The Truth About Petrolatum

petroleum jelly

One of the greatest problems in the U.S. right now is the fact that there is so much misinformation surrounding the health and beauty industry. One great example of this involves the ingredient petrolatum. Many dermatologists consider petrolatum to be one of the best moisturizers (Cosmetic Dermatology2002). However, a plethora of misinformation, including erroneous facts propagated by natural/organic skin care companies and the political Environmental Working Group, has caused it to be one of the most vilified ingredients around. Here, we clarify what is scientific and what is not, without bias.

Petrolatum clogs the pores:  FALSE.

Nope, not the case. In fact, petrolatum has been affirmed to be non-comedogenic and to not cause allergic reactions (American Academy of Dermatology Invitational on Comedogenicity, 1989).

The greasy, oily feeling of petrolatum leads consumers to believe that petrolatum makes them break out, yet what actually can actually cause break outs is what is used in conjunction with petrolatum. Because petrolatum traps moisture and water-based ingredients under the skin, it can essentially “trap” non-comedogenic ingredients used together with petrolatum under there, causing stronger reactions (Allergy, 2004). Be sure to avoid ingredients like lanolin, coconut oil, squalene, mineral oil, and isopropyl myristate when using petrolatum (Cosmetic Dermatology, 2002).

Cosmetic-grade petrolatum causes cancer:  FALSE.  

Belief that cosmetic-grade petrolatum causes cancer stems from the fact that impure petrolatum contains compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). However, cosmetic-grade petrolatum must meet industry standards for purification, so, if anything, it contains extremely low to no amount of PAHs. Truth be told, the greatest human exposure to PAHs is through commercial-grade fuel burning, not cosmetic-grade petrolatum.

Petrolatum causes premature aging:  FALSE.  

Petrolatum

Petrolatum is an occlusive moisturizer, so when it’s used in conjunction with irritants, it could make the resulting irritation even worse.

Actually, the opposite is true. Petrolatum is a type of compound known as hydrophobic, which means that it repels water. For this reason, petrolatum is used regularly following laser surgery (Dermatologic Surgery, 2001) to provide a protective barrier over the skin. It is also a superb moisturizing agent because it forms a film over the skin, making it an occlusive moisturizer.

Petrolatum rests on top of the skin:  TRUE.  

Petrolatum rests on top of the skin, forming a water-repelling film. On the one hand, this makes it is a great moisturizer. On the other hand, you have to be careful what you use with petrolatum, and it is obviously not a good solvent for delivering other skin care ingredients deep into the skin. On its own, however, it moisturizes well.

Petrolatum comes from a non-renewable resource:  TRUE and FALSE.  

Petrolatum is a hydrocarbon, traditionally derived from the distillation of oil. Due to growing concerns that petrolatum is sourced from non-renewable sources, some skin care and cosmetics companies have started to use “hybrid petrolatums” derived from a combination of vegetable oils and waxes. Most, however, do not.

If you are ultra big on the green movement, you may wish to avoid petrolatum. However, as cosmetic chemist Rebecca James Gadberry has noted, many people do not realize that more than 50% of the ingredients used in cosmetics are derived from non-renewable resources as well. So perhaps methods like avoiding plastic bags, buying reusable water bottles, and recycling are more sustainable, valid efforts than supporting the green movement through your choices in beauty products. Of course, every effort counts – this is your choice.

Bottom Line

Petrolatum is not petroleum – and cosmetic-grade petrolatum is, by and large, safe. The only two valid concerns, scientifically-speaking, are the fact that petrolatum should not be used with irritating ingredients like lanolin, squalene, isopropyl myristate, and mineral oil (Cosmetic Dermatology, 2002), and that it is likely not coming from an entirely renewable resource, though cosmetics companies are becoming increasingly better about doing just that.

What are your thoughts on petrolatum?  Let us know!

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by Nicki Zevola

10 thoughts on “The Truth About Petrolatum

  1. Wendell says:

    Thank you. I am a fairly new reader to this blog, and this is a well-researched, rational article on petrolatum. I say this as a consumer who leans towards a more simple, “greener,” more “organic” skin care regime. But I also look for the most effective products that deliver real benefits. I think it’s greener to buy fewer, more effective products with safe, proven ingredients. And petrolatum in body care products is a great way to protect the skin barrier and thus, skin’s health. Keep up the good work. I appreciate it.

  2. Nicki Zevola says:

    @Wendell – Thank you for your comment, especially the part about how it is actually greener to “buy fewer, more effective” products. It’s really true. And thanks for the input about petrolatum – I’m glad that you agree. I feel bad, because so many people believe that it is a petrochemical that causes estrogenic dysregulation, but in the concentrations it’s used in cosmetics and skin care, it simply cannot be said to be true. Keep in mind that vitamin C is toxic at 20,000 times normal concentrations. It’s sad how people don’t trust chemists and companies anymore with their safety.

  3. Gail says:

    Sorry to bring up an old post but I just came across this while looking up info on petrolatum. is petrolatum petroleum jelly just like the pic u show above? Or r u talking about another type? And if you r talking about the good old petroleum jelly….. it would be safe to moisturize with that on your face if you have acne/ clog prone skin? I’m sorry if I sound crazy… just a little confused. I just don’t want to go slapping on petroleum jelly and then realize I was mistaken!! haha

  4. martha says:

    I have recently tested as allergic to carba mix, more specifically DPG which is related to petrolatum. However I am not sure if you can have DPG without petrolatum or vice versa. I know that my lips burn when I have products on my skin that contain petrolatum, including knit gloves (maybe rubber?). Do you know anything about this connection?

  5. Jessica Allison says:

    Hi Nicki! Just a quick question as I ran across this. You mention mineral oil several times and reference it as having irritating or comedogenic properties- yet all current research I’ve read says quite the opposite. Unfortunately, the link to the 2002 Cosmetic Dermatology source doesn’t give any specific information. Am I missing something?

  6. Jane Peters says:

    Well is petroleum jelly carcinogenic or not? I know it comes from the same place as gasoline and diesel fuel. But at the same time it does seem to help my skin better than almost anything I’ve ever tried. Also a big question that no ones seems to be able to answer: where does the petroleum jelly go after I apply it to my hands at night? When I wake up in the morning it seems to be gone. Since it isn’t absorbed by the skin does it evaporate? Or does it just get absorbed by the sheets of my bed, etc.?

  7. Ana says:

    Vaseline does wonders for my dry hands.
    I’d like to try it out on my face, too. It’s both dry and prone to breakouts, so I’m still a bit weary of doing that, but this article definitely eased my mind.

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