What Is Lanolin?

A Natural Moisturizer Sourced From Wool

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Lanolin is a waxy substance that sheep naturally produce to protect their wool. It is has similar properties to the sebum (oil) secreted by human skin. It has become a popular ingredient in moisturizers, hair care products, and soaps. Lanolin is also widely promoted as a natural remedy for sore nipples due to breastfeeding.

This article looks at the benefits, uses, and risks of lanolin. It also talks about how it is extracted from wool and examines safety of using lanolin on your nipples while nursing.

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

Benefits and Uses of Lanolin

Lanolin is classified as an occlusive moisturizer. This means it works by reducing water loss from the skin, similar to petroleum jelly.

While petroleum can reduce the evaporation of skin's moisture by 98%, lanolin reduces it by between 20% and 30%. However, many people like that lanolin isn't as heavy as petroleum jelly, making it more pleasant to use.

In skincare products, there's no hard evidence showing lanolin is better than synthetic waxes. If you like using natural products, though, you may prefer lanolin over synthetics.

Lanolin is in a wide variety of over-the-counter (OTC) products. They include:

Lanolin for Breastfeeding and Sore Nipples

During breastfeeding, your nipples may become sore, dry, and even cracked. Many healthcare providers recommend lanolin creams to ease nipple pain from breastfeeding.

A big benefit is that it's generally considered safe for your baby to ingest small amounts of lanolin. It's recommended that you use it at least ten minutes before you start breastfeeding. But unlike other products, you don't need to wipe it off.

It's also safe to give your baby breastmilk expressed while lanolin is on your nipples. (Again, wait about 10 minutes after application before you begin pumping.)

Research into lanolin for nipple pain has been mixed.

A 2018 Brazilian study suggested significant improvements in nipple pain and trauma in participants who used lanolin compared to those who rubbed in breastmilk (another common remedy for nipple soreness).

However, other research on its effectiveness has been lackluster.

  • A 2014 review of studies concluded that evidence is insufficient that lanolin relieves nipple pain.
  • Research in 2017 reported participants were happier with the results of lanolin cream than with other products, but lanolin didn't lessen nipple pain or make continued breastfeeding more likely.
  • A 2021 study said it wasn't clear whether lanolin (combined with education about breastfeeding) helped prevent nipple pain.

Risks of Lanolin

If you're allergic to wool, you're especially likely to be allergic to lanolin, so it's probably safest to avoid it.

Lanolin allergies may cause the following symptoms: 

  • Rash or itching where it was applied
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of the throat, lips, eyes, or mouth

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.

Lanolin Poisoning

Keep lanolin away from young children who might accidentally swallow a dangerous quantity. This can result in lanolin poisoning.

Symptoms are usually mild and may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Skin rashes
  • Skin irritation with redness and swelling

If severe symptoms develop, call 911. Be ready to provide critical information like age, height, weight, and the product that caused 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.

How Lanolin Products Are Made

The skin of mammals has natural oils that are produced by sebaceous glands. In sheep, these glands secrete lanolin, which keeps their wool:

  • Soft
  • Moisturized
  • Protected from outside elements

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. This does not harm the animal.

The industrial processing of raw lanolin transforms it into a product called Lansinoh. Lansinoh is virtually free of pesticides, detergents, and natural alcohols. It's less allergenic than raw lanolin, making it more appealing for widespread use.

To make skincare products, lanolin or Lansinoh is mixed with other moisturizers, possibly fragrances and dyes, and other ingredients.

Products advertising lanolin as the active ingredient should contain between 12.5% and 50% lanolin, according to the Food and Drug Administration. International lanolin products may vary in their concentration and purity.

Structure and Composition of Lanolin

Lanolin differs slightly from human sebum because it does not contain any triglycerides. On a molecular level, the majority of lanolin is made up of:

  • Alcohols
  • Acids

These compounds combine to form structures known as esters, diesters, and high-molecular-weight hydroxy esters.

The physical properties of waxes like lanolin make them ideal for:

  • Lubricating
  • Polishing
  • Waterproofing

Fine-wool sheep, which make Merino wool, have an especially high lanolin content. That's part of what keeps the wool soft and fluffy.

Lanolin is sometimes called "wool fat." A more accurate term is "wool wax." Waxes and fats are similar but not the same. Waxes are less greasy, harder, and have a higher melting temperature.

"Firm" mustache creams frequently contain lanolin because of this consistency.

Summary

Lanolin is a natural moisturizing wax that's extracted from sheep's wool. It's used in a wide array of skincare products, from eye creams to baby oil and hemorrhoid ointment. It's often recommended for nipples that are sore from breastfeeding.

Eating a lot of lanolin can cause lanolin poisoning. If you're allergic to wool, you may also be allergic to lanolin.

Lanolin is extracted from wool and processed into Lansinoh, which is a purer form. In addition to moisturizing, it's good for lubrication, polishing, and waterproofing.

A Word From Verywell

While many people swear by the moisturizing benefits of lanolin, others have negative reactions or find it ineffective.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is lanolin oil toxic?

    No, but you shouldn't ingest it. Lanolin is similar to wax. Eating large amounts of lanolin can cause intestinal blockage.

  • Can you be allergic to lanolin?

    You can be allergic to lanolin, though it's rare. Research suggests fewer than 7% of people with contact dermatitis are allergic to lanolin.

  • How is lanolin collected?

    Lanolin comes from sheep wool, but extracting it doesn't harm the animal. First, the sheep are sheared, then the wool is washed and put through a centrifuge that separates out the waxy lanolin.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N
Anastasia, RDN, CD-N, is a writer and award-winning healthy lifestyle coach who specializes in transforming complex medical concepts into accessible health content.