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Is Sheep Wax (aka Lanolin) the Answer to All Your Winter Skin Woes?

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Your skin may be the last thing you think of when it comes to lanolin. But, this unexpected ingredient derived from—yes, sheep’s wool—has a multitude of benefits for your skin from soothing and nourishing, to repairing the moisture barrier of your skin. Lanolin is especially helpful in winter when dry, chapped skin is a harsh reality for many when the temperature drops. And while you’ve heard of moisturizing skincare ingredients like hyaluronic acid, facial oils, and ceramides, lanolin is a bit different. This wool wax is secreted by sheep to keep their skin and fur protected from harsh weather and outdoor elements. It’s also both emollient and occlusive, which serves a dual-purpose to lock in moisture and protect dry skin (more on that later).

We get it, it may seem odd to reach for lanolin - but there’s a good chance that if you use dry skin products, like moisturizing lotions or hand creams, you’ve already used a formulation that contains this natural ingredient known for its healing properties. “It has long been used in skincare because it is an effective occlusive, commonly used in body creams and lotions to lock in much-needed moisture and prevent water loss,” says dermatologist Hadley King, MD, at Day Dermatology and Aesthetics in NYC.

About the Expert:

Hadley King, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist in NYC who specializes in medical and cosmetic dermatology. She is also a clinical instructor of dermatology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

While lanolin is a winter skin wonder, like many skincare ingredients it isn’t for everyone. Continue reading below to find out if lanolin is right for you and check out some of our favorite dry skin saviors that already contain this soothing ingredient.

What is lanolin?

Lanolin is commonly referred to as wool grease or wool fat, but technically speaking, since it doesn’t contain glycerides, it isn’t actually a fat and is considered a wax. This hydrating powerhouse is naturally produced by animals and can be found in sheep’s wool. “Lanolin is a wax secreted by the sebaceous glands of wool-bearing animals like sheep,” says Dr. King.

Benefits of lanolin on the skin

Lanolin is especially beneficial for those with dry skin or chapped lips. “It is particularly great for dry and eczema-prone skin types,” says Dr. King. Certain skin conditions may also reap particular benefits from lanolin, including:

Most moisturizers fall in one of three categories: humectants, emollients, and occlusives. Lanolin is both emollient and occlusive, which means when it comes to moisturizing, it performs double duty to soothe and protect your skin.

Occlusives are oils and waxes which form a layer on top of the skin. “This physically blocks transepidermal water loss,” says Dr. King. This means it locks in moisture and stops your skin from getting dried out, serving as an armor against drying elements and harsh conditions. Other occlusive ingredients include petrolatum, beeswax, mineral oil, zinc oxide, and silicones.

The high fat content of lanolin makes it occlusive, which is extremely beneficial when dealing with harsh winter weather, cold wind, and dry indoor heat from heating systems. “It prevents the evaporation of water from the skin,” says Dr. King. “This keeps skin moisturized and helps it heal.”

Emollients are the ingredient in moisturizer that help to soothe and soften the skin. “Emollients are saturated and unsaturated variable length hydrocarbons which help in skin barrier function, membrane fluidity and cell signaling,” says Dr. King. This leads to an overall improvement in skin texture and appearance. “Skin that is well moisturized will appear more plump and youthful,” says Dr. King. By keeping your skin moisturized, emollients also serve a purpose in anti-aging skincare, and can minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Examples of emollients include ceramides, squalene, and fatty acids, and of course lanolin.

Not only does lanolin hydrate skin and lock in moisture, but it’s also beneficial as a healing ointment and is even found in certain diaper rash creams. “It helps with the healing process in minor scrapes, cuts, burns, and irritations,” says Dr. King. Thanks to its ability to soothe and heal, it’s often used by mothers who are breastfeeding to soothe chapped, sore nipples during the nursing process, as it speeds up healing and provides relief. “It's great for protecting and moisturizing nipples that can get dried out and irritated from breastfeeding and it’s a safe choice because it’s ok for an infant to consume it,” says Dr. King.

While lanolin can soothe and moisturize on its own, it’s best to use in conjunction with other moisturizing products as the last step of your skincare routine to seal your skin barrier and lock in hydration. “Lanolin is often combined with humectant ingredients like honey, aloe, and even hyaluronic acid to draw water into the skin,” says Nicole Hatfield, certified esthetician for Pomp and founder of Radiant Beings Wellness & Beauty Coaching.

Lanolin side effects

While there are a variety of benefits of incorporating lanolin into your skincare routine, (especially during the winter), the ingredient isn’t for everyone. “Acne-prone individuals and those with wool allergies should avoid lanolin,” says Hatfield. If you prefer vegan skincare, lanolin also isn’t for you.

Lanolin alcohol is a primary skincare ingredient, found in ointments for cracked skin, burns, and moisturizers, however, approximately 2-3% of the population may experience a lanolin allergy. “A lanolin skin reaction most commonly takes the form of a mild allergic contact dermatitis,” says Dr. King. If you have an allergic reaction to lanolin, you’ll typically experience an itchy rash on the site of application. “It may take a few hours or up to a day or two for the skin to react,” says Dr. King. It might look like small, red, itchy bumps or you might notice a scaly patch of skin on your body. If you apply lanolin to your face and are allergic, your face and lips might swell. “In more severe cases blisters may develop in addition to itching and burning,” says Dr. King.

If you start to experience any of the above symptoms, it's best to consult a healthcare professional. Also, if you’re prone to breakouts and have oily skin, the occlusive ingredient might make matters worse and clog pores. “Since it is comedogenic, it can lead to breakouts,” says Hatfield. To put it simply, if you have oily skin, skip out on using lanolin to avoid kicking your sebum production into overdrive.

Lanolin alternatives

If you suffer from both dry skin and a wool allergy, you aren’t out of luck. Although using lanolin isn’t an option, there are a variety of other alternatives worth trying that can combat dryness. “There are many other ingredients that prevent transepidermal water loss including petrolatum, mineral oil, beeswax, coconut oil, shea butter or cocoa butter,” says Dr. King. 

Products we love

The easiest way to reap the benefits of lanolin is with a skincare product specifically formulated with the moisturizing ingredient. 

This multitasking crayon is like lipstick, lip liner, and lip balm all in one. Not only will it leave you with a vivid pink hue that will stay put all day, but it also protects and soothes to prevent chapped lips thanks to a moisturizing combination of shea butter and lanolin. 

This conditioning and moisturizing balm is a must-have from the cult-favorite beauty brand because it’s so much more than a lip balm. You can also apply it as a skin salve to soothe dry skin or as a cuticle cream—either way you use it, it’s healing, moisturizing abilities know no bounds. 

Not only will this blush leave you with a rosy flush that’s perfect to swipe over your cheeks or eyelids, but it also contains lanolin, which will lock in moisture and keep your skin protected when you head outdoors. 

Dry skin doesn’t stand a chance against this multitasking magic elixir that can be used to protect skin against windburn and sunburn, shape brows, soothe cuticles, and rehydrate lips. You can also use it as a mask on legs, hands, or feet if you’re in need of an intense moisturizing treatment.

Personal care in the winter is crucial to prevent your skin from overdrying, which you can easily combat with an over-the-counter lanolin cream or lanolin oil to keep your skin protected before you head outdoors.

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About the author
Katrina Mitzeliotis Lanza
Katrina is a freelance writer and on-air correspondent with over a decade of experience covering beauty, fashion, and entertainment. When she isn't freelancing, you can catch her on QVC or chasing after her two-year-old son.
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Article Last Updated December 11, 2020 12:00 AM