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Petroleum jelly (also known as petrolatum) has been a staple in homes for over a century thanks to its myriad uses. For years, it had been a dry skin savior, providing instant relief to chapped lips and cracked eczema patches—until reports about it possibly containing carcinogenic substances began to arise. Nothing quite beats the feeling of smoothing a thick petroleum-based balm onto rough skin, but is it actually safe to use? The concern has to do with the manufacturing process which includes polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are considered to have potential links to breast cancer.
To separate fact from fiction, we chatted with board-certified dermatologists Lily Talakoub, MD, FAAD and Dr. Flora Kim, MD, FAAD as well as cosmetic chemist Warren Wallo, former director of Scientific Affairs for Johnson & Johnson, consulted recent research, and dug deep to learn about the origins of petroleum, all its intended uses, and whether or not it's okay to keep slathering it on your body from head-to-toe. Keep scrolling for the full run-down on all things petroleum.
Type of Ingredient: Occlusive
Main Benefits: Seals in moisture, soothes cuts and abrasions, accelerates the healing process
Who Should Use It: In general, it's safe for all ages and skin types and is especially beneficial for those with minor wounds and dry, sensitive skin
How Often Can You Use It: Petroleum jelly is safe to use daily
Works Well With: Moisturizers
Don't Use With: Very oily, acne-prone skin
What Is Petroleum Jelly?
Petrolatum is a mixture of natural mineral oils and waxes, which are formed into partially solid, gel-like substance. It was first discovered in 1859 when the thick oil was found clogging up the machinery on oil drilling sites. It was later converted to petroleum jelly, then packaged and sold after oil workers found that the white, gooey residue appeared to aid in the healing process of burns and cuts on their skin.
Kim refers to Vaseline as "the quintessential petroleum jelly," and we agree. Those mega-sized tubs with blue lids full of a semi-solid substance are what most of us think of when we hear the phrase "petroleum jelly," although the ingredient can be found in countless moisturizers, lip balms, lotions, and even some cosmetics.
Benefits of Petroleum Jelly for Skin
- Accelerates wound healing: Petroleum jelly forms a barrier over the skin that protects wounds and accelerates healing.
- Prevents moisture loss: While petroleum jelly itself doesn't hydrate the skin, it does help seal in existing moisture, meaning that it pairs well with lotions and creams.
- Minimizes scabs and scars: Applying this ingredient to small cuts, scrapes, and burns can prevent scabs and scars from forming.
- Treat rashes and eczema: The American Academy of Dermatology recommends petroleum jelly to soothe ailments such as diaper rash in children, eczema, and extremely dry skin.
Side Effects of Petroleum Jelly
Petrolatum is regularly added to lotions and creams because of its ability to retain moisture. But, in more recent years, there has been controversy surrounding the popular ingredient. Trying to keep up with the conflicting reports is enough to make a casual skin care user's head spin: 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 praises.
So, what's the truth? Well, it's complicated. But first thing's first, according to Talakoub, "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 moisture in the skin and can help heal wounds."
A representative from Vaseline also assured us that their products are safe to use and can help during the wound healing process. The brand's research and development team confirms, "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.
On the converse, some problems with petroleum have been discovered through the years, including something called lipid pneumonia, which occurs 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 notes, "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." In short, you should be completely fine as long as you don't eat the stuff.
Another major concern that has flooded the Internet with numerous pro and con articles and inflammatory clickbait headlines surrounds those PAHs, which are known contaminants in unrefined petrolatum. Most commercial petroleum jelly products are made from pure, refined petroleum jelly, and many health professionals, like Andrew Weil, MD, have stated that there is no link between petroleum jelly and cancer.
Per Vaseline's representative, "Vaseline Jelly meets U.S. 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."
How to Use Petroleum Jelly
Petroleum jelly is the ultimate multi-use product. It's great for sensitive skin, says Kim, because it doesn't require many "additives/chemicals/potential-irritants to formulate." This means that pure petroleum jelly is very simple and typically lacking things like fragrance and essential oils that can cause redness and breakouts in some. It can be applied directly to the skin or incorporated as an occlusive ingredient in moisturizers, lotions, and other hydrating products. There's no real limit to how often you can apply petroleum jelly; it can be used as needed or on a daily basis, with some notable exceptions (for example, Kim suggests skipping the Vaseline if you're super oily or acne-prone, as it can be pore-clogging).
"Petroleum jelly is often how ‘ointments’ are formulated, and ‘ointments’ are used as effective delivery systems of active ingredients for various conditions," Kim explains. She cautions against using plain petroleum jelly on open or infected wounds. But that doesn't mean you need to avoid the ingredient when you're injured: "For open wounds, you should be applying an antibiotic active ingredient that is delivered via the vehicle of an ointment, but not just petroleum jelly alone." Basically, look for an ointment like Neosporin ($5) that includes petroleum jelly alongside antibiotic ingredients, rather than slathering on raw Vaseline.
Summertime chafing is no fun, and petroleum jelly can provide a quick, inexpensive fix. Kim cites the American Academy of Dermatology, which suggests applying your favorite formula on "problem areas, such as the feet or thighs" to prevent irritation.
Refined Petroleum Jelly vs. Unrefined Petroleum Jelly
A lot of the debate about the safety of petroleum jelly use can be summed up by understanding the difference between refined and unrefined petroleum jelly. USP grade petroleum jelly (i.e. "the purest grade" of petroleum, which "obeys the standards set by the United States Pharmacopeia involving consistency and purity tests," according to Dermveda) 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 (known as 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 and Aquaphor. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has given Vaseline Petroleum Jelly a 1 rating, meaning that the organization considers it to be a low hazard.
The Best Products with Petroleum Jelly
We'd be remiss not to include the ultimate 100% pure petroleum jelly. The formula is as simple as it gets, with no additives or fragrances, and is safe to use on eczema and minor injuries.
Another simple, fragrance-free option that's safe to use directly on irritated skin. "The majority of dermatologists recommend Aquaphor Ointment or CeraVe’s Healing Ointment—cleaner formulations with a few extra bells and whistles added to enhance desired efficacy," says Kim.
Kim's other recommendation is fragrance-free and contains gentle, soothing ceramides for an ultra-moisturizing formula. CeraVe is lanolin-free and boasts a seal from the National Eczema Association.
The Final Takeaway
Wallo explains that the skin needs moisture to repair itself and considers petroleum jelly to be safe for use in cosmetics. However, he does share that it's an individual choice and 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.
Up next: Discover the skincare ingredient that is the complexion savior you've never heard of.
Morales-burgos A, Loosemore MP, Goldberg LH. Postoperative wound care after dermatologic procedures: a comparison of 2 commonly used petrolatum-based ointments. J Drugs Dermatol. 2013;12(2):163-4.
Food & Drug Administration. CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. Accessdata.fda.gov.