If this is your first time hearing the word lanolin, we can’t blame you. Although lanolin has a long and established history of use in skincare, it remains a fairly unknown ingredient. Most people will have already used it many times but still won’t be familiar with it.
Don't worry - we have all the answers.
From soothing chapped lips to smoothing very dry skin, let's see what this skincare ingredient can do for you.
Lanolin is a type of natural oil produced by sheep's skin. So if you happen to be vegan, you’ll probably want to avoid lanolin. But don’t worry - the sheep aren't harmed during the process of extracting it.
Lanolin oil is the equivalent of human sebum, the oil our skin produces naturally. This substance serves the vital function of lubricating sheep's skin, but not only that. Lanolin also keeps their skin moisturized and elastic and protects skin from tiny creatures.
Lanolin oil is also a sheep hair conditioner. It helps lubricate the sheep’s wool, which allows their hairs to “breathe,” helping sheep feel comfortable and airy in their thick, soft, wooly fur.
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 a hydrophobic waxy substance, making water slide quickly from the sheep’s wool. This helps sheep keep themselves dry and warm and protects them from getting colds or falling sick.
The sheep’s sebaceous glands (located in their pores) secrete lanolin oil almost constantly. Lanolin gradually envelops the sheep's wool, coating the wooly hairs. Shepherds and shearers then sheer the sheep and collect all the wool. The wool is then washed in hot water that contains special wool-scouring detergents to remove any dirt stuck to the soft sheep hair.
But that’s not all these detergents remove. They’re also designed to detach any crude lanolin (wool grease), sweat salts (also called suint), and other organic sheep stuff stuck to the wool. The wool is then placed into so-called centrifuge separators for washing, removing crude lanolin. This process gradually concentrates crude lanolin into a waxlike substance that melts at approximately 100 °F (38 °C).
This waxy substance 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.
Just like sebum, lanolin oil is a yellowy color and is just as greasy. But the similarities make lanolin very useful for our skin.
But what, exactly, makes lanolin this popular in the skin care and cosmetics industry?
Well, lanolin oil is actually one of the most efficient emollients in existence. In fact, the beneficial properties of lanolin oil have made it one of the darlings of the cosmetics and beauty industry.
Lanolin and its many different derivatives are used extensively in personal and skin care products such as high-value cosmetics, moisturizers, hair styling products, facial cosmetics, anti-acne products, lip balms, lubricants, and so on. From healing chapped lips and improving the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles to helping moisturize dry hair, there's a lot this little miracle worker can do.
Lanolin cream can help prevent and treat irritations like blisters, burns, and rashes. If you're a breastfeeding mother, your doctor might recommend lanolin cream to soothe sore nipples.
According to many studies, lanolin oil can even help soothe lip alterations related to chemotherapy.
Refined lanolin oil has also found wide use in healthcare, where it's used as a topical liniment. It’s also used in many industrial-grade lubricants, rust-preventive coatings, shoe polish, and other commercial products.
But why is this?
Scientific analysis has revealed that this waxy substance derived from sheep skin is structurally and chemically similar to the lipids (fatty acids) found in the surface layer of human skin. The lipids found there regulate the amount of water we produce, 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's believed that lanolin achieves this by constructing an additional “grease” layer over our skin, almost identical to the one produced by humans.
These thin but powerful films of lanolin overlap themselves “semi-occlusively." This just means they arrange themselves in such a way that enables air to flow through while encouraging moisture retention.
All of this makes lanolin oil a very powerful emollient that protects against climatic and chemical aggressors. Research has shown that applying small amounts of lanolin to the skin (2mg to a square centimeter) reduced its roughness to 35% 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 absorb moisture, the moisturizing effects of lanolin can last for a long time. Applying 4mg of lanolin daily for several days can 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 oil is also deemed to have superior moisturizing properties compared to other common emollients and lanolin alternatives such as mineral oil and petroleum jelly.
You surely know that vitamins are very good for your health. Most of them are essential for your general health, and some are exceptionally useful for your skin’s health. Vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin B5 and B12, and vitamin A are powerful antioxidants that boost your immunity and keep your skin safe from free radicals. But when it comes to our skin’s well-being, there is one more vitamin that’s generally overlooked and underappreciated: vitamin D.
Vitamin D, or calcitriol as it’s called in its active form, is key when it comes to regulating skin cell growth, repair, and metabolism. Furthermore, this vitamin 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 this vitamin on its own through sun exposure, but too much sun can accelerate skin aging and cause fine lines and wrinkles. So, we need another source.
Enter Lanolin. This uncannily useful sheep hair grease can deliver the vitamin exactly where we need it - our skin. Vitamin D is fat-soluble, and lanolin is wool fat - meaning lanolin is exceptionally effective at delivering this vitamin to every microscopic nook and cranny of our skin.
There, vitamin D can ward off surface-level free radicals that can damage our skin from the outside. Additionally, it helps our skin regenerate itself faster, which means it’s also effective for wound healing. All of this makes this vitamin one of the best boosts for our skin barrier out there.
If you prefer to increase your internal levels, there are other ways. Of course, sunbathing is one of them. Although the sun can be dangerous, if you avoid sunburn or use a high-quality, broad-spectrum sunscreen, you should be fine. But if you have sensitive skin or are pale, your body may not tolerate this sun-induced method.
So, what then? Well, you can always take the vitamin in the form of oral supplements. As people age, their ability to produce it gradually weakens, so the older you are, the more vitamin D you need.
