Lanolin? If that’s the first time you are hearing the word, then I can’t blame you. Although Lanolin has a long and established history of use in skincare, it remains a fairly unknown ingredient. Most people have already used it many times, but they aren’t familiar with it, which is a sort of a paradox. This contradiction prompts a lot of questions. Is Lanolin safe for your skin? Should you be worried if a skincare product contains Lanolin? Can Lanolin cause acne or clog your pores? Many, many questions - and we’ll answer each one of them today.
But, first things first.
Lanolin is a type of natural oil that’s produced by the skin of sheep. If you happen to be vegan, you will probably want to avoid Lanolin. Except for shearing, the sheep are not being otherwise harmed in the process used to extract it.
Lanolin is the equivalent of human sebum, which is the oil our skin produces naturally. So basically, Lanolin is sheep sebum (their very own skin oil) which, similarly as in humans, serves the important functions to lubricate their skin. Thus Lanolin keeps their skin moisturized, elastic, and shields their bodies from tiny creatures. Lanolin helps lubricate the sheeps’ wool, which allows their hairs to “breathe,” helping sheep feel comfortable and airy in their thick, soft, wooly fur. Basically, Lanolin is sheep hair conditioner.
But that’s not all - Lanolin also makes their wool waterproof. This is super useful for sheep when it rains, or when they accidentally (or intentionally) enter water (such as a river, a lake, or the sea). The Lanolin coats their wool’s surface with hydrophobic greasy coating, which makes all water quickly slide off from the sheep’s wool. This helps sheep keep themselves dry and warm, and protects them from getting colds or falling sick from falling into water.
The sheep’s sebaceous glands (which are located in their pores too) secrete Lanolin almost constantly. Then, Lanolin gradually envelops their wool, attaching itself to the wooly hairs. Shepherds and shearers then sheer the sheep and collect all the wool. Then, the wool is washed in hot water that contains special wool scouring detergents that remove any dirt stuck to the soft sheep hair.
But that’s not all these detergents remove. They are also designed to detach any crude Lanolin (wool grease), sweat salts (called suint as well), and other organic sheep stuff stuck to the wool. The wool is then placed into so-called centrifuge separators, which continuously wash and spin wool, removing crude Lanolin (wool grease). This process gradually concentrates crude Lanolin into a waxlike substance that melts at approximately 100 °F (38 °C).
This wool grease, or the crude form of Lanolin, makes up approximately 5–25% of the weight of freshly shorn wool. For example, the wool from one Merino sheep will produce around 250–300 ml of recoverable wool grease. Crude Lanolin then undergoes many different derivative processes until so-called pure Lanolin is produced.
And just like human sebum, Lanolin has a yellowy colour, and it is just as greasy. But the similarities make Lanolin very useful for our skin.
These beneficial properties of Lanolin have made it one of the darlings of the cosmetics and beauty industry. Lanolin and its many different derivatives are used extensively in personal care such as high-value cosmetics, moisturizers, hair styling products, facial cosmetics, anti-acne products, lip balms, lubricants and so on.
But Lanolin has also found wide use in healthcare where it is used as a topical liniment. Finally, Lanolin is also used in many industrial-grade lubricants, rust-preventive coatings, shoe polish, and many other commercial products.
But what, exactly, makes Lanolin this popular in the skincare and cosmetics industry? Well, Lanolin is actually one of the most efficient emollients in existence.
This isn’t really surprising considering the fact that scientific analysis has revealed that Lanolin is structurally and chemically very similar to the lipids (fatty acids) found in the surface layer of human skin. These lipids are found in the human epidermis, or the surface layer of the skin (also called stratum corneum). The lipids found there regulate the amount of water in our skin, keeping our skin hydrated, elastic, soft, and moisturized. Hence, Lanolin is exceptionally helpful for people with moderately to extremely dry skin, since it offers an almost identical replacement for what their own skin lacks.
Emollients soften and lubricate our skin, making it smoother, stronger, healthier and more flexible. It is believed that Lanolin achieves this by constructing a sort of additional “grease” layer over our skin, which is almost identical to the one produced by human skin. These thin, but powerful films of Lanolin overlap themselves “semiocclusively” over our skin. That is, they arrange themselves in such a way that they enable air to flow through, but at the same time, retain water molecules.
