A customer wrote to me today asking about lanolin because the Organic Consumers Association released an article earlier this year on carcinogens in baby cosmetics. They listed lanolin as one of the dangerous ingredients that “could readily be stripped off during ingredient manufacture, if the industry just made the effort to do so.”
So, why do we suggest using lanolin for wool cover care? Let’s consider the issue of lanolin.
Lanolin is grease from the skin of sheep. Lanolin keeps the sheep fibers waterproof and it also provides antibiotic protection for the sheep. It works to keep the fibers in good shape while they are on the sheep, and it works well when we sheer those fibers from the sheep as well. (See our article “Why Use Wool for Diaper Covers” for more information on the properties of wool.”
Lanolin keeps protein fibers soft and flexible. Wool diaper covers are one of the bigger financial investments cloth diapering families make. It makes sense to clean and care for the covers so they will last as long as possible.
The Organic Consumers Association press release refers to the direct application of cosmetics on the sensitive skin of infants, which would create a more worrisome problem than the use of lanolin as a laundry ingredient. As I read their article, the problem isn’t with substance itself but with lanolin from non-organic sheep or lanolin without residues removed.
Look for organic lanolin. Be sure that you aren’t just getting a product with some organic ingredients then convention lanolin. Before you buy lanolin or woolwash, ask the manufacturers about the lanolin. [I don’t personally know of a brand of lanolin that is organic. If you do, please let me know. I would be happy to add that information to our product care articles.]
You may also want to make your own woolwash using medical-grade purified lanolin, such as Lansinoh, which we carry. Lansinoh is not organic, but it has been treated to remove impurities such as pesticide residues. Lansinoh purifies their lanolin because the primary application of Lansinoh is for cracked and dry nipples of breastfeeding mothers. The lanolin is pure enough that it does not need to be removed before breastfeeding.
When sheep have been dipped to prevent ticks and other skin parasites, residues of the chemicals used can remain in the lanolin. Sheep raised organically are not dipped in parasiticides. A consumer-friendly version of organic sheep raising can be found in the O’Mama Report, a family-oriented newsletter from the Organic Trade Association. This is a simple, monthly newsletter with articles submitted by OTA members. You can read the full text of National Organic Standards, including those for livestock, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
If you are still hesitant to use lanolin, keep in mind that you don’t have to use lanolin to treat wool covers. Wool will function just fine without any lanolin treatment whatsoever. The wool absorbs naturally to its core and the fibers knit into a tight fabric can act together to repel moisture. Lanolin works to keep the fibers soft and supple, much the way a conditioner can work on our hair. Long-term, it is important to keep the fibers clean and flexible rather than crystallized and brittle in order to prolong the life of your wool diaper cover. If you don’t use lanolin, you probably should use another softening agent as you wash. But, be sure you don’t trade off the drawbacks of lanolin for the drawbacks of another substance.