Lanolin: the basics

Today’s topic is lanolin, a skincare ingredient that offers great emollient and protective properties. (It’s an ingredient that I started using in some of my recipes recently, which is why I’ve been reading up on it!)

What is lanolin?

Soft, waxy and incredibly rich, lanolin is a natural substance secreted by the sebaceous glands of sheep, which is then extracted from their wool (hence its other name, wool wax or wool fat).* Composition-wise, lanolin consists of esters of fatty acids and naturally occurring steroid alcohols (or sterols)^; it has anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. Basically, it is the stuff that “waterproofs” a sheep, protects its skin and keeps its wool soft!

*Given that lanolin is an animal-derived ingredient, it may not be suitable for everyone.

^An example of a sterol is cholesterol, which is essential for maintaining good skin health and ensuring that the skin is letting just the right amount of water in and out.

lanolin anhydrous

Uses of lanolin in body and skincare

Resembling human sebum, lanolin is easily absorbed by our skin. When applied, it acts as a barrier by helping to lock in the moisture, protecting our skin and keeping it supple. Because it contains anti-inflammatory properties, lanolin is said to help with minor surface wound healing. Lanolin-based creams are popular amongst breastfeeding mothers, since they help sooth sore and cracked nipples (as well as their babies’ nappy rash!). An all-round skin protector, lanolin is a common ingredient in lip balms, hand, nail and cuticle creams, and hair products.

Lanolin anhydrous vs lanolin oil

Many DIYers use lanolin anhydrous in their recipes (it is sometimes labelled as low-odour lanolin anhydrous). This is basically the waxy substance extracted from crude wool wax that has been further processed and refined to remove contaminants and reduce water content (hence “anhydrous”) and odour (hence “low odour”). Lanolin anhydrous is a soft but really sticky substance (by this I mean it’s easy to scoop it out of a pot with a spoon, but then very difficult to get it off the spoon and into your measuring jug!). It is not water or oil soluble, but it will not separate when you mix it with oils and butters – even if you add water-based ingredients (up to twice the weight of the lanolin) to the mix. Lanolin anhydrous has a melting point of around 40ºC. Depending on the amount of lanolin used in a recipe (and what else it’s mixed with), some products can end up with a sticky (tacky) feel – so do experiment with different ratios (and different ingredient combinations) to work out what’s best for you.

For those who are not as keen on the stickiness of lanolin anhydrous, there is the option of using lanolin oil, which is obtained from lanolin via a process called “low-temperature fractional crystallisation”. Lanolin oil has the same emollient qualities as lanolin anhydrous, except it is fluid at room temperature, and it is also soluble in mineral and vegetable oils.

As with using any other ingredients for the first time, it’s always worth performing a patch test before including lanolin in your DIY recipe, to see if any irritation or allergic reaction develops. In spite of all its qualities, lanolin is a known allergen – so unfortunately it’s not for everyone.

That’s all from me today! I’ll be sharing some of my lanolin-based recipes very soon. In the meantime, I’d love to know if you’ve made anything with this ingredient before, or if there’s any lanolin-based product you particular like (and why)!

Additional reading

This post was updated on 22 April, 2016, to include information about lanolin as an allergen.

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