Lanolin : A closer look at this common skin care ingredient
By Erum ILYAS
Lanolin is a wax obtained from sheep’s wool. Although it’s often referred to as wool fat, wool grease, wool alcohol, or wool oil, it’s technically a wax. After the sheep is shorn, the raw wool is boiled with the wax separating away from the wool. Waxes have unique properties in that they mold when warm and become firm when cold. This is what makes them effective ingredients for skin care products as it helps them adhere to the skin more effectively. The most common use of lanolin is as an ingredient for products designed to treat dry, cracked skin. Dry hands in the winter or excessively washed hands that become painful and cracked, painful sensitive nipples during breastfeeding, diaper rash, chapped lips, and hair conditioners are the common conditions treated with lanolin. Lanolin is technically an emollient added to products to enhance hydration and to create a protective barrier for the skin. It creates almost a ‘sealant’ effect on the skin. If you consider the most common areas to use it are moist areas that suffer from excess dryness from evaporation of moisture, lanolin can seal and protect these surfaces.
It’s also found in commercial polishes and waxes used on floors and countertop, Insulation for wiring, metal working fluids such as lubricants and corrosion inhibitors.
The main benefit from lanolin is the ability for it to hydrate and protect the skin simultaneously. It permits healing of the skin by preventing further breakdown of the skin from excess irritation.
Lanolin is a source of allergic contact dermatitis. One of the most common skin patch allergy tests that dermatologists use to test for product allergies is called the TRUE test. It has 35 allergens tested with lanolin being in the second spot. It clearly made it onto the test based on the fact that it can be the source of reactions to certain products. If you are allergic, your skin will get itchy, inflamed, cracked and even scabby or blister. The irony is that this is precisely what lanolin is used to treat. In the course of allergy testing patients, I would not call this a common allergen for patients but I will say it always comes across as a surprise given the fact that the very products used to treat the condition are the exact products responsible for causing issues in the first place. Many times patients have been using common lanolin containing products to treat their dry cracked hands and wondering why they are getting worse and not better. Luckily, once pinpointed as a cause it can be removed from your environment. The main thing to understand are all the potential sources. Changing creams is one thing. Checking cleaning products is important also because walking barefoot across a floor waxed or polished with a lanolin containing product could inadvertently lead to a reaction. It’s important to check all potential sources to reduce exposure.
Lanolin is a common and effective ingredient in many skin care products. It works well and aids in healing dry cracked skin. If you do not get better from using it, it’s important to consider the possibility that you may be allergic or sensitive to it and try other emollients instead. If rashes still persist, it’s important to see your dermatologist as you may need to supplement treatment with a topical steroid or antibiotic to aid in healing and repair of the skin.