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Are Petrochemicals Bad For You?

Also Known As: petroleum distillates



Short answer

Petrochemicals are chemical compounds made from petroleum, oil, coal, corn or sugar cane. They are found in a myriad of food and cosmetics and more research demonstrates that these chemicals are associated with a plethora of health challenges.



Long answer

Petrochemicals are invading our environment, food chain, skin care products and acting as endocrine disruptors in our body.  There are three main subsets of petrochemicals based on their chemical structures.  Olefins include ethylene, propylene, and butadiene. Aromatics include benzene, toluene, and xylenes. Syntheses has is a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas to make ammonia and methanol. Ammonia is used to make fertilizer and methanol is used as a solvent and chemical intermediate. Just the sound of these toxic compounds makes you wonder why we would want them in our foods and in our skin care products.

Products made with petrochemicals include many cosmetics, fragrances, hair care products, plastics, soaps, detergents, solvents (such as paint thinner), paints, drugs (aspirin), fertilizer, pesticides, explosives, synthetic fibers and rubbers, and flooring and insulating materials. Petrochemicals are found in such common products as cars, clothing, compact discs, video tapes, electronic equipment, furniture, and much more. 

When it comes to our food-petrochemicals are lurking everywhere.  Mineral oil is a petrochemical that does not go rancid so it is used in many foods (like baked goods) to keep them from spoiling. Canned products also contain petrochemicals to extend their shelf life.

Some chocolates are made with petroleum by-products. You’ll see this labeled as food-grade paraffin wax.  Many food colorings are petrochemicals that can be added to fruits and vegetables to enhance their color.

Olestra is also a cause for concern. It’s an indigestible plastic with similar properties to mineral oil. Olestra can be found in chips and other snack foods.  It is linked with severe gastrointestinal side effects which include diarrhea, abdominal pain and anal leakage. Olestra also interferes with the absorption of other nutrients and important vitamins. Other detrimental petrochemicals can be found in frozen chicken nuggets and pizzas to rice crackers and cookies.

Petrochemicals fall in the category of endocrine disruptors and can interfere with our natural hormone production (including the thyroid) and are associated with neurologic disease, attention deficit disorder and a weakened immune system.  Endocrine disruptors are also associated with certain types of endocrine related cancers, endometriosis, precocious puberty, disturbed lactation and polycystic ovarian syndrome. Petrochemicals are also associated with inflammation in the body and can lead to increase free radical damage to our cells. Petrochemicals in cosmetics and other personal products can cause severe contact dermatitis. The Environmental Protection Agency even lists some petrochemicals on its hazardous waste list. 

It is important to remember that your skin is the largest organ of your body and “what you put on your skin goes into your body”.  When looking for cosmetics, skin and hair care products look for the label that says “no petrochemicals” or “certified organic”. You also have the choice to make your own personal products using all natural ingredients.

Purchase organic produce whenever possible and there are many “Green” household products that are great for laundry and cleaning the home.  As well, there are now many choices for organic mattresses, organic pillows and organic cotton products.

Take the time to read the labels and choose wisely.  Your skin and internal body will thank you.  

Possible short-term side effects

  • gastrointestinal upset
  • contact dermatitis
  • increase free radicals in the body
  • inflammatory mediators
  • allergic reactions

Possible long-term side effects

  • endocrine disruptors
  • can increase risk of hormonal related cancers
  • associated with neurologic disease


  • none health wise

Thank you for your feedback!

View Sources | Written by Dr. Becky Maes
Published on: 11-14-2023
Last updated: 11-28-2023

Thank you for your feedback!

View Sources
Written by Dr. Becky Maes
Published on: 11-14-2023
Last updated: 11-28-2023

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