Winter is here, with its cold temperatures and biting winds. Your skin may start to feel dry and itchy, and your lips may become chapped. For many of us, this is the season to slather on moisturising lip balms: we apply them before we go out into the cold, after eating or drinking, or even after a kiss! Lip balms are so cheap and convenient that most of us buy them without thinking about the ingredients. Indeed, it was only recently that I took a serious look at the contents of my lip balms.
Portuguese consumer group DECO, in cooperation with sister organisations across Europe , has tested the most popular lip balms on the market. We found worrying levels of problematic mineral oils in many of these products. As widespread and legal  as they might be, these oils can be dangerous to our health. And to date, there are no rules establishing limits for the amount of mineral oil hydrocarbons permitted in lip balms.
Although you might think that the amount ingested must be ridiculously low, the fact is that daily users ‘eat’ 4 lip balms per year.
What are mineral oils? In short, they are colourless and odourless oils made from petroleum . Lip care producers prefer mineral oils over vegetable oils (such as coconut oil, shea butter and olive oil) because they’re cheaper and more effective at making our skin feel softer and smoother.
Mineral oils mainly consist of saturated hydrocarbons (MOSH) and aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAH). Some MOSH have been found to cause micro-tumours in lymph nodes, spleen and liver tissues, and it is suspected that MOAH damage genes, disrupt hormones, and lead to cancer.
Of the 58 lip balms we tested, 32 were based on mineral oils or similar synthetic substances. Each of these 32 contained MOSH, and a whopping 28 of them also contained MOAH.
The problem is that we inadvertently swallow those problematic mineral oils. Although you might think that the amount ingested must be ridiculously low, the fact is that daily users ‘eat’ 4 lip balms per year. And our exposure to mineral oils does not come only from lip balms: food, for example, is also a source of these chemicals, either via packaging or via additives.
So what do we do about it?
To reduce the amount of MOSH and MOAH in our lip care products, regulations that establish safe limits for these ingredients are needed.
Any stick with Cera Microcristallina, Hydrogenated Microcrystalline Wax, or Caresin should not make its way into your pocket.
DECO, together with our colleagues from the BEUC network, has invited the European Commission to look at our test results. Their next move should be to look into safe levels of mineral oil hydrocarbons in lip care products, and eventually to set binding limits.
Keep your lips free of mineral oils
On the bright side, we also discovered that there are alternatives on the market. Indeed, 26 of the products we tested were free of mineral oil hydrocarbons.
So until we have laws that control the amounts of mineral oil hydrocarbons in our lip care products, the ingredient list is your best way to stay safe. Any stick with Cera Microcristallina, Hydrogenated Microcrystalline Wax, or Caresin should not make its way into your pocket. Instead, go for lip balms made from vegetable oils and fats or beeswax.
Susana is Health Project officer at DECO Proteste, BEUC’s Portuguese consumer organisation.
 Altroconsumo (Italy), dTest (Czech Republic), Kuluttajaliitto (Finland), Test Achats/Test Aankoop (Belgium), OCU (Spain), UFC-Que Choisir (France) and ZPS (Slovenia).
 According to the European Union cosmetics regulation, mineral oils are permitted in cosmetic products if the full refining history is known and if either the starting material is free of carcinogens or the purified liquid was tested for carcinogenic properties using specific methods.
 Mineral oils include paraffinum liquidum, petrolatum, microcrystalline wax or paraffin.