What is lanolin and is it really a wonder moisturiser?
Lanolin, also known as wool fat is the sheep equivalent of sebum (the stuff that makes our skin and hair greasy). It consists of liquid waxes and is produced by the sheep to give it some protection from the elements. You see, unlike us humans sheep can’t usually just put on some clothes or pop up and umbrella when it rains therefore their coat has to be able to protect them from a variety of weather conditions. Think about it like this, wool is a great natural fibre and one that us humans have been using for many many years to keep us warm. However, try making a swimsuit out of pure wool and it soon becomes heavy and waterlogged. That is because by the time we get the wool, the lanolin is all gone so the wool fibres have no protective barrier around them and they become soaked. Lanolin acts as a waterproof barrier, allowing sheep to be out in the rain all day without getting weighed down and cold. AMAZING!
So, what good is lanolin to us? Well, anyone who has spent time in a shearing shed will know that the grease that comes off the flease leaves the shearers hands soft and silky (not very macho but hey……). It also ensures that the blades and metal structures in the shed remain shiny and rust free (again, due to its water repellent properties). So lanolin is a great natural moisturiser, lubricant and rust stopper!
Back in the day, sheep farmers would just take it for granted that they would have silky smooth skin after handling the fleeces. References to lanolin can be found in the bible as well as in ancient Greek and Roman records. At some point in lanolin’s history the benefits of this wonderful and totally natural fat became known by the general public and it soon became a traded item, valued for its and water proofing and emollient properties.
In the 1960’s concerns over the safety of lanolin arose. It was around this time that farmers had upped their levels of pesticide use to cope with growing demand for produce. Books like “A Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, 1962 helped bring the issue of pesticides and public health to majority and soon people began questioning the safety of this ingredient. After some investigation lanolin was found to often contain traces of pesticide residue. Some of these were traced back to crop spraying and some from the sheep dip used to prevent things like fly strike. This wasn’t good news.
As lanolin was a constituent of many baby products, the concerns over its safety were acted upon immediately and work began to find ways of purifying the lanolin. By the mid 1970’s methods were available and a high purity and clean lanolin was taken to market. Unfortunately by this time the bad press had sullied lanolin’s name and petroleum based oils and waxes had taken lanolin’s place. Terms like “Lanolin free” were seen to be a mark of quality as consumers were worried about the irritation potential that lanolin was seen to have.
Lanolin’s negative image remains today although it is beginning to return to fashion as people demand alternatives to petroleum (how the pendulum swings). The lanolin that is produced for today’s personal care products is of the highest and purest quality. It is tested down to very minute levels to ensure that no impurities or potential allergens remain. Indeed just the other week a whole range of lip balms were launched under the trade mark Lanolips – this range was developed by Kirsten Carriol here in Australia (Check out our article, Coffee with Kirsten here)
Chemically lanolin is a waxy blend that melts at around 40C. Its waxy nature make it a really good skin moisturizing agent that is capable of penetrating the skins outer layer to nourish it from within. It forms a non-occlusive barrier (it doesn’t smother the skin) meaning that the skin can still “breathe” through it – this is important so that the skin can carry out normal biological functions. Lanolin was linked to many allergic reactions during the 60’s and 70’s but these have lessened now due to the cleaning up of the raw material making lanolin quite a safe material on the whole.
While the collection of lanolin does not harm the animal (it is collected from sheared fleeces) some people are against the use of animal products. If this is the case for you we recommend trying some of the low melting point plant based waxes and butters such as Shea or Coconut as equivalents.