Image taken from the Soil Association.

Lanolin is the natural grease found in sheep’s wool. It keeps the sheep dry and protected all year round. The molecular structure of lanolin is very similar to that of our own natural oils, making it very compatible with our skin. It is a mixture of cholesterol and esters of several fatty acids. It can penetrate down to the bottom layer of the epidermis to help moisturise while also protecting the skin from water loss, making it a great balm for skin, especially for drier skins in winter. Lanolin can hold a lot more than its own weight in water, adding to its hydration properties.

Lanolin can also be labelled as

  • Cholesterin
  • Isopropyl Lanolate
  • Laneth
  • Lanogene
  • Lanolin Acids
  • Lanolin Alcohol
  • Lanosterols
  • Sterols
  • Triterpene Alcohols
  • Wool Fat
  • Wool Wax

Lanolin is used pharmaceutically after operations to help open wounds heal. Its texture can be compared to that of petroleum jelly, however whereas that will act as barrier that allows nothing in and nothing out, lanolin will act as a barrier but will allow water and gases to pass through, making it much more skin friendly.

Like anything, people can be allergic to lanolin which is why many people avoid it and it can get bad press. However is it the actual lanolin or is the contaminants within the lanolin that people are reacting to? It is a very sticky substance and whatever that sheep has been treated with or come into contact with, is more than likely going to stick to it. For example insecticides, pesticides, treatment for parasites, paint and even car fumes could all taint it. The quality of lanolin will vary from sheep to sheep and habitat to habitat. This could explain why some people react to lanolin in one product but not to that in another.

Therefore the cleansing processes that the lanolin goes through after it has been extracted from the wool is paramount. The level of cleansing determines the grade of lanolin. Look for brands that use medical or pharmaceutical grade and hypoallergenic lanolin in their products. This means that all contaminants should have been removed.

Someone else might argue the cleansing processes could be detrimental. Is the product still truely natural and does it still contain its skin friendly properties if it has been processed so much?  Is organic lanolin available? It does seem to be but certainly not as readily as non-organic lanolin.

Organic lanolin obviously needs to come from organic sheep. These sheep are not routinely treated with antibiotics, wormers or pesticides. They are fed organic food and grazed on organic land so therefore their wool will be much cleaner. Their wellbeing is also taken into account, which is something that must be considered when thinking about lanolin.

Sheep are sheared once a year and lanolin is extracted from the shorn fleece. Nothing is taken from the live animal so therefore no suffering should come to the animal in the process. The animal’s welfare should of course be of the upmost importance, however unless you know the exact supply chain this cannot be guaranteed. Organic sheep will have been looked after well, unfortunately this is not the case for many other sheep. A lot of wool comes from Australia, in particular from the Merino sheep. Merinos have lots of folds of skin and therefore lots of wool which can get warm and damp; because of these folds they are very susceptible to something called Flystrike. This is when flies lay their eggs in the folds of skin, the eggs hatch into maggots which then begin to feed on the sheep. This results in an awful death for the sheep. The area around their backside can be particularly prone to Flystrike so the sheep are subjected to a procedure called mulesing. This is when chunks of skin are removed from the sheep, often without pain relief, in an attempt to stop the Flystrike happening in the first place. The procedure itself is painful, but the exposed wounds can become infected and can also still be Flystruck. Mulesing is banned in the UK and condemned by many, however it does still happen in Australia and New Zealand. The farmers argue that if they didn’t do it, the sheep could die an agonising death from the Flystrike.

This appears to be one of the main concerns when it comes to farming sheep, but of cause there are other things to think about. Are they being fed properly, do they have somewhere warm and dry to sleep, are they transported well. As with any farmed animal, you want to know that their needs are being met and they are treated with respect. Luckily there are many many farmers who do look after their animals exceptionally well, but unfortunately there are also those that don’t.

Lanolin is avoided by vegans because it comes from animals, but perhaps more people would give it a miss if they thought a little more about its origin.

Lanolin seems to fall into quite a grey area. Your skin might react to it, but on the other hand it might be just what it needs especially in the winter. There also doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer on whether it can be deemed cruelty free.

What do you think? Do you allow lanolin in your skincare?

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