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What Is Mineral Oil?
What exactly is mineral oil? While mineral oil may sound like a mineral-rich liquid substance it is actually derived from petroleum. It has a lubricating, softening effect and is not easily absorbed by the skin or other tissue. It also has a long shelf-life. This makes it ideal for many skin care and cosmetic products — mineral oil is found in petroleum jelly, liquid soaps, makeup and baby oil. When applied topically it is believed to be relatively safe. But if it is ingested it can most definitely cause problems if used consistently or in large doses.
Your doctor may recommend using mineral oil for constipation. This is usually only suggested when the laxative benefits outweigh the risks involved. Mineral oil is not a toxic substance and can be used safely.
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How does mineral oil act as a laxative? It is one of several stool softeners, softening the stool so it can more easily move through the intestines. Mineral oil coats the intestinal surface with a thin, waterproof film. This holds in extra water and softens the stool while also stimulating the natural forward movement of the intestines. The lubricating effect promotes ease of movement.
Stool softeners are not meant to be used regularly, but they do have a purpose. They may be recommended by your doctor when it is necessary to have a bowel movement, but at the same time straining has to be avoided, such as after giving birth or after surgery.
While mineral oil is available over the counter, only use when your doctor recommends it as it can have a negative effect on the body. Follow your doctor's instructions or the directions on the packaging. Mineral oil takes several hours to work. It is usually taken orally in a standard dose for adults, before bedtime, preferably on an empty stomach.
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Possible Side Effects of Ingesting Mineral Oil
Mineral oil can cause several problems. First, it can interfere with the absorption of fat-soluble minerals, including vitamin A, E and K. It can also interfere with other medications; if you are on blood thinners or oral contraceptives be sure to talk with your doctor first. Never take mineral oil with other stool softeners as this can lead to the mineral oil being absorbed into the body. Some people experience diarrhea after ingesting. If this happens be sure to replenish your lost fluids with water and electrolyte-rich liquids such as chicken broth and sports drinks.
Be careful not to inhale mineral oil as it can damage the lungs. Also, if used regularly or for more than a week, mineral oil can build-up in tissue and cause problems. Avoid altogether if you're pregnant because of not only the problem with nutrient absorption, but also the fact that prolonged use can cause severe bleeding in a newborn.
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When to Use
Only use mineral oil for constipation when it is recommended by a doctor. While it does have an excellent laxative effect and may be well-suited for some circumstances, it is not the best laxative for general use. If constipation is a problem first make sure you are eating a high-fiber diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains. Drinking plenty of water is also important for preventing constipation. Bulk-forming agents such as bran and psyllium are the only type of laxative that is safe for regular use. If constipation persists, be sure to see your doctor as it may be a sign of an underlying health problem.
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Balch, Phyllis A. "Prescription for Nutritional Healing." Fourth Edition (Penguin Books, 2006).
Medicine Plus, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002684.htm
National Multiple Sclerosis Society, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002684.htm
American Cancer Society, http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/TreatmentsandSideEffects/GuidetoCancerDrugs/Mineral-Oil
photo by Angela Mabray