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Petroleum jelly (petrolatum) has been a staple in homes for over a century thanks to its myriad of uses. For years, petroleum jelly has been a dry skin sufferers' best friend until reports of possible carcinogenic substances were suspected in petroleum-based products.
The concern is with impurities in the manufacturing process, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are considered potentially carcinogenic and have links to breast cancer.
There are a lot of beauty benefits and myths surrounding petroleum jelly. Which makes us wonder: What's fact and what's fiction? To find out, we chatted with a board-certified dermatologist and a cosmetic chemist, consulted recent research, and dug deep to learn about the origins of petroleum, all its intended uses, and whether or not it's safe to use on your skin. So, what're you waiting for? Keep scrolling for the full run-down on all things petroleum.
What Is Petroleum Jelly?
Petrolatum is found in crude oil and its by-products. It is believed to have been discovered when a substance was found clogging up the machinery on oil drilling sites. In 1859, a 22-year-old chemist from Brooklyn, NY, named Robert Augustus Chesebrough, went to Pennsylvania to investigate an oil well. Oil was a burgeoning industry, and Chesebrough hoped to profit from it.
While investigating the site, Chesebrough observed that oil workers would smear this white gooey residue (that they called "rod wax") from the drills onto burns and cuts on their skin, and it appeared to aid in the healing process. Chesebrough took samples back to New York and began experimenting with the substance until he was able to extract what would become petroleum jelly.
In 1870 he began marketing his Vaseline product. He marketed it as an oiling product for leather, a lubricant, and for medicinal uses for chapped skin, blisters, burns, sunburns, cuts, and for keeping wounds clean by sealing them off. He even marketed petroleum jelly as an aid for rheumatism and as hair pomade (Vaseline Pomade). In the past, women used it to beautify the complexion (Vaseline Cold Cream) and on eyebrows and eyelashes, believing it would help them grow. Even today, some dermatologists suggest that women allergic to mascara use petroleum jelly on lashes to make them appear thicker and longer. Within ten years, Vaseline was in nearly every household.
Is Petroleum Jelly Safe?
There's some controversy surrounding the actual benefits of petroleum jelly. Some sources claim that petroleum jelly does not actually heal cuts and wounds and that it could actually trap bacteria in the skin and should not be used on fresh burns, while others sing its praise.
According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Lily Talakoub, MD, FAAD, of McLean, VA, "Petroleum jelly is one of the safest products for the skin. It is safe on all skin types and has very little allergenic or irritant potential. It holds moistures in the skin and can help heal wounds."
Meet the Expert
Lily Talakoub, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in McLean, Virginia.
To further drive that point home, we spoke with a representative from Vaseline, who assured us that their products can help during the wound healing process. The brand's research and development team confirms that "For minor scrapes and burns, it has been proven that Vaseline is efficacious for protecting the skin and locking in skin’s natural moisturizers in order to allow the skin to repair." An independent study also confirms that white petrolatum is an effective tool in wound care, as it helps to prevent scabbing.
What Are the Biggest Concerns Surrounding Petroleum Jelly?
On the converse, some problems with petroleum have been discovered through the years, including something called lipid pneumonia, when petroleum jelly is used around and inside the nose. Lipid pneumonia is an infection caused by the inhalation of fats. According to dermatologists, you will not develop lipid pneumonia through occasional use. With petroleum jelly (and any beauty product, for that matter), take care to use the product only as directed. Misuse of any product could lead to undesirable results. Vaseline's representative confirms, noting that "Lipid pneumonia is not a known side-effect of using Vaseline in the directed way. Vaseline Jelly is intended for external use only and is safe when used as directed on the packaging."
Petrolatum is regularly added to lotions and creams because of its ability to retain moisture. But some health issues have raised concerns. The major concern that has flooded the Internet with numerous pro and con articles, are PAHs, known contaminants in unrefined petrolatum. Many health professionals, like Dr. Andrew Weil, have stated that there is no link between petroleum jelly and cancer.
In fact, per Vaseline's representative, "Vaseline Jelly meets US and EU Pharmacopoeia standards on purity. It is triple-purified to remove any type of carcinogenic material—meaning it does not pose a risk of causing cancer. It’s the only petroleum jelly with the unique triple-purification seal."
Refined vs. Unrefined Petroleum Jelly
USP petroleum jelly is not the same as the unrefined petrolatum material, which is said to be carcinogenic. Petrolatum in drugs, food, and food packaging must meet FDA impurity restrictions. White petroleum jelly is a refined, purified extract of heavy waxes and paraffinic oils, and USP white petroleum jelly has passed the safety standards of the FDA for use in food and cosmetics.
The problem is that not all manufacturers choose to use refined petrolatum or use low-grade refinement processing, and there is the potential for PAHs to still be present. Consumers should look for USP white petroleum jelly (BP in Britain and Ph. Eur in Europe) which indicates the grade, where it was refined, and that it meets specific purity standards, and go with trusted brands like Vaseline Petroleum Jelly. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has given Vaseline Petroleum Jelly a 0 rating, meaning that the organization considers it to be a low hazard. See more about the rating.
The Final Takeaway
Warren Wallo, former director of Scientific Affairs for Johnson & Johnson, explains that the skin needs moisture to repair itself. The FDA recognizes petroleum jelly as a skin protectant that helps the skin retain moisture, and Vaseline Jelly is 100 percent occlusive and helps skin maintain its moisture levels.
Meet the Expert
Warren Wallo is a research scientist and the former director of scientific affairs for Johnson & Johnson.
Wallo believes it's safe for use in cosmetics, but also believes it's an individual choice, one that consumers can make with the help of their physician and trusted reference sources. (In other words, you might need to do some research.) "There's no reason to use it if you're not comfortable," he says.
It hasn't been definitively proven that petroleum-based products are carcinogenic in humans. However, if you want to avoid petrolatum in your skincare products, be sure to review the ingredients listed. Products using petrolatum may use the following terms: petroleum jelly, petrolatum, white petrolatum, mineral oil (which is a petroleum-derived oil), and soft paraffin.
Up next: Discover the skincare ingredient that is the complexion savior you've never heard of.