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What is Lanolin?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Lanolin is a wax produced by woolly animals as a form of waterproofing. The wax naturally coats their wool to prevent them from getting wet. Lanolin is similar in composition to oils produced by the skin of other animals for the purpose of waterproofing, hydration, and lubrication. It is sometimes known as wool fat or wool oil, although chemically it is classified as a wax.

In its pure state, lanolin is yellow in color, with a strong odor. People who handle sheep and raw wool often find that their fingers are softened and supple as a result of all of the wax their skin absorbs, but also that their hands tend to smell strong and a bit gamey because of the lanolin. In processing, some of this odor can be removed, making the smell more neutral.

During wool processing, much of the lanolin is stripped from the wool, although some may be left in to confer natural waterproofing. The wax can be purified for commercial use once it has been removed from the wool.

This wax is especially useful in emulsions of water and oil. It appears in many cosmetic products, especially those which are meant to lubricate or soothe skin. Cracked, dry skin can benefit from regular applications of this product, and it also shows up in products used to treat chafing, rashes, and similar conditions. Lanolin creams are even applied to the udders of milk animals to soreness and chafing, which in some cases means that sheep are treated with their own lanolin!

Lanolin is also used in lubricants, as a base for cosmetics, in rust prevention products, and in products designed to provide waterproofing. What works for sheep also works for things like boots and coats, and a layer of this wax can be a very effective waterproofing which will also allow the material to breathe, and keep the material supple and flexible. Flexibility can be key with waterproofing products, as it reduces the risk that the material will crack after being treated to waterproof it.

Pure lanolin can be obtained through a variety of sources, while products which contain the wax are readily available at stores which sell skincare supplies, lubricants, waterproofing materials, and so forth. People with sheep and other woolly animals can also process their own during the shearing and wool processing procedure which takes place annually. With large flocks, enough lanolin can be produced for it to be commercially valuable, while smaller home flocks can produce enough to keep a household amply stocked.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a BeautyAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1003622 — On Aug 02, 2020

Thank you for this article. It has been very informative. What color is good lanolin oil?

I've seen advertising for light gold to dark brown.

By tailsnz — On Jul 17, 2013

Does anyone know how to strip lanolin from wood?

By cloudel — On Apr 13, 2012

I use a lanolin lotion during the winter on my hands. They tend to get cracked and bleed when it's cold, and this lotion helps prevent that.

It also contains aloe, which is another reason it is so soothing. Regular lotions were not doing it for me, so I had to get this ultra moisturizing kind. The front of the bottle boasted that the mixture of lanolin and aloe gave the lotion its power.

I have to apply the lotion after every time that I wash my hands. It's worth it to keep my knuckles from cracking open, though. It can be as painful as an actual cut.

By ElizaBennett — On Apr 12, 2012

@dfoster85 - If you have another baby, I think you'll find that your nipples toughen up faster, but you may still want lanolin. I actually know a lady who was still breastfeeding her two-year-old when new baby arrived, and she *still* got very sore! Fortunately for her, toddler didn't like the taste of the lanolin and self-weaned.

Here's a tip for the problem you mentioned: instead of putting the lanolin on your skin, you can rub it all over a disposable breast pad. That way, you can get the benefits of the lanolin with less contact.

The other thing I've used lanolin products for is waterproofing wool diaper covers! The lanolin and wool combination causes any wetness to be dispersed, so baby stays dry indefinitely.

By dfoster85 — On Apr 11, 2012

Anyone who's ever breastfed a baby knows that's one major use for lanolin! I think back in the day--when my mother was nursing me, for instance--they used straight lanolin. But today you can buy special lanolin-based creme that's designed specifically for nursing moms. Completely safe for baby, but of course, not appropriate for vegan mothers. I like the Lansinoh lanolin gel myself, but there are other kinds. What I don't get is why it comes in such huge tubes! I barely used a third of mine, and I used it all the time.

The idea is that if your nipples get cracked, the lanolin seals up and protects those so they can heal. The only problem is that it hurts to apply it!

By anon89755 — On Jun 12, 2010

It is a detailed and a helpful article.


Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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