Most people should be absolutely fine with supplementing 600 IU (international units) of the vitamin a day. However, that amount assumes you're also taking it through your food and sun exposure. So, generally speaking, if you eat poorly and you hate the sun, a higher dose would be ideal.
People aged 70 and older are assumed to need at least 800 IUs 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 a day can also be helpful.
If you want to boost your diet to include more vitamins, eat more fatty fish like tuna, mackerel, and salmon, then fortified dairy (like cheese), 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.
As we've mentioned previously, many personal and skincare products use lanolin oil in their formulas. With its moisturizing properties, this substance can help chapped lips, dry lips, and very dry skin and can soothe cracked nipples. This is all because lanolin oil locks moisture into the skin and lip barrier.
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 similar to human-produced skin oil, the answer should be no. But as you will know, dear reader, everyone’s skin is a tad different, and not every lanolin version contains 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 through the production process of lanolin and find themselves in the final product. So when a person experiences an allergic reaction to wool wax, it might be due to the pesticide. That's right - the sheep did nothing wrong.
Additionally, some people are allergic to wool or wool alcohols. Or, more precisely, the proteins that comprise sheep’s wool. So when a microscopic amount of some wool survives and makes its way into the lanolin product, this can also cause allergic reactions.
Finally, lanolin allergies really do exist. Sometimes we become allergic to the most mundane things merely due to prolonged overexposure. Just think about it - lanolin products have been available for over half a century. And when our skin comes into prolonged, frequent contact with a certain substance, it can sometimes develop an allergic reaction 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 ten years now. (Plot twist - is the jumper made out of wool?) The skin gradually becomes increasingly sensitized, and it's taught that it can no longer tolerate the substance without mustering an immune response. Generally, this manifests as ACD, or allergic contact dermatitis, and usually ends when the allergen, namely the substance that triggered it, is removed.
So, yes, a small number of people can definitely have a lanolin allergy. Or, maybe they’re experiencing an allergic reaction to something else the product contains. Alternatively, it may just be a case of very sensitive skin.
Whichever it is, there’s a simple way to prevent injury. If you're unsure whether a substance will irritate your skin, you can always perform a patch test. Patch tests are straightforward - just take a small amount of the substance you want to test, and apply it over a small patch of skin, such as your forearm. Then, give it anywhere up to 24 or 48 hours.
If your skin shows no signs of pain, discomfort, or irritation, you can use the substance. But if your skin reacts aggressively, and you’re feeling itchy, seeing redness, flakiness, or even pain, wash it off immediately and schedule a visit to your dermatologist. And yes, stop using the product or substance you just tested.
You should probably avoid lanolin if you're allergic to wool, as it will create more skin issues than it'll fix.
Comedogenic stands for “this will clog your pores.” And clogged pores are not good at all. They can turn into blackheads or whiteheads; from there, it’s straight onto a full-blown acne inflammation. Moral of the story: nobody wants comedogenic things.
But is lanolin oil comedogenic?
And the answer is… it depends on your skin type. Those with dry skin should be okay, but people with oily skin might find this ingredient mildly comedogenic.
See, what clogs our pores is mostly our own skin oil, dead skin cells, microscopic dirt, and sometimes even bacteria. Lanolin oil is very similar to our skin's natural oils, which may or may not clog your pores.
If the environment on your skin is suitable for clogging up your pores, then yes, lanolin can block them rather quickly. But if your face is properly exfoliated and cleansed and your skin is otherwise healthy, then lanolin won’t clog your pores.
In general, oils are comedogenic because they can find their way inside pores. Once they're in there, it’s 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 are acetylated lanolin and acetylated lanolin alcohol.
However, those two were largely a product of older times when purification techniques weren’t as advanced as today. Pure lanolin is used in skin care and cosmetics products the most, with lanolin alcohol coming in second. Remember, the purer the lanolin, the less comedogenic it will be.
As always, check the product label for its ingredients. If you’re dealing with dry, flaky skin (like calluses), products containing unrefined lanolin are gold. They will soften and smoothen your skin. Follow it up with a nice exfoliation session to remove all the dead skin cells.
Even if lanolin doesn't clog your pores, other substances found in lip balm and moisturizing products might.
If you've accidentally ingested lanolin, you may experience lanolin poisoning. You must speak to a doctor straight away, as lanolin poisoning can cause a blockage in the intestines. However, this is highly unlikely until you're chomping down on your lip balm.
If you're looking for a skincare product that will help you retain moisture, but you're worried lanolin will clog your pores, try the Wrinkle-Free All Day Moisturizer. This acne-approved product is lightweight and comfortable to wear. It protects against sun damage and retains moisture like lanolin. But the best thing? It's totally non-comedogenic!
Lanolin is an amazing emollient, offering powerful soothing, softening, and moisturizing effects for your skin that can last for days. Unsurprisingly, these benefits have made it the darling of the skin care and cosmetics industry for decades. Use it as a lip balm or apply it to dry skin - lanolin products will deliver moisture, soothe painful skin conditions, and reduce the appearance of face wrinkles.
However, lanolin can cause allergic reactions in some and can clog the pores of others. If you find yourself unable or unwilling to use lanolin, virgin coconut oil and organic olive oil are good replacements. Be mindful, as they are both highly comedogenic as well. Alternatively, you can also try hyaluronic acid, which offers some of the bonuses, but without the drawbacks.
Do not use lanolin if you have any wool allergies.
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.