I wrote recently about hypoallergenic products and and pointed out that one of the few ingredients that we have any data on the incidence of allergic reactions is lanolin. This isn’t a coincidence. Lanolin was really the original cosmetic ingredient scare story. Let’s have a quick look at how it happened.
Lanolin – the Scare
Back in the fifties a dermatologist called Sultzberger was looking at eczema patients and trying to identify things that caused them to have allergic reactions. Eczema is even today a bit of a mysterious condition and back then little progress has been made in unravelling what was going on. So looking at what triggered it off was a reasonable starting point. One of the things in the survey was lanolin. Out of 1048 tests only 12 proved positive. This is a rate of about 1% in patients with a skin problem. For a long time nothing much was thought about it, but over time more and more people picked up on this figure and wrongly assumed it meant that 1% of all people were sensitive to lanolin.
Things became serious when companies started putting lanolin free on packs. I am pretty sure this was the first ‘free from’ claim in cosmetics. Once people were alerted that lanolin was something to avoid, they started avoiding it. Lanolin became a to be avoided material. Formulators were bemused, but the game in cosmetics is giving the customers what they want. And they didn’t want lanolin.
This was annoying for lanolin lovers like myself, but was hitting the manufacturers of lanolin in the pocket. They invested a considerable amount of time and effort into working out the true level allergy in the population at large. This is more difficult to work out than you might imagine, but with great diligence they marshalled all the evidence they could and came up with a very convincing estimate that the figure was in the region of 5 per million.
This was published as a paper in the Journal of Cosmetic Science in 1975. To add to the data Albert Kligman, at the time the most prestigious dermatologist in the world, weighed in with his opinions about how good lanolin was and how the risks had been exaggerated by a huge margin.
None of this had the slightest effect. Companies continued to avoid lanolin and make a virtue of the fact and people continued to believe there was something wrong with it.
Lanolin – What is it?
They have been missing out. Lanolin is also known as wool wax, and I think it is a shame that name isn’t used more often as it is very descriptive. It is produced by sheep to protect their wool and skin. It is basically nothing more than the sheep’s version of sebum. Sheep spend a lot of time standing around in wet fields and really need to keep their wool waterproof. They have developed a material that does this really effectively.
Newly shorn wool is covered with a thin coating of lanolin which if left in place would make the wool impossible to process. It is removed by washing and collected for sale to the industries who have various uses for it – cosmetics being the main one. Prices vary with demand, and sometimes the lanolin is more profitable than the wool. So it is a little unfair to describe it as simply a byproduct of wool production. It is a valuable material in its own right.
Lanolin – Advantages
In many ways it is the perfect moisturising ingredient. Despite its reputation, the number of skin reactions it generates is extremely low. I would certainly say that if anyone ever comes up with a good definition of hypoallergenic, lanolin would count as an approved ingredient. People do in fact make the claim of hypoallergenicity for some of the purer grades of lanolin – and there is even a published paper to that effect in the nurses’ journal.
We don’t actually know the reaction rates to many allergens, but lanolin must be amongst the lowest. It is also an extremely good moisturiser. It is one that I personally use when troubled by dry skin. Aside from its benefits to the end user, formulators appreciate that it works well as a stabiliser for emulsions.
Lanolin – Drawbacks
Nothing is perfect of course. It’s raw form is pretty unmanageable so you can’t easily use it as a standalone moisturiser the way you can with petrolatum (mineral oil). It also has a distinct smell. It isn’t exactly unpleasant, but it is hard to mask. The smell, and the colour, can be reduced by purification. These grades are a bit pricier, but still realistic. The only trouble I have found is that the smell does gradually return. This means you have to watch the stock in warehouse and use it before it gets too old.
But on the whole, lanolin is a marvellous material that should be used more. I think that after some sixty years in the wilderness it is beginning to be rehabilitated. It’s a shame we ever doubted it.
Contact Dermatitis Volume 39, Issue 3, pages 103–107, September 1998 The myth of lanolin allergy Albert M. Kligman
Contact Dermatitis Volume 9, Issue 2, pages 99–107, April 1983 Lanolin allergy: crisis or comedy Albert M. Kligman
J. Soc. Cosmet. Chem. 26 323-335 (1975) Estimation of the general incidence of specific lanolin allergy E. W. CLARK*
Stone, Lynette. “Medilan: A Hypoallergenic Lanolin For Emollient Therapy”. British Journal Of Nursing, vol 9, no. 1, 2000, pp. 54-57. Mark Allen Group, doi:10.12968/bjon.2000.9.1.6415.