Your Favourite Lip Balm & the Environment

Petrochemicals & Petrolatum

Your Favourite Lip Balm & the Environment

After reading the article “Ask Ugly: I’m addicted to lip balm – but it doesn’t work. What’s a better alternative?” in The Guardian, I realised that I needed to reevaluate my approach not just to lip balm but to all my cosmetics. It became clear that I should start paying closer attention to the ingredients lists and make more informed choices. However, this is easier said than done. The skincare market has become saturated with a vast array of products targeting different skin concerns, preferences, and demographics. This extensive product offering can sometimes lead to consumer confusion or feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices available, but a good place to start is petrochemicals.


Petrochemicals are chemical compounds derived from petroleum or natural gas. They are typically produced through processes such as refining crude oil or processing natural gas liquids. These compounds serve as building blocks for a wide range of products across various industries, including plastics, pharmaceuticals, textiles, cosmetics, fertilisers, and more. While petrochemicals have revolutionised manufacturing and enabled the production of countless products, there are also concerns regarding their environmental impact, including pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and dependence on fossil fuels.

In an interview with System Beauty, beauty reporter and critic Jessica Defino states:

“…part of the comeback of this shiny, oily look is happening at the ingredient manufacturing level. The same way oil-free products surged when silicones became more widely used and available, high-shine products like the Dior Lip Glow Oil and Vaseline are made mainly with petrochemicals and are trending as the petrochemical market expands, which is not by accident. Petrochemicals are the largest driver of global oil demand — they’re the oil industry’s new major growth market, due to a decrease in fuel demand and a focus clean energy options. So as the fossil fuel industry ramps down fuel production, it’s ramping up petrochemical production to make up for financial losses, and the beauty industry is a big customer there. If you look at the Dior Lip Glow Oil ingredients, it’s mostly petrochemicals, which are very cheap for beauty brands to formulate with. It makes for high profit margins.”


Petrolatum, also known as mineral oil jelly or petroleum jelly (for example, Vaseline), is a semisolid mixture of hydrocarbons obtained from petroleum refining. It is essentially a byproduct of petroleum refining derived from crude oil. Petrolatum is commonly used in moisturisers as a barrier to lock in moisture and in hair care products to provide shine. However, as a petroleum product, petrolatum can be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Studies suggest that prolonged exposure to PAHs, including through skin contact over extended periods, is associated with an increased risk of cancer. Due to this potential risk, the European Union classifies petrolatum as a carcinogen and restricts its use in cosmetic products. Additionally, PAHs present in petrolatum can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions.

In the European Union, petrolatum can only be used in cosmetics “if the full refining history is known and it can be shown that the substance from which it is produced is not a carcinogen.” Mineral oil and petroleum distillates, which are related petroleum byproducts used in cosmetics, may also be contaminated with PAHs, posing similar risks.


Extraction and refining: The extraction and refining of crude oil, from which petrolatum is derived, can have significant environmental impacts. These include habitat destruction, air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and the risk of oil spills.

Resource depletion: Crude oil is a non-renewable resource, and its extraction contributes to resource depletion. As demand for petroleum-based products continues to grow, there is increased pressure on ecosystems and habitats where oil reserves are located.

End-of-life disposal: While petrolatum itself is not biodegradable, it is generally inert and does not pose significant environmental risks once it’s applied to the skin. However, the disposal of products containing petrolatum, such as lip balms or moisturizers, can contribute to landfill waste if not properly managed.

Alternative Ingredients to Petrochemicals

Some consumers and companies may prefer to use alternative ingredients to petrolatum in skincare products due to environmental concerns or personal preferences. These alternatives may include plant-based oils, waxes, or synthetic substitutes with lower environmental impacts. Some common alternatives include:

Beeswax: Beeswax is a natural wax produced by honeybees. It helps to create a protective barrier on the lips and retains moisture.

Plant-based waxes: Waxes derived from plants such as candelilla wax, carnauba wax, and soy wax can be used as alternatives to petrolatum in lip balms; these waxes provide similar moisturising and protective properties.

Shea butter: Shea butter is a rich natural butter extracted from the nuts of the shea tree; it is deeply moisturising and helps to soften and nourish the lips.

Cocoa butter: Cocoa butter is a natural fat extracted from cocoa beans; it has emollient properties and helps to soothe and hydrate dry lips.

Coconut oil: Coconut oil is a popular natural oil known for its moisturising and nourishing properties; it helps to hydrate and soften the lips while providing a wonderful beachy scent.

Olive oil: Olive oil is another natural oil that can be used in lip balms for its moisturizing effects; it contains antioxidants and vitamins that help to protect and nourish the lips.

Jojoba oil: Jojoba oil is a lightweight natural oil that closely resembles the skin’s sebum; it helps to moisturize the lips without feeling greasy and provides a protective barrier.

Almond oil: Almond oil is rich in vitamins and fatty acids that help to nourish and moisturise lips; it is lightweight and easily absorbed, making it suitable for lip balms.


So Carmex, which contains petrolatum as one of its primary ingredients, is out. Rhode Peptide Lip Treatment and Summer Fridays Lip Butter Balm are also out. Laneige Lip Sleeping Mask, on the other hand, does not contain petrolatum. (Thank goodness! It’s my favourite.) Instead, its main ingredients include shea butter, murumuru butter, and various plant-based oils. Lanolips is also fine, as lanolin (a natural substance derived from sheep’s wool and is known for its moisturising properties) is its key ingredient. I’ve also researched a few other petrochemical-free products with clean credentials below.

Cleaner lip balms and lipsticks

Your Favourite Lip Balm & the Environment
Your Favourite Lip Balm & the Environment
Your Favourite Lip Balm & the Environment

With the proliferation of skincare products, there are growing concerns about overconsumption and the environmental impact of packaging waste and product formulations. Knowing what is in your favourite lip balm will help you make more informed decisions for your own health, as well as for the environment.

Your Favourite Lip Balm & the Environment
Your Favourite Lip Balm & the Environment

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