All of this makes Lanolin a very powerful emollient. Research has shown that applying small amounts of Lanolin to the skin (2mg to a square centimeter) reduced its roughness to 35% just after an hour. In two hours, Lanolin softens human skin to a whopping 50%, with this effect being present for longer than 8 hours.
Additionally, by forming semiocclusive (breathable) layers that retain air but conserve water over our skin, the moisturizing effects of Lanolin can last for a long time. Applying 4mg of Lanolin every day for several days, and then stopping, can still keep your skin hydrated and lubricated for up to 72 hours after stopping. Lanolin is assumed to achieve this by forming some kind of secondary moisture reservoir of water within our skin. Finally, Lanolin is also deemed to be a superior emollient and moisturizer when compared to other common emollients such as petrolatum and glycerol.
That is not the end of the many benefits of Lanolin, though. You surely know that vitamins are very good for your health. In fact, most of them are essential, and some of them are exceptionally useful for your skin’s health. Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin B5 and B12, Vitamin A and so on are powerful antioxidants that boost your immunity and keep your skin safe from free radicals. But when it comes to our skin’s wellbeing, there is one more vitamin that is generally overlooked and underappreciated - Vitamin D.
Vitamin D, or calcitrol, as it’s called in its active form is the key vitamin when it comes to regulating skin cell growth, repair, and metabolism. Furthermore, Vitamin D optimizes the skin's immune system and, like other antioxidants, helps destroy those pesky free radicals that can cause premature aging or other types of damage to the skin. The human body can produce Vitamin D on its own through sun exposure, but too much sun can accelerate skin aging. So, we need another source.
Enter Lanolin. Being super-rich in Vitamin D, this uncannily useful sheep hair grease can deliver precious Vitamin D exactly where we need it - on our skin. Since Vitamin D is fat-soluble, and Lanolin is fat, it means that Lanolin is exceptionally effective at delivering Vitamin D to every microscopic nook and cranny of our skin. There, Vitamin D can ward off any surface level free radicals that can damage our skin from the outside. Additionally, Vitamin D helps our skin regenerate itself faster, which means it’s also helpful for wound healing. All of this makes Vitamin D, as delivered by Lanolin, one of the best boosts for our skin barrier out there.
But, if you prefer to increase your internal levels of Vitamin D, there are other ways. Of course, sunbathing is one of them, and if you avoid getting sunburned, or if you use a quality, broad-spectrum sunscreen, you should be fine. But if you have sensitive skin, or you’re pale, your skin may not tolerate this sun-induced method for Vitamin D production.
So what to do then? Well, you can always take Vitamin D in the form of oral supplements. As people age, their ability to produce Vitamin D gradually weakens, so the older you are, the more Vitamin D you need. This is reflected in the recommended dosage for Vitamin D supplementation.
Most people should be absolutely fine with supplementing 600 IU (International Units) of Vitamin D per day. However, that amount assumes that you are taking Vitamin D through your food and sun exposure as well, so generally speaking, if you eat poorly and you hate the sun, a higher dose would be ideal.
People aged 70 and older, for example, are assumed to need at least 800 IUs of Vitamin D per day. But since not everyone is eating like royalty, and some places in the world see very few days of sunlight, taking 1000 to 2000 IUs of Vitamin D per day can be reasonable as well.
If you want to boost your diet to include more Vitamin D however, here are the foods you should eat more of: fatty fish like tuna, mackerel, and salmon, then fortified dairy (like cheese) and cereal products, egg yolks, beef liver, mushrooms, and fortified orange juice.
But back to Lanolin. Does it have any cons, or is it just pros? Let’s see.
So wait, if Lanolin is so amazing, and so widely used in the cosmetics and beauty industry, then why are we having this conversation? Well, that’s a good question, and it has a few decent answers. Answers that we will arrive at when we address some of the common concerns regarding Lanolin. Such as...
Since the structure of Lanolin is so similar to human produced skin oil (also called sebum) the answer should be no. At least, technically no. But as you will agree, dear reader, everyone’s skin is a tad different, and not every Lanolin version contains just pure Lanolin.
Let us recall how Lanolin is made, and where it comes from. The sheep that roam about in the seemingly idyllic countryside are not aware that they often come into contact with pesticides. Traces of these pesticides can sometimes hitchhike all the way through the Lanolin production and find themselves in the final product. So, sometimes when a person would experience an allergic reaction to wool grease, it would actually be due to the pesticide. The sheep did nothing wrong.
