 10 years after humans first began extracting petroleum, in 1867, when engineers noticed that chilled petroleum easily separated into a waxy, white substance. Today, it’s produced by “dewaxing” oil stocks — that is, chilling to separate the wax from oil.
What Are The Benefits of Paraffin Wax?
While browsing through beauty products in the cosmetics section of your local pharmacy or convenience story, you’ll find that paraffin wax is a key ingredient in many products intended to moisturize the skin. In the beauty world, Trelstad said, “Often you’ll see them in what we call cold creams or vaseline,” giving these substances a “thick, velvety feel.”
Paraffin wax has several cosmetic and therapeutic benefits, making it a staple in beauty products, spas and salons.
Cosmetic Benefits of Paraffin Wax
A byproduct of petroleum, paraffin wax is used in beauty products because it has a melting point close to natural human body temperatures, meaning it easily spreads upon contact with skin and can serve as a kind of hot wax treatment without the threat of burns.
Submerging your hands in that oozy, silky-smooth texture of hot paraffin wax can soothe achy joints or just give you the back-of-the-neck relaxation tinglies. Because of its slick texture, it’s often included in moisturizing products like hand salves or balms.
Therefore, paraffin hand treatments are typically fancied by people with dry or cracked skin, as well as those looking to soften their calluses. Similar cosmetic benefits are found when applying paraffin wax to feet.
Some salons and spas offer paraffin wax pedicures and manicures, which are used to open up pores and remove dead skin from feet and hands. Once the wax is removed, the skin is rejuvenated and has a silky, smooth feeling.
For home use, you can also purchase a paraffin wax bath. This machine combines paraffin wax with moist heat to unearth moisture from your body and coat the skin. After dipping your hands or feet into the melted wax, slip it into a plastic sleeve, followed by a thermal mitt (or warm towel wrap) and wait about 15 minutes to get the optimal results. Paraffin wax baths can range anywhere from $30 to $300, depending on the quality and size of the device.
Some moisturizers work by hydrating the skin; others work by stimulating the skin’s natural ability to hydrate itself. Paraffin wax, on the other hand, works by creating a barrier over the skin that prevents water already in the skin from evaporating. The ingredient also retains oils that are produced by the body.
Nonetheless, some dermatologists say the moisturizing effects of paraffin wax are limited. Trelstad said this quality depends on what you’re looking for in a moisturizer.
“It moisturizes not by giving the skin moisture but by creating a waxy film. It’s moisturizing in the sense that it keeps water in,” Trelstad said. For this reason, she noted, people with acne or clogged pores may want to avoid it.
This function is due to paraffin wax’s unique chemical structure. Because paraffin waxes consist of molecules between 20 and 40 hydrocarbons in length, Trelstad said, paraffin waxes are too large to sink into the pores. They function, instead, as “the equivalent of a chemical bandaid,” sealing the skin from further damage.
So if you’re looking for a moisturizer that will protect your chapped hands from further harsh winter weather, products containing paraffin wax may do the trick. Outside of its ability to protect and moisturize the skin, there’s also evidence paraffin wax can help relieve pain caused from a number of ailments related to the skin, joints and muscles.
Therapeutic Benefits of Paraffin Wax
There is an assortment of research that supports the use of paraffin wax as a pain relief treatment for several medical conditions.
A 2013 study published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation found that paraffin bath therapy reduced pain and tenderness — while also maintaining muscle strength — for patients with hand osteoarthritis. After measuring the efficacy of paraffin wax bath treatment over a 12-week period, the research team concluded that it “may be regarded as a beneficial short-term therapy option.”
Those dealing with rheumatoid arthritis could also benefit from paraffin wax. A 2000 study published in the Physiotherapy Journal examined whether the application of paraffin wax to the hands of people with non-acute rheumatoid arthritis could be beneficial. While the researchers state that more evidence is needed to draw any concrete conclusions, the study found that it could improve hand function prior to exercise, and could also help relieve pain and stiffness immediately after use.
Paraffin wax may also help relieve pain associated with fibromyalgia, a disorder known to cause widespread musculoskeletal pain and tenderness throughout the body. In a study published in 2009, researchers discovered that superficial warmth (such as the kind a paraffin wax bath provides) led to temporary pain reduction in patients with fibromyalgia.
In a 2013 study, Pakastani researchers studied the efficacy of paraffin wax baths as a viable treatment for post-traumatic hand stiffness. They found that the combination of paraffin wax baths and joint mobilization techniques was more effective than just the mobilization techniques.
Other Paraffin Wax Uses
Because of its waxy texture, low melting point and ability to serve as a medium for scent, paraffin wax is also commonly used in candles and crayons.
Although this ingredient is widely used in cosmetics, candles and crayons, there is some alarming research that has caused controversy around the use of paraffin wax. This raises a salient question: Should you be concerned about the potential dangers of paraffin wax?
Is Paraffin Wax Toxic?
Like many petroleum byproducts used in the beauty world, there has been some concern over the safety of paraffin wax for skincare, with some beauty professionals putting it on a “no-use” list due to research suggesting that inhaled particles of paraffin wax can be carcinogenic.
A 2009 study conducted by researchers from South Carolina State University found that paraffin wax candles emitted unwanted chemicals due to being petroleum-based. These candles emitted alkenes and toluene, both of which could potentially cause harmful effects to humans.
“The paraffin candles we tested released unwanted chemicals into the air. For a person who lights a candle every day for years or just uses them frequently, inhalation of these dangerous pollutants drifting in the air could contribute to the development of health risks like cancer, common allergies and even asthma,” said lead researcher Dr. Ruhullah Massoudi, a chemistry professor in the Department of Biological and Physical Sciences.
But that concern doesn’t apply to paraffin waxes found in cosmetic products in the same way. By the time these substances are being added to beauty and bodycare products, they’ve been processed to cosmetic-grade, meaning they don’t have the same chemical risks as raw hydrocarbons. And for normal beauty uses, inhalation risk is minimal, meaning there’s no regulation limiting its inclusion in normal beauty and skincare products.
For Trelstad, much of the hesitation around paraffin wax comes, not from the research we actually have, but from anxiety about the research we don’t.
“There isn’t a regulation of research” in the cosmetic industry, Trelstad said. So that lack of information can lead to wariness about certain substances. But, Trelstad argued, that knowledge gap shouldn’t make you wary of applying your favorite fuschia lipstick or burning that scented candle.
So, Should You Avoid Paraffin Wax-Based Products?
While paraffin wax is safe to use and can suit your moisturizing needs, a more salient concern for conscious consumers may be with the petroleum industry as a whole. Paraffin wax is a byproduct of a process of petroleum extraction that is occurring for fuel anyway — that is, the extraction of wax for lipsticks definitely doesn’t drive the global fossil fuel industry more than driving your car.
Nonetheless, petroleum has been — to understate the situation — a pretty disastrous industry for the planet (and the fate of humanity…), and it’s understandable if you’re a little queasy about products associated with it. If you’re craving a slippery, waxy coating for your chapped hands or just love that paraffin wax candle, experts say there’s nothing to fear.
But if you’re trying to reduce petroleum-use overall or just feel uncomfortable putting more money in petroleum companies’ pockets, you could opt for products with plant-based waxes like hemp, soy or olive wax, or other non-petroleum-based waxes, like beeswax, instead. Either way, your dry skin will thank you.
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