What Is Lanolin?

A Natural Moisturizer Sourced From Wool

In This Article

Lanolin is a waxy substance naturally produced as a protective barrier for sheep's wool. It's become a popular ingredient in moisturizers, hair care products, and soaps and is widely promoted as a natural skin care remedy for people who are breastfeeding. Learn about the potential risks, safety, efficacy of lanolin and lanolin-based products.

Lanolin is used in skin care products include those for breastfeeding problems
 SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images

What It Is

The sebaceous glands of sheep secrete lanolin, which keeps their wool soft, moisturized, and guarded against the outside elements. Lanolin has similar properties to the sebum that's secreted by our skin.

To extract lanolin for commercial use, raw wool is either treated with a soap solution or kneaded in hot water. A centrifuge then isolates the lanolin. Further processing includes bleaching, deodorizing, and drying.

Lanolin is a waxy substance that's refined from sheep's wool.

In the United States, there are over 50 unique types of sheep. There are new breeds introduced all the time from a pool of over 1,000 different species available worldwide. Certain sheep are raised solely for their wool. Others are grown for their meat or dairy, while many types serve multiple purposes.

The wool of different breeds varies by length and texture. There are fine wool sheep, long wool sheep, medium wool sheep, hair sheep, and specialty types.

Fine wool sheep produce the most lanolin. Although the fleece of fine wool sheep is generally shorter, it has high market value because it's not as itchy. For instance, Merino wool is a popular product from fine wool breeds. Its high lanolin content keeps the texture of Merino wool soft and fluffy.

The industrial processing of raw lanolin transforms it into a product called Lansinoh. Lansinoh is virtually free of pesticides, detergents, and natural alcohols. As opposed to raw lanolin, Lansinoh has less allergic potential, making it more appealing for widespread use.

How Lanolin Works

Lanolin is known as an occlusive moisturizer. This means lanolin works by reducing water loss from the skin, similar to petroleum. While petroleum can block in 98% of the water from our skin, lanolin prevents evaporation by 20% to 30%.

Lanolin is effective but not as heavy as petroleum. After purification, it's mixed with other types of moisturizers, along with fragrances and dyes, etc. for commercial use.

Uses

Doctors often recommend lanolin to people who are breastfeeding to ease nipple pain. La Leche League International also endorses this use. Study results are mixed. Some researchers report that the benefits of lanolin extend beyond other standard treatments (such as using expressed breast milk).

Others indicate that lanolin has minimal impact on soreness after breastfeeding. Nonetheless, people given lanolin by their doctors report greater satisfaction with their overall postpartum care.

Several infant care products also contain lanolin, like baby oil and diaper rash cream. Beyond its relevance on the maternity ward, a variety of over-the-counter products use lanolin as well, such as:

  • Eye creams
  • Hemorrhoid medication
  • Lip balm
  • Lotion for dry skin
  • Makeup and makeup removers
  • Medicated shampoos
  • Mustache wax
  • Shaving cream

Structure and Composition

Lanolin differs slightly from human sebum because it does not contain any triglycerides. On a molecular level, lanolin alcohols and acids make up the majority of lanolin. These compounds combine to form various structures known as esters, diesters, and high-molecular-weight hydroxyesters.

When an alcohol and an acid bond together, esters are produced. This reaction is a condensation reaction, meaning water is lost during the process.

"Wool fat" is a term often used to describe lanolin. However, a more accurate descriptor is "wool wax." Waxes and fats are similar but not quite the same. Both will leave a grease spot on when placed on paper and are dissolvable by the same solvents.

The physical properties of waxes, like lanolin, are ideal for lubricating, polishing, and waterproofing. Similar to beeswax, lanolin is malleable but also hardens at room temperature. That's why "firm" mustache creams frequently contain lanolin.

Benefits

Although not all research results agree, some studies have demonstrated lanolin's benefits for breastfeeding. A study based in Brazil placed 180 women in two test groups. One group used highly purified anhydrous (HPA) lanolin, while the second group was instructed to apply expressed breastmilk (another common remedy for nipple soreness).

Over a seven-day treatment period, the lanolin group reported significant improvements in pain and physical trauma when compared to the expressed breastmilk group.

As an occlusive moisturizer, it makes sense to include lanolin in the formulation of skin care products and creams. There is no hard evidence to suggest that lanolin is better than petroleum-based or synthetic waxes; however, many people like the fact that lanolin is a natural substance.

Risks

The ingestion of lanolin can cause lanolin poisoning. Symptoms are usually mild and may include:

If severe symptoms develop, don't hesitate to call 911. Be ready to provide critical information like the individual's age, height, weight, and the item responsible for the reaction.

Call the National Poison Control Help Hotline (1-800-222-1222) if you suspect possible lanolin poisoning. Open 24 hours per day, seven days per week, this toll-free line will connect you with a poison control expert who can advise you on what to do next.

Lanolin poisoning differs from a lanolin allergy. If you're allergic to wool, you should probably avoid lanolin products to be on the safe side. Lanolin allergies may cause the following symptoms: 

  • Rash or itching (on the area it was applied)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of the throat, lips, eyes, or mouth

Avoid an adverse reaction by only using lanolin as intended. Keep lanolin away from young children who might accidentally swallow a dangerous quantity of it.

If you've never tried skin creams with lanolin before, consider testing a small patch of skin first to determine whether you have a sensitivity to it. Even if you're not allergic, lanolin can be irritating for some people.

Legality

The FDA regulates lanolin under the category of: "Skin protectant drug products for over-the-counter human use." Products advertising lanolin should contain between 12.5% to 50% lanolin as the active ingredient. International lanolin products may vary in their concentration and purity.

A Word From Verywell

While many people swear by the moisturizing benefits of lanolin, others experience negative reactions or find it ineffective. If you notice irritation from lanolin-based products, you're better off avoiding them and trying alternatives, like beeswax or petroleum products.

Experimenting with different treatments will help you discover the best substances for your skin type. If you're unsure about whether lanolin is safe for you to try, ask a dermatologist or pharmacist. When using new products, it's always best to start with a small area of application to see how your body will react.

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Article Sources
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