I know such creams are widely available both on the high street and as prescription emollients from pharmacies, but I was brought up in a time when paraffin was always kept out of reach of children and was only brought out to light the bonfire on Guy Fawkes Night or to get the barbeque going! I have never quite made peace in my head with the idea of using it as part of a skincare regime. So I decided to do some research into the origins of paraffin as an ingredient in moisturisers and emollients...
Where did it come from and who decided it was a useful ingredient in skincare products?
Well, it all started during the First World War when the French physician Edmond Barthe de Sandfort developed a burns treatment that involved covering the affected area with a combination of waxes and oils including paraffin wax; this petroleum-derived substance created a barrier for the skin to heal and was seen as a very effective treatment.
Other therapeutic uses for hot paraffin wax were developed, the most popular of which was giving hot wax baths to patients suffering from a variety of ailments, in particular rheumatism and joint pain. The wax would be used to soften the skin and the intense heat would soothe the muscles and ready them for massage treatment.
As is the way of the world, what started off as a medical treatment soon moved into the cosmetic world, with people like Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein using hot paraffin wax in their beauty salons in the 1930s and 40s. Here it was sold as a treatment for weight loss and purifying the skin and women were encouraged to take paraffin baths for all manner of ailments.
Really what the hot paraffin wax was doing was creating an efficient barrier which led to extreme perspiration, meaning that water loss was interpreted as weight loss. The heat also unclogged the pores so that skin emerged from paraffin baths feeling softer and plumper.
However, the hot wax treatments quickly lost popularity as the effects were realised as short lived and the cost and mess involved was not sustainable. The concept of the useful barrier function was not lost though and paraffin-based topical cream was developed. Paraffin is a cheap, smooth and slippery product which means using it in skincare creams is a great way of getting a soft tactile feeling without having to fork out for more expensive ingredients.
Other than its texture, the function of paraffin cream in skincare is as an effective barrier. If the top layer of skin gets dehydrated and doesn't have enough moisture to stay plump and healthy, it doesn't work properly as a barrier; it can get cracked and damaged, allowing more moisture to escape and external irritants to get in - which can in turn lead to itching scratching and infection. Dry, dehydrated skin desperately needs to lock in moisture to maintain suppleness and health, and paraffin wax can act really effectively as an extra layer of skin, a kind of raincoat over the damaged and permeable epidermis.
So now I can see how paraffin-based cream makes sense… or does it?
Replacing the skin barrier is certainly an efficient way to treat the symptoms of dry skin, but does it cause more problems than it solves? Using paraffin cream, it has now been discovered, could actually be causing some of the symptoms skincare products are trying to relieve. In a survey of 100 British children treated with aqueous cream (paraffin oil and water) over half ended up irritated by it. Their symptoms ranged from redness and itchiness to burning and stinging, exactly what you are trying to solve when caring for dry skin! In 2013 the government even issued a warning against using aqueous cream as an emollient on children.
The last thing we at Balmonds want is for any of our products to exacerbate our customer’s skin conditions!
So while I can't argue with the concept of creating a barrier for dry and sensitive skin, I do think that there is a more gentle and nourishing way to achieve it... oh and far less harmful to the planet too! Paraffin cream comes from crude oil; it's a by-product of the oil refining process. The last thing we need are more products that rely on the oil industry.
So our barrier solution? No prizes for guessing: it's beeswax!
Not only is it supporting bees when sourced responsibly, but it is a natural product, which forms a semi-occlusive barrier on the skin, meaning your skin can breathe through it, rather that an occlusive layer like paraffin.
It's also packed full of ingredients to keep your skin nourished and healthy, and acts as a natural antimicrobial agent to keep the bugs at bay.
Which is why Balmonds use this fabulous ingredient in our Skin Salvation ointment, making it not only soft, gentle and 100% natural, but also particularly suitable for those who suffer from eczema, psoriasis and other dry skin conditions. Every ingredient is chosen carefully to reduce the risk of adverse reaction and that includes choosing beeswax not paraffin as a base for our products.
So on health and environmental grounds my view on paraffin cream is: avoid it. Go natural! Support the bees!
If you require medical advice we recommend you always contact your healthcare professional.
If you or someone you are caring for seems very unwell, is getting worse or you think there's something seriously wrong, call for emergency services straight away. For general medical advice, please contact your healthcare professional, this article does not contain or replace medical advice.
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