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Petrolatum’s first use can be traced back to the 19th century when oil rig workers would take some of the “rod wax” that would build up on the machinery and use it on their cuts and burns. Robert Chesebrough, a chemist who visited the oil rigs, patented the substance in 1872 after he was able to distill and refine the rod wax into what he called Vaseline, the now common brand name for petrolatum.[1,2] Also known as petroleum jelly or soft white paraffin wax, petrolatum has been so widely used for so long that many rumors now run rampant both acclaiming its supposed benefits and condemning its supposed disadvantages. While the FDA allows the use of petrolatum in both personal care products and food products, the European Union has banned the use (with one notable exception to be explained later). So what’s true and what’s not? Continue reading to find out.
What is Petrolatum?
As mentioned, petrolatum is a byproduct of the production of petroleum (crude oil). When first produced, it is typically a dark color due to impurities. After enough refining it becomes the transparent, sometimes pale yellow, thick and slick substance you find in stores. These differing colors represent different grades of purity which is an important factor in evaluating the safety and efficacy of petrolatum. The purest grade is called “(White) Petrolatum, USP” since it obeys the standards set by the United States Pharmacopeia involving consistency and purity tests. While most people believe that petrolatum is not natural, there is an argument for the contrary since petrolatum is simply a mixture separated from petroleum, a natural substance. Petrolatum has a long shelf life, meaning it does not require additional, potentially unnatural preservatives if that is of personal concern.
Made of long chain hydrocarbons (compounds made only of hydrogen and carbon atoms), petrolatum’s texture can vary depending on the amounts of the oil/liquid component and the wax/solid component. Synthesized versions of petrolatum take advantage of this to make harder or softer jellies. Mineral oil and paraffin, the oil and wax components typically used, are related petroleum byproducts also composed of hydrocarbons.
Is Petrolatum Safe?
Petrolatum has many uses. Cosmetic uses include: a moisturizer for dry skin, a protectant for irritated skin, an emollient for rough skin, a lubricant to prevent chaffing or blistering, and use as a vehicle for other ingredients. It can be found in processed food products and is often used as a lubricant for machinery. Given all the places it can be found, many people are understandably concerned about the safety of this widespread compound. Unrefined, low grade petrolatum contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), also called polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, which are known carcinogens. This is why the EU banned the use of petrolatum unless “the full refining history is known and it can be shown that the substance from which it is produced is not a carcinogen.” This regulation ensures that consumers are using high grade, high purity petrolatum which has additional benefits. The FDA regulates petrolatum’s use in food but not in cosmetics. The only way to be sure about the grade of the petrolatum used in a product is if it is explicitly stated or called “white petrolatum” or “Petrolatum, USP.”
Petrolatum’s Effect on Skin
A common belief regarding the use of petrolatum on the skin is that it is comedogenic, or it clogs pores. This is not true for high purity petrolatum. In fact, petrolatum use on acne-prone skin actually reduced the number of pimples over time (although it should be noted that this effect is not specific to petrolatum use but rather proves the benefit of moisturizing acne-prone skin). Low-grade petrolatum, however, can be comedogenic due to its impurities. It has also been proven that purified petrolatum is not an allergen, although once again low-grade petrolatum can be. Since petrolatum is an occlusive moisturizer, meaning it prevents water loss by forming a layer over the skin, it can trap allergens underneath it resulting in a reaction. You should make sure your skin is clean before applying it, or in the case of a petrolatum-containing product, ensure that you are not sensitive to any of the accompanying ingredients. While most occlusive agents impede skin barrier recovery after the damage has occurred, petrolatum facilitates barrier repair since it is able to integrate into the topmost layer of your skin. Petrolatum moisturizes similar to the level of creams containing oils identical to the natural oils found in your skin. Although petrolatum has been studied for its ability to block UVA and UVB rays, it should not be used as a sunscreen and regular sunscreens are needed for good sun protection.[13,14]
The Bottom Line About Petrolatum
Petrolatum is safe and effective when properly purified. It is a beneficial moisturizer and skin protectant. Check to make sure the petrolatum is labeled as “White Petrolatum” or “Petrolatum, USP” since the grade used in personal care products is not regulated by the FDA. This will also ensure that you reduce unwanted breakouts or allergic reactions. While it may be beneficial to avoid products containing petrolatum of unspecified grade (especially if you have sensitive skin), purified petrolatum is safe for use. Regardless, all products should be tested on the skin to make sure that they do not irritate it or cause a breakout before they are used regularly.