Petroleum jelly vaseline has been a mainstay in homes for the past 140 years. But why on earth would you want to smear crude oil on your skin?
I know a girl who thinks of ghosts
She’ll make ya breakfast
She’ll make ya toast
She don’t use butter
She don’t use cheese
She don’t use jelly
Or any of these
She uses Vaseline
~ Flaming Lips She Don’t Use Jelly (1993)
The commonly known brand Vaseline, now owned by Unilever, has been a staple product in many homes. That goop-filled jar with its blue color scheme and cursive writing has become an iconic part of American culture.
By the late 1880s, Vaseline petroleum jelly was being sold nationwide at the rate of one jar per minute and most medical professionals recognized it as the standard remedy for skin complaints.
Vaseline runs through our veins. Think about it: the imprint is forged during infancy when your mom smears it on your bottom to avoid diaper rash. In later years, perhaps petroleum jelly helped you preserve a saddle or baseball glove, or kept your lips from getting chapped in a blizzard. Or maybe it’s been part of your makeup regimen since you were 16.
Vaseline gained star status a few years ago when Unilever asked Mad Fashion star and Project Runway alum Chris March to super-glam their tubs of distilled crude oil. The result: a limited edition of jars blinged out with about $100 worth of blue and white Swarovski crystals.
Tyra Banks, who calls Vaseline her “biggest beauty secret ever,” doled out some of those bedazzled jars to an audience of cackling, hysterical women. If you saw the frenzy that ensued, you’d think Tyra was giving away millions and not just a jar of refined petrochemicals that retails for $9.99.
Did the ladies believe the tub would transform them into supermodels because Tyra had personally handed it to them on national TV?
Hugh Hefner and his bunnies, icons in their own right, are also avid fans of Vaseline. Several years ago, during a film shoot, an ex-boyfriend told me he’d noticed a jar in each room of the Playboy mansion. Even by the tennis courts.
From Drilling Rigs To Pharmacy Aisles
By the sounds of the inventor, I doubt he’d be rolling in his grave. I bet he’d be proud of Vaseline’s evolution. It was 1872 when 22-year-old Robert Chesebrough, a London-born Capricorn and chemist living in Brooklyn, discovered Vaseline. It was following a visit to an oil rig where he noticed a gooey substance, which was raw petrolatum.
Oil workers would smear their skin with residue from their drills and it appeared to aid the healing of cuts and burns. After much experimentation, Chesebrough developed a process to distill the rod wax into petrolatum. This was a man who had once clarified Kerosene out of whale sperm for a living. The discovery of petroleum had made his skills obsolete. Until now.
Chesebrough was a natural when it came to marketing. He would supposedly burn his skin with acid or on an open flame, and then spread the clear jelly on his injuries, while demonstrating past injuries now healed by his miracle product, as he so claimed.
Today petroleum jelly has saturated the Beauty Industry and is now found in a slew of cosmetics, hair conditioners, and lotions.
Beauty Is Skin Deep
While Vaseline was first marketed as an ointment, it does not actually heal cuts and burns as previously thought. The petroleum jelly basically creates a seal, which can protect a wound from invasion. On the other hand, it also traps bad bacteria in the skin. Is petroleum jelly really superior to a good old-fashioned scab?
“If you were to take a barrel of oil, you would see that it’s not homogenous throughout,” explains Guerry L. Grune, Ph.d., P.A. and owner of 3rd rock Sunblock. “The bottom consists of a gunky sludge and that is what is turned into Vaseline by distilling crude oil at very high temperatures.”
It’s left over gunk. Why not convince an entire planet that it’s a great skin aid!?
This process also creates potent atmospheric pollutants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can contaminate petroleum jelly. PAHs are environmental pollutants that may be found in air attached to dust particles, in soil, stream sediment, water, and food. A study linking PAHs to breast cancer was completed at Columbia University in 2004. The study indicated that breast tissue of women with breast cancer were 2.6 times more likely to have increased amounts of PAHs attached to their DNA than the breast tissue of women without breast cancer.
In their Skin Deep database, the Environmental Working Group lists petroleum as a nearly-moderate concern and PAHs as high and cancerous.
The FDA restricts petrolatum in food to no more than 10 parts per million, and requires petrolatum used in food packaging or drugs to meet impurity restrictions for PAHs. So I don’t know about those who spread it on toast. Yuck!
PAHs are also linked to reproductive/developmental toxicity (by the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, among other sources), endocrine disruption, persistence, and bioaccumulation. They are banned for use in cosmetics in Europe and Canada.
Other Perils of Petrolatum
Up to 60 percent of whatever we put on our skin goes into our blood stream. Petrolatum, which was eventually used for its cost-effective glide in makeup applications, is an emollient and not a moisturizer, remarks Eric A. Weiss, MD, plastic surgeon and Medical Director of Love Alchemy; so theoretically it decreases oxygen and can suffocate the skin.
“Petroleum is essentially a fossil fuel and while manufacturers like Vaseline state they can take the hydrocarbons out, in most cases consumers have no real way of knowing. It’s not the best thing for the skin,” adds Weiss.
Other problems have been discovered through the years, including something called “lipid pneumonia,” contracted when petroleum jelly is used around and inside the nose, adds Carly Stewart, MD and Medical Expert at MoneyCrashers.com.
“There has only ever been one case of lipid pneumonia caused by Vaseline that I am aware of, but this risk is the reason ENT physicians recommend water-based gels to be used in the nose for nasal drying and crusting. It is best to use water-based health products whenever possible so as not to introduce possibly harmful chemicals into your body.”
Petrolatum or mineral oil jelly and mineral oils can also cause skin photosensitivity or promote sun damage. Petrolatum may interfere with the body’s moisturizing mechanism, leading to dry skin and chapping despite its cosmetic use as lip protection. According to the Environmental Working Group, petrolatum may be found in one of every 14 products as well as 15 percent of lipsticks and 40 percent of baby lotions and oils.
While it has not been definitively proven that petroleum-based products are carcinogenic in humans, those who want to err on the side of caution and wish to avoid petrolatum in their skin care products can look for ingredients listed as petroleum jelly, petrolatum, white petrolatum, mineral oil (which is a petroleum-derived oil), and soft paraffin.
Skin Care Alternatives Outside of Petroleum Jelly
Even if a petroleum jelly product is void of PAHS, it likely has other iffy stuff. Take for instance, the Vaseline of today; it is loaded with “other” ingredients considered irritants and endocrine disruptors, such as parabens, potassium hydroxide, myethyparabens, propybparabens, triethanolamine, and fragrance.
“I avoid petroleum jelly and petroleum-derived ingredients, as superb alternatives exist. There are so many other lovely alternatives, which are not based on a dwindling resource,” remarks Joanna Runciman, BSc, author of Actual Organics: The Radiant Woman’s Handbook. “I just keep skin care really simple and avoid any ingredients that I cannot ingest. Stick with ‘edible skin care’ and you’ll be good.”