Mineral Oil Versus Vegetable Oil

Mineral oil and vegetable oil are produced from different sources and have different properties and uses. Here is a little background on each type of oil including production and common uses.

Mineral Oil

The term "mineral oil" is somewhat imprecise but it typically refers to an odorless, colorless, and tasteless oil that is a by-product of petroleum distillation. Mineral oil is produced in large quantities in either light or heavy grades and does not spoil the way some vegetable oils do.

Mineral oil for household use is generally sold in drugstores. Because it is produced as a by-product and in abundant quantities, mineral oil and mineral oil based products are relatively inexpensive. These products include baby oil, Vaseline (petroleum jelly), baby wash liquid soap, and baby lotions.

Vegetable Oil

Vegetable oil is an oil that is extracted from a plant, usually from the fruits or seeds. Some of the most common vegetable oils include canola, coconut, corn, cottonseed, olive, palm, peanut, rapeseed, safflower, sesame, soybean, and sunflower oil. All of these oils are edible but can also be used as fuel oils.

Vegetable oil is extracted from plants by one of three methods: 1) subjecting the oil-producing plant part to pressure, 2) dissolving in water or other solvents, and 3) distilling the oil away from the plant material to produce "essential" oils.

Mineral Oil Uses

Mineral oil is a common ingredient in cosmetic products, including baby lotions, cold creams, skin moisturizers and makeup. Although it has no nutritional value, mineral oil can be tolerated in small doses as a laxative for the treatment of constipation. Mineral oil is also used for cell culturing, livestock vaccines, and mite control in bee colonies and chickens.

Food grade mineral oil is used as a preservative for wooden cutting boards, salad bowls and utensils. Although not as effective as more permanent finishes, mineral oil helps to prevent wood from drying out and keeping bacteria at bay by filling small surface cracks.

In terms of industrial applications, mineral oil is used as a cutting fluid, hydraulic fluid, cooling agent, and a lubricant. Examples include electrical transformers where it is used for cooling, and high voltage switchgear where mineral oil is used as an insulator and as a coolant to disperse switching arcs. Light mineral oil is used in textile manufacturing as a jute batching oil.

Vegetable Oil Uses

Although most people may associate vegetable oils with baking, they are also used for biofuel, candles, food supplements, perfumes, skin products, medicines, pet food additives, and various industrial uses. So-called "drying oils" that dry to a hard finish at room temperature are used as the basis of oil paints and as wood finishes by themselves. Examples include tung oil and walnut oil.

Nut oils are typically used in cooking because of their distinctive flavor. Oils in this category include almond, beech, cashew, hazelnut, pecan, pine, pistachio, and walnut.

Other uses of vegetable oil include seasoning cast iron cookware, preserving wooden cutting boards, removing labels and stickers from plastic and glass, keeping mosquitoes out of bird baths and as a make-shift household lubricant.

Health and Safety Considerations

Vegetable oils vary considerably in terms of nutritional benefits. The healthiest ones are non-hydrogenated and contain more unsaturated fats than saturated fats. Such oils include flax, olive and canola oils. Less-healthy vegetable oils include palm kernel, coconut and cottonseed oils.

Although mineral oil can be ingested in small quantities as a laxative, it is otherwise not edible and should not be used for cooking applications. Furthermore, mineral oil can make constipation worse if the constipation is caused by a stomach disease or a blocked intestine and it can interact with certain medicines. For these reasons, it is important to consult a doctor prior to taking mineral oil to relieve constipation.