What does 'oil free' mean?

Hi guys,

I noticed this sunscreen my friend had and I read on the front that it claims to be 'oil free'..

Hawaiian Tropic Sheer Touch Ultra Radiance Lotion Sunscreen SPF 30

Ingredients: Active Ingredients - Purpose.Avobenzone 2.0%, Homosalate 5.5%, Octisalate 4.5%, Octocrylene 4.0% - Sunscreen. Inactive Ingredients: Water, Ethylhexyl Benzoate, Cetearyl Alcohol, Vp/Eicosene Copolymer, Diisopropyl Adipate, Neopentyl Glycol Diheptanoate, Dimethicone, Glycerin, Polymethylsilsesquioxane, Acrylates/C10-30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer, Coco-Glucoside, Propylene Glycol Dibenzoate, Ceteth-10 Phosphate, Dicetyl Phosphate, Disodium EDTA, Paraffin, Xanthan Gum, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter, Jojoba Alcohol, Potassium Jojobate, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Butter, Mangifera Indica (Mango) Seed Butter, Propanediol, Tocopheryl Acetate, Carica Papaya (Papaya) Fruit Extract, Colocasia Antiquorum Root Extract, Mangifera Indica (Mango) Fruit Extract, Passiflora Incarnata Fruit Extract, Plumeria Acutifolia Flower Extract, Psidium Guajava Fruit Extract, Panthenol, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate, Phenoxyethanol, Methylparaben, Propylparaben, Fragrance, Mica, Titanium Dioxide.

Obviously this formulation contains butters and a host of other emollients...What exactly is oil free and how come they can claim this and why would they want to when the formula clearly contains things like butters...?
Cosmetic Product Development
Sussex Research Laboratories Inc.


  • Assuming that the list of ingredients is in descending order (which it should be) , all these butters are seriously below 1% line. I don't know why they even added them if the product is claimed to be "oil-free"
  • I find it bizarre and super shady...like yeah.. the word 'oil' doesn't show up in the formula..
    Cosmetic Product Development
    Sussex Research Laboratories Inc.
  • PerryPerry Administrator, Professional Chemist
    If you define the phrase "oil free" to mean "doesn't contain an ingredient with the word 'oil' in it" then their product is "oil free."  I think this would stand up to legal scrutiny, although I'm not a lawyer so don't take that as legal advice. 

    Welcome to the wonderful world of marketing claims.
  • Chemist77Chemist77 Member, PCF student
    As per my old knowledge (not sure how accurately it holds now), oil free claims are for paraffin oil free formulations.
  • PharmaPharma Member, Pharmacist
    It could also mean that it doesn't leave a greasy skin or an oily feeling??
    Is there even a proper definition of "oil"? You pointed out butters: these are chemically speaking triglycerides like the "oils" by your definition. But cosmetics and INCI aren't chemical nomenclature. A different definition of oil is their appearance/haptics/physico-chemical properties = being water insoluble sticky/greasy liquids such as paraffin oil, silicone oils, essential oils, and 3 out of the 4 sunscreens in the above LOI.
  • SibechSibech Member, Professional Chemist
    I’ve seen an “oil-free” moisturizer with squalane as one of the first ingredients. But oil can (as it does not have a regulatory definition in regard to cosmetics) defined in many ways, and is basically a meaningless claim.

    Are oils all lipids? Vegetable oil? Paraffinum Liquidum? Free fatty acids? Alkanes? All organic and water immiscible compounds liquid at room temperature? (for anyone may find this later on at a whim, organic is meant in the chemical sense...)
    Dabbling Formulator — Qualified Cosmetic Safety Assessor — experienced in claim substantiation & EU regulatory affairs.
  • MarkBroussardMarkBroussard Member, Professional Chemist
    This is purely a marketing term that is becoming popular in the sunscreen category.  The marketers do not consider Triglycerides to be oils ... hence "Oil-Free"

    Presumably, this is to appeal to people who do not like putting an "oil" on their skin ... I can only assume because of the oily feeling and possibly harkening back to earlier decades when people slathered themselves with oil and laid out in the sun for hours on end, baking like potatoes.  I presume the reference could also be that "oil-free" sunscreens are healthier for the skin when exposed to the sun for long periods of time and are less damaging to the skin.
    Chemist/Microbiologist formulating in the Organic & Naturals arena under ECOCert/Natural Products Assn/Whole Foods/National Organic Program guidelines focused skincare & haircare products. 

    See website for details www.desertinbloomcosmeticslab.com
  • PerryPerry Administrator, Professional Chemist
    I used to work on the VO5 Hot Oil hair treatment product. It turns out there was no "oil" in it. 

    The marketing people did a concept test that scored very well for an "oil free hot oil."  We never launched it though because it didn't make sense.
  • PharmaPharma Member, Pharmacist
    @Perry An oil free oil ROFL! Sometimes I love marketing, but just sometimes.
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