By Dr Davin Lim
Lanolin is a controversial emollient, favoured by many, but often scoffed at by dermatologists as it is a frequent skin allergen. Despite this, it can be a very useful & occlusive moisturizer.
What is the science behind lanolin?
Lanolin is classed as an emollient. This ingredient reduces water loss from the skin & hence is used as a moisturizer for the face, body & lips. It can hold 2-4 times its weight in moisture & hence lanolin is found with other emollients in many brands of moisturisers.
What are the skin benefits of lanolin alcohol?
Lanolin alcohol is the primary type of lanolin used in skin care. This substance has powerful emollient properties and can be used in the following ways:
Chapped lip treatments: Lanolin is a popular emollient found in many lip balms, including overnight lip masks as it is a super powerful hydrator.
Heals dry, cracked skin: Lanolin is classified as an emollient. It can repair barrier function as it is highly occlusive. Traditionally it has been used to treat dry skin, eczema, & scratches.
Wrinkles & fine lines/ anti-aging: As it absorbs 2-4 times its weight in water, it can hydrate the epidermis, reducing lines & wrinkles (As a comparison Hyaluronic Acid holds over 1000 times its weight in water).
Where is lanolin derived from?
Lanolin is derived from wool fat (sheep). Lanolin is a naturally occurring substance that is secreted by the oil glands of wool producing mammals. This substance is purified through centrifugation & extraction.
How often can you use lanolin?
Lanolin can be safely used 2-4 times a day, more frequently if you are treating dry or cracked lips. It is not advisable to use lanolin for long periods of time as this can increase the rate of allergic reactions.
Is lanolin in Vaseline products?
No, Vaseline is derived from petroleum jelly, whilst Aquaphor contains lanolin, mineral oil & glycerin. If you are allergic to lanolin, you should not have a cross reaction with Vaseline.
Why has lanolin got a bad wrap?
The reason that most dermatologists avoid this substance is because lanolin frequently lights up as an allergen with routine skin patch testing. Now, remember that patients who attend patch testing clinics will either have irritant or allergic contact dermatitis in the first place, hence we are testing a skewed population to begin with. In the scheme of things lanolin has a low allergen potential, but it is not infrequently picked up as an allergen in a patch test clinic. If you think you are allergic to lanolin, you can perform a patch test on your inner arm. Discuss this possible allergy with your medical dermatologist. They may arrange patch testing to confirm or exclude your suspicion.
Why is lanolin frequently used for cracked nipples?
Traditionally lanolin has been used for sore nipples secondary to breast feeding. The super emollient properties of this molecule has traditionally made this the healing balm of choice as it can also double up as a moisturiser for diaper - nappy rash. In the scheme of pure numbers, allergic contact dermatitis is rare, but with compromised skin barriers (e.g. cracked nipples), most dermatologists would discourage its use.
If you have a paradoxical rash with lanolin application, cease immediately. You can perform a patch test on your inner arm to see if you are allergic to lanolin. A medical dermatologist can arrange a formal patch test to confirm or dismiss an allergy.
Can vegans use Lanolin, & is this molecule cruelty free?
The vast majority of lanolin is derived from sheep wool however synthetic or plant based lanolin can be a substitute. Check with the manufacturer as to the contents of your product.
What are the side effects of lanolin?
Allergic contact dermatitis has been discussed on this page. Allergies are more frequently seen in patients who have chronic compromised skin barriers. This includes eczema, chronic venous ulceration & stasis dermatitis. Routine patch testing in a dermatology clinic will reveal a lanolin allergy in 3-6% of patients. This is a skewed population of testing, as many will have cross reactions & allergies to other topicals. In the scheme of things, allergies to lanolin are rare.
More common concerns include the comedogenic potential of lanolin alcohol, this means it has the potential to clog pores.
What are some products that contain lanolin?
Lanolin can be found in Aquaphor, healing balms, lip balms, lanolin based lotions & many other moisturisers.
Davin’s View On Lanolin Use
As a dermatologist we have been traditionally taught to avoid lanolin & lanolin alcohol at all costs. This is primarily due to our rotations in skin patch test clinics where it is not uncommon to find patients with multiple allergies to ingredients such as fragrance, preservatives, nickel, & lanolin. Routine patch testing of patients with unknown sensitives can yield a positive patch test to lanolin alcohol in as many as 6% of cases. The majority of cases will have compromised skin barriers such as chronic stasis dermatitis.
In the real world the incidence of lanolin allergy is low, much less than 2%. If you do have an idiosyncratic reaction to lanolin, cease application. You can perform a patch testing to confirm or exclude. Your medical dermatologist can assist.
Disclaimer: I am a procedural dermatologist & not medical. My work is based on surgical, injectable or laser cases. If you do have skin rashes or possible allergies, please consult my colleagues @cliniccutis.