Whether you’re contending with dry and rough skin all year because of your skin type or because it’s the dry season or you’re living in an arid place, you know it’s not that easy to find a product that soothing and moisturising.
But there’s an ingredient that both derms and many people swear by. It’s also used in many products and you may have seen it on the ingredient list of nipple cream. Can you guess what it is?
It’s lanolin, an almost omnipresent but underrated ingredient that soothes and prevents dry, chapped skin while restoring much-needed moisture. You can find it in anything from lip balm, hair and skin care products to baby bum balms.
What’s this magical substance?
IIf you’ve ever petted a sheep before, you may have observed that its fur has a slight, almost unnoticeable sheen. It’s just the same with our hair: our scalp makes oil which protects the hair and so do sheep with theirs.
Only, theirs is more extreme. That’s because it’s meant to keep their wool coats waterproof and deodorised.
In its pure form, it looks very much like pale yellow grease that’s why it’s also often called wool grease or wool fat. Technically speaking, it’s not a fat but is considered a wax. It’s a mixture of waxy esters, lanolin acids, and lanolin alcohols but has no glycerides.
Although lanolin is made by the sebaceous glands of sheep or other wool-bearing animals, it’s a cruelty-free and vegetarian ingredient, since it’s only extracted from the sheep wool once it has been sheared.
To extract it, the raw wool is treated with a soap solution or kneaded in hot water then put into a centrifuge that separates the lanolin from other chemicals.
In its unrefined, natural state, lanolin has a yellow tint and an unpleasant odour. At room temperature, it’s a waxy substance. For cosmetics, ointments, and medicine, lanolin is refined. In this state, it loses its pungent odour. Refined lanolin is an organic, non-toxic, and biodegradable substance.
To speak to its effectiveness, it’s believed that people have been using lanolin for about 8000 years. There are records that the ancient Egyptians smeared it on their skin as a moisturiser. The Ancient Greeks also used it for the same moisturising properties it is popular for today.
Surprisingly, lanolin is also important to make vitamin D supplements. That would be vitamin D3, cholecalciferol, and not D2, ergocalciferol. But that’s also not a valuable nutrient for us humans.
How does it work?
Lanolin is produced by the sebaceous glands of sheep or other wool-bearing animals, and scientists have discovered that closely resembles the sebum produced by our oil glands. It’s really a magical substance since it’s an emollient, occlusives, and emulsifier all in one.
This means, as an emollient, it can soothe dry and cracked skin. It goes in between the cracks of the skin and fills them. As an occlusive, it forms a protective barrier and blocks transepidermal water loss. As an emulsifier, it helps bind water and oil-based ingredients together.
Then since it closely resembles the sebum made by your skin, it’s readily absorbed into your skin while not being as heavy as vaseline, the classical example of an occlusive. It also won’t jam up your pores and feels lightweight. It can hold up to 400% of its weight in moisture – think of it as a moisture reservoir for your skin.
So, lanolin softens your skin and locks in moisture, restoring elasticity, reinforcing lipid barrier. Aside from all of this, it also has antibacterial and anti fungal properties. So, it helps the healing process in minor scrapes, cuts, burns, and irritations.
All of this means it’s great to relieve dry and cracked skin while providing nourishment both on the surface and deep within. Since it’s great in keeping moisture sealed within the skin, it also helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Is it safe?
Lanolin enjoyed an ever growing popularity until the 1960s when people using lanolin products suddenly got allergic reactions. After investigating, it was found that it was mainly due to the pesticides that the livestock farmers used to disinfect the sheep.
Hence, it’s so important to process and refine lanolin the right way. Otherwise, traces of pesticides and chemicals remain and may lead to cause allergic reactions. With the advancement of innovations and technology, refined lanolin contains less than three parts per million of all impurities.
Other uses of lanolin
It might surprise you that lanolin has many other uses, other than as raw material for vitamin D, or for hair and skin care. Its water-repelling property means it’s often added to in saddle soaps and leather cleaning products. It’s even a popular ingredient in the industry.
It’s used for anti-corrosive and lubricating grease to prevent rust in various industrial applications. In medieval times, knights and squires used it to coat tools, weapons, armour. This helped to preserve the metals, as can be seen in many ancient relics.
How to use it
Since lanolin is emollient and occlusives at the same time it’s used in many products. Moisturiser tend to be made up of 3 kinds of ingredients. So the only missing type is a humectant. This is why it’s often paired with a humectant ingredient. Something like glycerin, aloe, honey, or hyaluronic acid that draws water into your skin.
Lanolin is not considered a humectant, even if it can hold 400 times its weight in moisture. It can only trap existing moisture on your skin or hair.
Check the product that has lanolin in its formula and use it according to the instructions. In general, lanolin is safe to use daily.
Why you should use it
If you’re suffering from overly dry skin where you may even see it thickening, it may be time for you to consider adding a lanolin cream. Say, if you wear sandals or open shoes, you could find that the skin on your heels starts to thicken, crack, and peel from friction and exposure.
Even if you moisturise, you don’t see any improvement. That’s because the product can’t penetrate deeply enough to do its job. But lanolin can. Granted, this is quite an extreme use case.
In any case, if you have chapped lips, generally contend with dry skin, or want to soften your cuticles, try out a product with lanolin.