And even make-up artists use it to create trendsetting looks on the red carpet…
What, exactly, is petrolatum? You actually know it very well. And if you don’t, your grandmother probably does (i.e. Vaseline)! You just may not know that you know it. Petrolatum is everywhere. Many of us use it, or products containing it, each and every day.
It’s also known as…petroleum jelly. And it’s a wonder product for your skin, offering excellent moisturizing ability. The beauty hacks are virtually limitless. Flaky, dry elbows? Petrolatum can help. Chapped lips? Petrolatum can help. Stubborn eye makeup that lasts all day, but overstays its welcome? Again, petrolatum can help. How to achieve that trendy glossy lid makeup trick? Petrolatum again.
Petrolatum isn’t the sexiest of ingredients in skin care, but it’s one of the most versatile. It’s a staple in many makeup bags for good reason. Although there is controversy—some say it’s actually harmful to your health to use it.
Petrolatum: A Fine Jelly
Petrolatum is a colorless, odorless, tasteless and highly viscous substance that is a byproduct of petroleum refining.
We have American chemist and coal/oil man Robert Chesebrough to thank for discovering petrolatum. In 1869, he distilled the dark-colored rod wax from an oil rig. He later patented the process of purifying petrolatum, selling the finished product under the trade name Vaseline.1
Also known as petroleum jelly, paraffin oil jelly, and mineral oil jelly, petrolatum is a highly refined mixture of hydrocarbons or compounds that contain carbon and hydrogen only. It does not oxidize when exposed to the air. This is important, because it allows petrolatum to be stored for long periods of time. Petrolatum is not soluble in alcohol and water – only in benzene, carbon disulfide, chloroform, and ether.2
The Many Uses of Petrolatum
Petrolatum can be used in various ways. It is used to preserve leather and to protect items prone to corrosion due to its moisture-repelling property. It is used to polish shoes and to lubricate squeaky hinges. It can even be applied on dogs’ paws to prevent fungal growth!2
Petrolatum is a great lubricant, creating a protective layer over skin when applied topically. It’s also colorless and odorless – and we’ve already discussed its long shelf-life. Is it any wonder that petrolatum is so popular in skin and hair care products, medicinal products, and cosmetics?
Petrolatum was first used as a remedy for burns, cuts, and scrapes. While it has no actual medicinal effect, it does help with healing. Slathering on petrolatum creates a protective layer on skin that can prevent bacteria and other harmful organisms from getting into the wound. It also helps keep moisture from escaping when applied on the skin.
Okay, so is petrolatum the same thing as glycerin?
No. It is a common misconception that petrolatum and glycerin are similar. Yes, they do feel and look similar when applied to the skin, but they have very different components, and they work differently. Petrolatum is hydrophobic, meaning it repels water but also prevents loss of moisture from the skin. Glycerin, on the other hand, is hydrophilic. It attracts water or moisture from the environment into the skin.3
Petrolatum, as an individual product, is a staple household item for soothing burns, cracked or chapped heels, and a lot more. It is also a common ingredient in many personal care items and cosmetics, including:
- Moisturizing Creams
- Baby Oil
- Lip Balm
Despite being more cost effective than glycerin, petroleum jelly is not as widely used in body lotions, especially higher-end brands, because of its greasy feel.
Exploring the Great Barrier: Petrolatum
Petrolatum is a widely used ingredient in the skincare and cosmetic industry because it is beneficial to the skin. It is a workhorse, providing a lot of excellent benefits. Still not convinced? Read on…
As an emollient, petrolatum, when applied to the skin, prevents loss of moisture. An emollient is a substance that creates a protective layer on the skin when applied. This barrier works as a protectant, preventing harmful toxins or microorganisms from entering the skin. Petrolatum also prevents moisture from escaping, which helps to keep skin looking hydrated and soft.
But doesn’t skin protect itself? Isn’t that the point of having it?
Yes, skin is perfectly capable of protecting itself and preventing water loss by producing its own oil with the sebaceous glands.
But (and this is super important): Constant washing, use of harsh products, and extreme weather conditions can strip the natural oils from skin, making it look and feel dry and rough. Petrolatum as an emollient can act as a barrier similar to the natural oil produced by your skin.4
Faster Wound Healing
First marketed as a remedy for burns and cuts, medical experts showed that petrolatum has no direct healing effect on burns and cuts. Rather, it aids in faster healing when applied to the skin because it creates a protective layer to prevent the harmful organism from entering the wound.5 It also helps prevent the skin from losing water, which is necessary for the skin cells to function well during the healing or repair process.
Does Petrolatum Clog Pores?
Contrary to what many people believe, cosmetic petrolatum is non-comedogenic; therefore, it should not clog pores. Although it may if you slathered on pure petroleum on your face!
Be aware that there are different grades of ingredients used in producing things like skin care, cosmetics, and industrial products. The grade of a substance determines its level of purity and quality.
Petrolatum used in cosmetics is of a higher grade. It typically won’t cause breakouts. There is no study that says petrolatum does (or does not) cause acne. Moreover, being non-comedogenic, petrolatum is not likely to clog pores, with a couple of exceptions. Don’t apply petrolatum too thickly on the skin, and make sure that skin is clean when you put it on. And be aware, some products which contain petrolatum may block pores – but it is often the other ingredients which will do it.6
Who could benefit from using products with petrolatum?
Each of us has varying skin care needs, based on our skin type, age, and existing skin problems. What works for one person may not work for another, but in the case of petrolatum, a lot of people may benefit from using it.