Additionally, some people are allergic to wool. Or, to be more precise, to the proteins that comprise sheep’s wool. So when a microscopic amount of some wool survives and makes its way to the Lanolin product, those people can observe allergic reactions as well.
Finally, it’s also possible that one may really be allergic to Lanolin. Science is fairly familiar with the idea that we can sometimes become allergic to the most mundane of things, merely due to prolonged overexposure to them. Just think about it - Lanolin is in everything, has been in almost everything, for more than half a century now. And when our skin comes into prolonged, frequent contact with some substance, it can sometimes develop an allergy to it.
Don’t believe us? Just think of those rashes on your wrists, or that itchiness that suddenly appears when you’ve worn your favorite jumper for 10 years now. (Plot twist, is the jumper made out of wool?) The skin gradually becomes sensitized more and more, where it is getting taught that it just cannot tolerate a substance any longer without mustering an immune response. Generally, this manifests as ACD, or allergic contact dermatitis. And usually, it ends when the allergen, namely the substance that triggered it, is removed.
So, yes, a small number of people can definitely be allergic to Lanolin. Or, maybe they’re allergic to something else that the product contains. Or, it may just be a case of a person with very sensitive skin.
Whichever it is, there’s a very simple way to prevent injuring yourself. If you are unclear if a substance will irritate your skin or cause any adverse reactions, you can always perform a patch test. A patch test is very simple to do - just take a small amount of the substance you want to test, apply it over a small patch of skin, such as your forearm, for example. Then, give it anywhere up to 24 or 48 hours.
If your skin shows no signs of pain, discomfort, or irritation, you’re good to go and use the substance. But if your skin is reacting aggressively to the substance, and you’re feeling itches, seeing redness, flakiness, or even pain - wash it off immediately and of course, schedule a visit to your dermatologist. And yes, definitely stop using the product or the substance that you just tested.
Comedogenic stands for “this will clog your pores.” And clogged pores are not good at all. They can turn into blackheads, or whiteheads, and from there it’s straight on to a full-blown acne inflammation. Moral of the story, nobody wants comedogenic things.
But is Lanolin comedogenic?
And the answer is… It depends. Is your skin oily? Or is it dry? Or is it just normal skin that nonetheless gets its pores clogged at the first sweat or greasy hair incident?
See, what clogs our pores is mostly our own skin oil, called sebum, in addition to dead skin cells, microscopic dirt, and sometimes even bacteria. Applying Lanolin over your skin is very similar to adding some sebum over it. Which may or may not clog your pores.
If the environment on your skin is suitable for clogging up your pores (meaning it’s not clean, contains lots of dead skin cells), then yes, Lanolin can clog your pores rather quickly.
If your face is properly exfoliated, cleansed and your skin is otherwise healthy, then Lanolin won’t clog your pores.
Oils are, in general, comedogenic, because they can find their way inside pores and can be difficult to get them out. However, not all oils are created equal, and the same applies to Lanolin. Lanolin has many, many formulas, and the most comedogenic types of Lanolin are the so-called Acetylated Lanolin and Acetylated Lanolin Alcohol.
However, those two were largely a product of older times, when purification techniques weren’t as advanced as it is today. The purer the Lanolin, the less comedogenic it will be. Pure Lanolin is the version that’s used in skincare and cosmetics products the most, with Lanolin Alcohol coming in second.
As always, check the label of the product for its ingredients. If you’re dealing with dry, cracked skin (like calluses and the such), products that contain pure Lanolin are pure gold. It will soften and smoothen your skin, which you can follow up with a nice exfoliation session to remove all the dead skin cells.
Lanolin is a wonder emollient, offering powerful soothing, softening, and moisturizing effects for your skin that can last for days. That has made it, unsurprisingly, the darling of the skincare and cosmetics industry for decades. However, Lanolin can be allergic to some, and can clog the pores of others. If you are finding yourself unable, or unwilling to use Lanolin, virgin coconut oil, and organic olive oil are good replacements. Be mindful, though, that they are both highly comedogenic as well. Alternatively, you can also try hyaluronic acid, which offers some of the bonuses, but without the drawbacks.
This information is meant to supplement, not replace advice from your doctor or healthcare provider and is not meant to cover all possible uses, precautions, interactions or adverse effects. This information may not fit your specific health circumstances, and its goal is to offer a general view of the subject. In case you are suffering from a severe case of acne, you should consult with a dermatologist or a certified medical professional.