Mineral oil has been found in cosmetic and personal care products for 100 years or more, because it is an excellent lubricant that is lightweight and non-greasy. However, in recent years it has really fallen out of favor with consumers for a variety of reasons, among them being concerns about safety. It may also have been a victim of negative marketing simply because it is unpretentious and cheap, which is not necessarily advantageous to companies spending time and money developing new materials for hair care. Let's take a closer look at mineral oil and see what it is, where it comes from, and what it does for hair, so we can make informed decisions without the influence of marketing agendas.
What is Mineral Oil?
Mineral oil is a mixture of simple hydrocarbon molecules of varying molecular weight derived from the petroleum cracking process. It is a cheap byproduct found to be easily purified and useful in a variety of applications for which a lubricant is needed. Mineral oil is a mixture of medium-to-long chain alkanes (15 - 40 carbons) with the general formula of CnH2n+2. There are no other elements present in mineral oil. The molecular structure of these materials is very uncomplicated, extremely stable and nonreactive.
Crude petroleum is a huge organic soup, containing many different carbon-based molecules of varying molecular weights. The petroleum cracking process uses thermal and other catalytic means to break these molecules down into lighter, smaller molecules such as octanes, which are highly desirable as fuel because they are easily combustible and fairly efficient. Other components, such as larger hydrocarbon molecules that comprise mineral oil, paraffin wax, and petroleum jelly, are byproducts of this process and are separated out via distillation. More dangerous byproducts of the petroleum cracking process, such as benzene, are easily separated out due to the large differences in molecular weight.