There are several causes of dry skin, either external or internal. Most often, the cause is external: using harsh skin care products, over-washing, soaking in water for too long, or living in a too-humid environment, that sort of thing. All of these factors may cause the skin to lose moisture. This leads to dryness, and all of the icky symptoms we know: roughness, itchiness, tightness, and flaking.
One of the most recommended remedies for dry skin is the use of petrolatum.7 As I mentioned earlier, petrolatum helps to moisturize the skin by acting as a protective layer that prevents (fancy term alert!) transepidermal loss of moisture, or TEWL. Moreover, petrolatum’s greasy texture will immediately remedy dry-looking skin from the outside.
Narrow fissures can appear on the heels, mainly due to dry skin. Standing, walking, and a lot of other activities involve putting pressure on your heels for support. Dry skin on heels cracks because the dryness makes the skin less elastic. If you choose to ignore this problem, it could lead to bleeding and infection.
One of the easiest remedies for cracked heels is applying petrolatum on the affected area before going to bed. Wash your feet, and make sure they are clean. Apply a generous amount of petrolatum or petroleum jelly. Then, put on some comfy socks, and snooze while your skin absorbs!8
Treatment of wounds largely depends on the severity of the injury. Minor wounds, such as burns or cuts, do not extend to the dermis and may heal well with self-care. Obviously if you’ve got a severe burn or cut, you need medical care immediately. But petrolatum may help for those at-home care types of injuries.
We’ve established that petrolatum can establish a barrier to help keep harmful substances from getting into wounds. It’s often applied on minor wounds as a second dressing, and it has the potential to aid in faster healing. Be sure, however, that before you put petrolatum (or petrolatum-based ointment) on any wound, you clean it first. Use sterile, cold water for burns, and then apply antibacterial ointment.9
Eczema is a skin disorder of the long-haul variety, with cycles of flare-ups and remission of symptoms. Treating eczema usually involves managing the symptoms, particularly during flare-ups. One of the most important parts of caring for the skin and improving the symptoms is keeping the skin moisturized.
Choosing the right moisturizer is extremely important for people with eczema. You want one with emollient properties. It’s not easy, because you need to choose products which are gentle on sensitive skin, and you should avoid any products that contain fragrance. Petroleum jelly, or moisturizers containing petrolatum, are often recommended for eczema patients. Petrolatum is fragrance-free, and it’s not likely to cause allergic reactions.10
Petrolatum may help to prevent diaper rash or improve minor diaper rash. Constant or prolonged exposure of the baby’ skin to wetness collected in the diaper can cause rashes. To prevent, or to improve minor diaper rash, apply petroleum jelly or petrolatum ointment on the clean diaper area each time you have to change the diaper.
Due to its water-repelling property, petroleum jelly will act as a barrier to protect the skin from wetness, thereby preventing diaper rash.11
Precautions about Petroleum Skin Care Products
Properly refined petrolatum, as an individual product, is considered to be safe for use. However, much controversy surrounds it. If it isn’t fully refined, it can be contain toxic chemicals.
When properly refined, petrolatum has no known health concerns. However, petrolatum is often not fully refined in the US, which means it can be contaminated with toxic chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
FOUND IN: Lotions, Cosmetics
WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON THE LABEL: Petrolatum, Petroleum Jelly, Paraffin Oil, Mineral Oil and White Petrolatum (refined and safe for use).
One of the reasons for the decline of petrolatum use on the skin that petrolatum may cause cancer. However, experts clarified that the process or substances used in processing petrolatum might contain carcinogens, but refining petrolatum removes the impurities that may cause cancer. What people should worry about is buying petrolatum from unknown manufacturers that may not be following the refining standards.12
As for petrolatum used in cosmetics, the European Union will only consider it as non-carcinogen if the manufacturer is able to show the full refining history of petrolatum and the substances used do not contain carcinogens. The same standards of refining are required in the US, which is being regularly monitored by the Food and Drug Administration or FDA.13
Before using a petroleum-based cosmetics or skin care products, make sure to read the label and look for white petrolatum (refined and safe for use).
2Cosmetics and Skin: Petrolatum/Petroleum Jelly. Cosmeticsandskincom. 2016. Accessed September 26, 2016.
3What is Petrolatum. Dermasillabscom. 2016. Accessed September 26, 2016.
4Petrolatum | wisderm.com. Wisdermcom. 2016. Accessed September 26, 2016.
5 Hruza G. Petrolatum vs. Bacitracin for Skin Surgery Wound Care. NEJM Journal Watch. 1996;1996. Accessed September 26, 2016.
6Do Mineral Oil and Petrolatum Clog Pores? Are They Safe? – Just About Skin. Just About Skin. 2015. Accessed September 26, 2016.
7SCHUELLER R. What’s the best moisturizer?. Thebeautybrainscom. 2016. Accessed September 26, 2016.
8Rodriguez D. Treatment for Cracked Heels: Moisture. EverydayHealthcom. 2009. Accessed September 26, 2016.
9Terrie Y. Ouch! Relief for Minor Wounds and Burns. Pharmacytimescom. 2013. Accessed September 26, 2016.
10Vann M. Choosing the Best Moisturizer for Eczema. EverydayHealthcom. 2011. Accessed September 26, 2016.
11Diaper Creams | Ask Dr Sears® | The Trusted Resource for Parents. Ask Dr Sears® | The Trusted Resource for Parents. 2013. Accessed September 26, 2016
12Hawkins A. Is Vaseline Safe to Use on Your Skin?. Good Housekeeping. 2015. Accessed September 26, 2016
13CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. Accessdatafdagov. 2016. Accessed September 26, 2016.